Steelers struck gold in '71 draft
By Scott Brown
Friday, April 22, 2011
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."
Scott Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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