by David Finoli
It’s a tremendous accomplishment when a team gets five starters from a rookie crop in a particular season. When talking about the league as whole if they see four players become Hall of Famers in a draft, they can claim it to be a legendary moment. Imagine if you will though, one team selecting four players who eventually would have their busts enshrined in Canton. To take it one step further those four players came in their first five picks during a single draft. It is an achievement that Steeler fans can imagine as it happened to the franchise in 1974...the greatest draft in North American major professional sports history.
Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster all would go on to be major contributors in the franchise’s four Super Bowl championships during the 1970’s, with each finding their way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If that was it, this would be an incredible accomplishment, but when safety Donnie Shell was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2020, a player who was signed as a non-drafted free agent out of South Carolina State that memorable year, it gave them and amazing five Hall of Fame players from that incredible rookie class.
A tremendous once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment for sure. The thing was the fans and press in the area didn’t quite grasp their greatness at the time as many wondered if any of these selections would turn out to be wise picks.
As the Steelers prepared for their first-round pick, many thought they would turn towards arguably their greatest need, a talented tight end. There reportedly were three on coach Chuck Noll’s radar, JV Cain out of Colorado, Reuben Gant from Oklahoma State and Michigan’s Paul Seals, a 6’6”, 215lb. specimen, who was considered a first-round prospect but perhaps a tad too light for the position. Cain and Gant went before Pittsburgh had a chance to pick, which left Seals. In a Pittsburgh Press column by Phil Musick the day after the draft, he quoted Noll as saying, “You sit there and have a kid picked that everyone agrees would make a good number one and after a while you start to sweat, then somebody takes him.” Noll was sweating as someone took their top two tight end choices, so it came down to either choosing Seals and hoped he beefed up or look at another position. Luckily, Noll looked at another position.
As it turned out, Seals went to the Saints in the second round and had a decent if unspectacular NFL career, catching 106 passes over six seasons and was selected to the Pro Football Writers Association (PFWA) All-Rookie team in 1974. He just wasn’t as good as the player the team eventually selected. Pittsburgh had a solid core of wide receivers, but they were unspectacular. A definite upgrade was necessary here and the Steelers coach loved two, John Stallworth out of Alabama A&M, and a smallish 5’10 ½” 178lb. All-American from USC by the name of Lynn Swann. Reportedly, Noll was more enamored with Stallworth but was talked out of taking him at that point by Hall of Fame scout, Bill Nunn. More on that later.
The legendary Pittsburgh coach loved Swann’s competitiveness and called him a complete player. A speedy receiver who was tough and could make the difficult catches over the middle was also known for his devastating blocking ability at Southern Cal. Many experts considered him the best wide receiver on the draft board along with Roger Carr of LSU, and now he was a Steeler. The thing was, not all were happy with the pick.
Some had thought it best if Pittsburgh went for Seals and satisfied their desperate need at tight end while others questioned Swann’s commitment with comments he made after being drafted. He was taken in the second round of the World Football League draft by Memphis and stated that he would consider their offer very seriously. He stated, “Now that football is my source of income, I’ll have to decide which offer is best.” He also was very confident in his abilities, making a statement that some fans considered arrogant. “I don’t think I lack any physical tools. I have speed...I am intelligent...I catch the ball. I think I’m the best receiver in the country.” As it turned out, he was right on all accounts.
What troubled fans was an incident soon after the draft when he went out to celebrate with some family members. The day he was drafted, he got into an altercation with police that turned out, unfortunately, to be a case of racial profiling. In an article renegadeblitz.com, Swann explained the situation:
"My career as a professional started out on kind of shaky ground. The day I got drafted, I took my two brothers and cousin out to dinner in San Francisco to celebrate. After we left the restaurant, we got stopped by the police. To make a long story short, and what is typical in a lot of young Black men's lives, we were stopped by the police, beaten up and thrown in jail for nothing. I spent the next two years fighting the San Francisco police in court. We won the case and the lawsuit. Again, that was right after I was drafted by the Steelers. So, the media had the stories all over the front page, saying, oh my, who did we draft here. So, it was trying to fight through that reputation and what was said about me at that particular time to find a place on the football team. It was a challenge, but at the end of the day, for the most part, it worked out. But it would not be the last time something of that nature would happen."
It was something the rookie had to deal with in Pittsburgh, but fans and media alike would soon see Swann was not only a good person, but was right on the money when he exclaimed he was the best receiver. After he grabbed a 54-yard bomb from quarterback, Joe Gilliam, in his first regular season NFL game for a touchdown, they took notice. A year later when he turned in what is arguably considered the greatest Super Bowl performance by a wide receiver in Super Bowl X, fans forgot about the negative and knew Noll made the right choice.
In the second round, they took what was labeled a “surprise” when they snagged a 6’4” 215lb. linebacker from Kent State by the name of Jack Lambert. He was considered small at 215lbs. (hell, quarterback Terry Bradshaw was 210 at the time), but Noll and player personnel director Dick Haley loved his hitting ability.
In a Pittsburgh Press article Haley stated, “He hits everything that moves.” Lambert would confirm that saying, “Yes, I get satisfaction out of hitting a guy and seeing him lay there a while.” He was tough for sure, but would Mid-American Conference touch transfer to the NFL? Could he play middle linebacker at 215lbs. since the Steelers were set at outside linebacker with Jack Ham and Andy Russell? The questions were many, the answers were definitely yes.
