Steelers struck gold in '71 draft
One of the more humorous introductions in Pittsburgh sports history took place 40 years ago in the Downtown Hilton.
After receiving a knock at the door of the suite where the Steelers were hosting players they recently drafted, Art Rooney Jr. opened to find a young man wearing slacks and a blue jacket.
So unimposing was the visitor that Rooney, who headed the Steelers' player personnel department, mistook him for a bell hop and asked if he was dropping off a letter.
"No," the young man said, "I'm Jack Ham."
Ham, as Rooney recalled recently with a laugh, ended up delivering much more than mail for the Steelers. He headlined a draft class that ranks among the greatest ever assembled — and helped set the standard for future Steelers drafts, including next week's.
The 1971 NFL Draft produced Ham, whom Steelers chairman emeritus and owner Dan Rooney has called the greatest outside linebacker in NFL history, and fellow Steel Curtain defense stalwarts Dwight White and Mike Wagner.
The Steelers, with their Midas touch, also selected tight end Larry Brown, who caught the only touchdown pass in Super Bowl IX and later excelled at right tackle, and defensive tackle Ernie "Fats" Holmes, who dominated his position during the six seasons he spent in Pittsburgh.
"That was a heck of a draft," said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. "They've had so many years where they just had great draft after great draft — '71 was outstanding and '74 was phenomenal."
The Steelers' 1974 draft produced four players who eventually were inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It is considered by many to be the greatest draft class in NFL history.
But the '71 draft, which also included receiver Frank Lewis and guard Gerry "Moon" Mullins, helped lay the foundation for the dynasty that bloomed in the middle of the decade.
Five players from the draft played significant roles on all four Super Bowl-winning teams in the 1970s. Eight played in at least one Super Bowl — nine if you include safety Glen Edwards, who signed as an undrafted free agent in '71.
The class helped reverse the losing that had birthed the nickname "Same old Steelers" and provided ample building blocks for the franchise's rise.
Ham did not expect to land with the Steelers after a decorated career at Penn State. Nor was he particularly happy, he recalled, when the Steelers chose him with the eighth pick of the second round.
Ham said the New York Giants and San Diego Chargers had told him they planned to draft him in the first round.
The Chargers took running back Leon Burns with the 13th pick, and he rushed for 223 yards during the one season he spent in San Diego.
The Giants selected running back/receiver Rocky Thompson. He played a little more than two seasons with the Giants and had 302 rushing and receiving yards combined.
Both teams might have shied away from Ham for the same reason Art Rooney Jr. thought Ham was a part of the Hilton staff when they met face-to-face for the first time: Ham was not the biggest guy coming out of Penn State, and there had been differences of opinion about him among Steelers coaches and scouts.
Rooney said a couple of assistant coaches pushed to take Ham with the eighth overall pick. Coach Chuck Noll opted for Lewis, a speedster from Grambling. Rooney agreed with the pick, correctly guessing that the Steelers could get Ham in the second round.
Yet when he was available in the second round, a Steelers coach who had wanted to take Ham in the first round lobbied for Bowling Green linebacker Phil Villapiano.
Rooney was apoplectic.
"I screamed, 'Well, you're the same guy that wanted to take Ham in the first round. Now you're waffling!' " Rooney said. "You would break the tension by laughing, as it was a joke."
The Oakland Raiders picked Villapiano with the 45th overall pick — 11 after the Steelers selected Ham. Villapiano won a Super Bowl with the Raiders and played in four Pro Bowls, but history would prove the Steelers made the right call.
Ham added almost 15 pounds of muscle, and he made playing linebacker seem as natural as a fish in water.
"He was a perfect fit for Chuck Noll," Rooney said.
Ham's future roommate turned out to be a pretty good fit, too.
Injuries during his senior season at Western Illinois and playing at a small school caused Wagner to slide to the 11th round. An injury provided an opening for Wagner, and he became a starter his rookie season.
By the time he retired 10 years later, Wagner had won four Super Bowl rings and played in two Pro Bowls.
Not bad for the 268th pick who received a $3,000 signing bonus.
"Forty years is kind of scary," said Wagner, who stayed in Pittsburgh and is a successful businessman. "It was a great class, and the guys from '71, we're really proud of what we did."Additional Information:
By the numbers: The 1971 NFL Draft
4 • Players inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Jack Ham, Jack Youngblood, John Riggins and Dan Dierdorf)
8 • Players taken by the Steelers who played on at least one Super Bowl-winning teams in the 1970s
17 • Total rounds (compared to seven today)
267 • Players selected ahead of Steelers safety Mike Wagner, the lowest-drafted player in the class to make the Pro Bowl.
442 • Total players picked
32,838 • Career passing yards by Ken Anderson, a fourth-round pick by the Bengals and later a Steelers quarterback coach
68,308 • Career passing yards of the quarterbacks (Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning and Dan Pastorini) taken with the first three picks of the draftAdditional Information:
The Steelers' 22-member draft class in 1971 included five men who would play at least nine NFL seasons and featured one Hall of Famer (Jack Ham). Here's a look at that class:
Frank Lewis (1st round): WR ? 13 seasons
Steelers traded Lewis in 1977 after John Stallworth and Lynn Swann made him expendable
Jack Ham (2nd round): LB ? 12 seasons
Eight-time Pro Bowler has the most interceptions (32) by a linebacker in Steelers history
Steve Davis (3rd round): RB ? 5 seasons
Was kick returner for '74 Super Bowl team; finished career with Jets
Gerry Mullins (4th round): G ? 9 seasons
'Moon' man started at right guard for 1975 Super Bowl team
Dwight White (4th round): DE • 10 seasons
Hero of Super Bowl IX, his 46 sacks are eighth on the Steelers' all-time list
Larry Brown (5th round): T ? 14 seasons
Played tight end from 1971-77, then moved to right tackle; made Pro Bowl in 1982
Mel Holmes (5th round): G ? 3 seasons
No starts in 29 career games with Steelers
Ralph Anderson (5th round): DB ? 3 seasons
After two years with Steelers, made 10 starts with Patriots in 1973
Craig Hanneman (6th round): DE • 4 seasons
As L.C. Greenwood's backup, he was beaten on Ken Stabler's TD run that preceded Immaculate Reception
Larry Crowe (8th round): RB ? 2 seasons
Never played for Steelers; had one carry for 2 yards in '72 with Eagles
Ernie Holmes (8th round): DT • 7 seasons
Battled personal issues but still ranks 10th on Steelers' all-time sacks list with 40
Mike Wagner (11th round): DB ? 10 seasons
Starting FS on four Super Bowl-winning teams; sixth on Steelers' interceptions list with 36
Al Young (13th round): WR • 2 seasons
Had six catches for '72 Steelers, his final NFL season
Note: The following picks never played in the NFL: Fred Brister, LB (fifth round); Worthy McClure, T (seventh); Paul Rogers, K (eighth); Mike Anderson, LB (ninth); Jim O'Shea, TE (10th); McKinney Evans, DB (14th); Ray Makin, G (15th); Walter Huntley, DB (16th); Danny Ehle, RB (17th)