By then, Lynn Swann said, it felt like a tiny car was running around inside his head. Roarrrrrrrrrr. And he couldn't see right out of the bottom corner of his eye. That's what happens when you jump 716 feet into the air for a pass, as Swann does so wonderfully, and somebody dumps you on your earlobe. So the most elegant player in football was on the bench with that car between his ears.
And the Steelers came to third and three with about three minutes to play in the Super Bowl. They led the Ram, 24-19. What to do in this situation? The running backs, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, were getting nothing done against the Ram defense. With Swann out, and with no runner likely to get three yards, what to do on third and three with a fragile lead?
Throw the cursed football six miles.
Yea, verily, the Super Bowl is okay. At least two straight years now, ol' Supie has given us football of undeniable greatness, football so good that on third and three with victory in the balance the Steelers did not run Franco Harris off left tackle. They threw the thing six miles.
Terry Bradshaw threw it to John Stallworth, who caught it on the run, tilting his head back to see the sweet missile arriving, taking it in as it fell past his face, just the way Willie Mays caught the Vic Wertz fly ball in the '54 World Series. "I love the play," Stallworth said later. I went for 45 yards on third and three with Stallworth catching the ball in a traffic jam of three Ram defenders.
We may never know, for Chuck Noll won't talk about it, what Chuck Noll does to make the Pittsburgh Steelers such an astonishing team capable of beating you with straight-ahead fundamentals of six-mile passes in the last three minutes. No cult-hero coach, Noll. No Lombardian love of team talked up here. No Dallas computer. What Noll gives us is what we see between the sidelines, which is a perfect football team.
The scores have been 33-10, 34-5, 35-31, 34-14, 27-13 and 31-19. Those are the scores by which the Steelers have won their last six postseason games en route to the two straight Super Bowl victories. The scores reflect a consistency of performance in pressure situations that could not be achieved by any team with a certifiable weakness. Some parts of the Steelers may not be as strong as others, but none is weak.
There is the AFC, the NFC and more than ever, the Steelers in a league all their own.
"I am going to give you all a 'J. T. Fact,'" said Pittsburgh cornerback J. T. Thomas. "We may often be imitated, but never duplicated. There are none as good before us and none better to come after us."
If a guy's memory chooses the snapshot of the elegant Swamm sitting slump-shouldered on the bench while Stallworth tilts backward to catch a pass bold in its timing beautiful in its doing -- if that is the moment that made this Super Bowl special for one guy, it was by no means the only moment worthy of being put up on a shelf, there to be admired for a long time.
The Super Bowl in its early years seemed anticlimactic in a week's tribute to the American idea that bigger is better. Nowhere outside Super Bowl Week was gross excess so grossly excessive. They recreated the battle of New Orleans for one halftime show, bodies sprawled everywhere amid deafending gun blasts (they shot blanks, at least). Another time the NFL wanted a hot-air balloon to rise out of the stadium; it crashed into the lower seats.
With such overreaching by the NFL fathers, their baby Supie had a tough time living up to their hopes. How can any football game follow the battle of New Orleans? The NFL caused jet fighters to roar over a stadium before one kickoff, and right away you knew the game would be a bummer unless Bob Hayes wore little jet engines in his cleats.
The NFL has toned down its act. They haven't shot anyone at halftime for years now. They've gone to including the stadium customers in the shows, in fact, handing them flip cards with instructions on how to hold them up so the folks at home, watching on TV, will be dazzled by their dexterity and teamwork. "Up With People," an upbeat cast of hundreds of young dancer-singers, gave bubbly life to this year's halftime show.
Now, at last, the football game is the main attraction.
No longer is Super Bowl Week so heavenly an experience that it renders the football teams immobile in awe. No longer do teams try to win it by making no mistakes. It is a positive game now, so positive that one's snapshot book of memories includes, of all things, a pair of quarterback sneaks by Terry Bradshaw.
Twice the Rams moved into a defense that left no one in front of the Pittsburgh center. So Bradshaw simply called his own number and followed the center for nice gains before the Rams noticed. We saw no such resourcefulness the day jet fighters buzzed the stadium.
The Rams ran a kickoff-return reverse, they latraled an interception, they scored a touchdown on a pass thrown by a halfback who hadn't thrown a pass all season, and they came within one mistake of beating the Steelers.
But doesn't everyone? Doesn't everyone believe that except for one play maybe two, they could have beaten the Steelers? In Houston they're still fuming that the zebras, by disallowing Mike Renfro's catch, took them out of the Pittsburgh game. Just one play, maybe two. Doesn't everyone feel they're one play away from beating the best?
And, to answer a question with another, isn't that the very best recommendation the Steelers can get? They just keep beating people. They don't make the killing mistake. They find a different way to win when something goes wrong. If Harris can't make third and three, if Swann has a car between his ears, if everyone this side of San Clemente is expecting an off-tackle trap, then the Steelers try something else, such as throwing the ball six miles to John Stallworth doing his Willie Mays number.
Because the Steelers now have won four Super Bowls, two more than any other team, and because they have won their four in a period of six seasons, some people believe they are the best team ever. They can win a hundred different ways. Bradshaw thought the kickoff returner Larry Anderson was this Super Bowl's MVP. The kickoff returner! Anderson had 162 yards on five returns, a longest of 45. Nice.
"Are we the best team ever?" Bradshaw said. "In the '70s, no questions about that. But I guess we're the second-best ever. The Packers won five (NFL championships, three before there was a Super Bowl). We've just won four."