Lambert went on to not only play in every game in 1974 but start all 14. His toughness quickly became legendary as he was named Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The team’s third round pick had been traded to the Oakland Raiders in exchange for Glen Ray Hines, but they had two in the fourth, including their first that came via the New England Patriots for Ralph Anderson, a pick that turned out to be a Hall of Fame pick. While their own fourth round pick was a solid choice, he became more famous as the answer to a trivia question, “Which one of the Steelers’ first five picks in 1974 did not make the Pro Football Hall of Fame?”
The first pick in the fourth showed the brilliance of scout Bill Nunn, a man who, rightfully, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2020.
As stated earlier, Chuck Noll was seriously considering drafting Stallworth before taking Swann in the first round but was talked out of it by Nunn. It wasn’t because the scout felt Swann was appreciably better. It was because he hoodwinked the rest of the league and knew Stallworth would be available in the fourth round.
Nunn was a Pittsburgh native who was a star on the Westinghouse High School basketball squad with future Pittsburgh icon, Chuck Cooper, the first African American to be drafted by an NBA team. He went with Cooper to West Virginia State University to continue their impressive careers, although Cooper left after a semester when he was drafted into the Navy before transferring to Duquesne after his time in the service was done. Nunn remained and excelled to the point where he was offered a tryout by the Harlem Globetrotters and the New York Knicks after his time at West Virginia State was over. He turned them down and went back to Pittsburgh to join his father who was managing editor at the Pittsburgh Courier.
The younger Nunn eventually became a sports editor, then eventually taking over for his father, and became an expert while following football programs at HCBU campuses (Historically Black Colleges and Universities).
Starting in 1950, the paper selected a Black College All-American squad based on his work with the schools. In a 2010 interview that appeared in his bio for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he stated, “That was the only exposure that the players from the black schools got.”
There was a lot of talent at the schools, talent that wasn’t finding its way to the NFL. The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t make a lot of good decisions at that point and time in their history but in 1967, they made a very important one when Dan Rooney hired Nunn as a part-time scout for the team. He was made full time two years later after Chuck Noll became coach. It was at that time the players at HBCU schools began to find their way into the league, especially in Pittsburgh.
Soon, players like Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Frank Lewis, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes, Joe Gilliam and LC Greenwood became Pittsburgh Steelers thanks to Nunn, helping to turn the Steelers from a doormat into a Super Bowl contender. In 1974, he was at his best. When John Stallworth was working out before the NFL draft for the scouts, it was a rainy day and he had a less-than-stellar 40-yard time. The league was unimpressed. Nunn had a hunch and went back on his own, thinking Stallworth was faster than he showed that day. As it turned out, he was right and was the only one who came back to see the future Hall of Famer run an improved 40. He also grabbed all the game film the school had on Stallworth and hid it from every other scout in the league. So when he told Noll not to worry about drafting him in the first round, it was because he knew no one else had anything on him, and the others thought he was a slow receiver.
Pittsburgh selected him with their first pick in the fourth round, and he went on not only to be a Super Bowl hero, but the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions by the time he was done...and, of course, Hall of Famer number three in the draft so far.
With the second pick in the fourth round, they took Jimmy Allen, a defensive back from UCLA that had played very well against Pitt in his college career. The paper said that he was rated as the fifth best defensive back in the draft and was rated higher than players taken earlier. Haley said, “He has a good ability to play the ball and that’s a big part of our defense here.”
As it turned out, Allen was good and had a fine eight-year NFL career, especially after he left the Steelers for the Lions in 1978 where he picked off 24 of his career 31 interceptions.
The choice in the fifth round was perhaps the one that was the longest shot not only to make the Hall of Fame, but the team—Mike Webster from Wisconsin. He was said to be a very strong straight-ahead blocker but was small at 6’ 1 ½” 232lbs. In his bio in the Press that day, it said, “… faces difficult task to make the team.” What it should have said was “will become one of the greatest centers ever to take the field.” While his eventual tale is a sad one (the toll football can take on the human brain), from a football standpoint, it was spectacular. He was a member of the league’s 75th and 100th anniversary teams, a six-time All Pro and the fourth member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to be selected by the club in this draft.
Four rookies becoming hall of famers is impressive enough, but Bill Nunn wasn’t done yet. After the draft was over, he suggested the team sign a linebacker from South Carolina State as a non-drafted free agent. His name was Donnie Shell, and he not only became a safety but a damn fine one who was the fifth player in the rookie class of 1974 who made the Hall of Fame after he was elected in 2020.
Shell was a particular fan of Nunn, saying in an interview on the Steelers’ website:
“We had side conversations that no one ever knew about. He was a confidant. If I had some issues, if I didn’t do well in practice, I would talk to Bill, and it wouldn’t go any further than that. He would sit me down and say keep working hard and doing what you are doing, you will be fine. When you are young, that gave you encouragement to keep working hard. Nobody ever knew about that.
I don’t know if he realized it or not, but just being around Bill, his professionalism, the way he carried himself in his life, it meant a lot to me and had a great effect on me. He never would have thought that. That is the way he was, unassuming. That was Bill. That is who he was. He made people gravitate to him. You wanted to be with him. You wanted to be in his presence to listen to some of the wisdom that he had.”
There were some other interesting picks in the 1974 draft, namely Tommy Reamon from Missouri, a running back who was more noted as the first MVP of the World Football League with the Florida Blazers. There was also Rick Druschel, an offensive lineman from Hempfield High School in nearby Greensburg, Pennsylvania. But it was mostly a lot of guys like Hugh Lickiss and Octavius Morgan who did nothing for the franchise. That’s ok that the majority of picks in the 17-round draft didn’t do much for the Steelers. When you have a draft class that gives you four hall of famers and are the finishing touches of what would become arguably the greatest dynasty of the Super Bowl era, you have the right to call it the greatest draft of all-time...even if no one knew it at the time.