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COOK: Art Rooney Jr. reflects on Pittsburgh Steelers' legendary rookie class of 1974

RON COOK
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Art Rooney Jr.

For someone who helped build the Steelers’ Super ’70s dynasty, Art Rooney Jr. has a wonderful sense of self-deprecating humor.

“I’m 84 years old and I’m big and fat,” Rooney was saying last week from his winter home in Palm Beach, Fla. “The age I’m at, even small things are good. This is a big thing.”

This was after Donnie Shell was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He became the fifth player from the Steelers’ 1974 rookie class to make the Hall, the 10th player from their 1970s teams.

“I heard them bragging about Dallas having eight players in the Hall of Fame off one team when [Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt] went in last year,” Rooney said. “Try 10.”

It’s no wonder Rooney is so proud. As the Steelers personnel director from 1965-86, he headed a terrific scouting staff that included Bill Nunn, Jack Butler, Dick Haley and Tom Modrak. Together, they, Chuck Noll and Dan Rooney built a team that won four Super Bowls in a six-year period from 1974-79. Some NFL people will tell you the New England Patriots’ dynasty is better — the best in history — but there is no arguing that the Steelers’ 1974 rookie class wasn’t the greatest of all time. It almost certainly will never be matched.

Lynn Swann was drafted in the first round and was followed by Jack Lambert in the second, John Stallworth in the fourth and Mike Webster in the fifth. All made it to the Hall of Fame. Shell and Randy Grossman, a solid tight end who played on the four Super Bowl teams, were signed as free agents.

Rooney was thrilled to offer a story about each. “This makes my day,” he said, gleefully.

Swann: “We had a bad time on him until right before the draft. I’m not sure how we convinced Chuck to take him. He wanted Stallworth. I think his feelings were hurt when we took Swann. He sulked around the building for a little bit.”

Lambert: “I remember the first camp when Lambert and Webster were paired in the old Nutcracker Drill. Webbie got the better of Lambert each time. [Pittsburgh sportswriter Phil Musick] came up to me and asked, ‘Where did you dig up this Lambert guy?” Lambert was embarrassed. I think he knocked the helmet off of the next guy in the drill. Oh my goodness was he a tough guy.”

Stallworth: “Chuck couldn’t believe he still was there in the fourth round. Bill Nunn had gone down to Alabama A&M to see him and got a good time on him at a high school field. They sent tape of him to us that we were supposed to keep for four days. I think we kept it for four weeks. Everyone saw it and fell in love with him.”

Webster: “At the All-Star games, he dominated everybody. Guys who would be first-round guys couldn’t get around him. He just had such great strength and balance and moxie. What a player.”

Strong safety Donnie Shell has been selected for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is the fifth member of the Pittsburgh Steelers' rookie class of 1974 to earn that honor.

Shell: “Bill Nunn went down to South Carolina State to see him. He was playing inside linebacker. Bill said he really liked him. I said, ‘Yeah, right. He’s a midget for an inside linebacker.’ But Bill was very convincing. He said this guy is a top player, tough as can be, a super hitter, very, very smart, with all the speed in the world, a terrific guy. He said Shell could learn to play safety while he was playing special teams. Man, was he right. I’d like to take some credit for it, but getting Shell was all Bill.”

Grossman: “He played at Temple. [Steelers trainer] Ralph Berlin represented us at the BLESTO scouting meetings and they were in Philadelphia that year. Ralph called me and said, ‘I heard the Eagles scouts saying they were going to get Grossman tomorrow. I’ll go get him today.’ So that’s what Ralph did. He went in and swiped him for us.”

Berlin is gone. So is Noll. Dan Rooney. Nunn, a former sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier which, at the time, was one of the most influential black newspapers in the country. Butler, who made the Hall of Fame as a player with the Steelers. Modrak, who went on to be general manager of the Eagles, vice president of scouting for the Buffalo Bills, and the head of BLESTO.

But their work lives on for Rooney Jr. It should never be forgotten by Steelers fans.