Happy birthday to a friend and hero

The first time I visited his office, I was blown away by the stark absence of anything football-related. There was a trophy — the Dapper Dan Award, given to the Sportman of the Year in the Pittsburgh area — and a football, deflated to a size as if to make Tom Brady comfortable. The paintings on the wall, I remember, were of the Buffalo Soldiers.

John Stallworth

This was a man who wanted to rely on his own acumen and experience to succeed in business, not because he was a famous ex-jock. Though, he did candidly admit, there was the occasional client meeting where slipping on one of his three Super Bowl rings or a Pro Bowl ring might serve a purpose.

“I tell myself I have one play left. And I don’t want to go out and prove that wrong.”

John Stallworth

This was the summer of 2002, and that businessman had been selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Along with colleague John Pruett, I would be covering the enshrinement and cranking out miles of copy beforehand. The entire project — planning, layout, photography, reporting — was some of the best work The Huntsville Times sports department ever did. They encompassed the man’s childhood, his college days, the brilliant NFL career with Super Bowl records (that still stand), three Pro Bowls, two MVP awards on his team.

The businessman only reluctantly agreed to “go with the flow” with the attention and acclaim, as another Hall of Famer recommended to him. He was attention-averse. He was modest. He was unassuming. And I should make that “is,” not “was.” He has only become comfortable with the attention in the last two decades as he has recognized how lending his name to causes has helped others.

He turned 68 today, so I thought it’d be a good time to write a few more words about John Stallworth, the Pittsburgh Steeler great and one of Huntsville’s most important and respected citizens.

First of all, he could pass for 48, which really kinda ticks me off. Oh, that I could look so good at 65. Yep, the knees aren’t as good as they were in the low mileage days, but he’s fit and trim. He still hears it from people. “You look like you could still play.” And he has this great answer: “I tell myself I have one play left. And I don’t want to go out and prove that wrong.”

Since that summer of 2002, I’ve been blessed to call John a friend. I was honored to serve 10 years or more on the committee for his John Stallworth Foundation golf tournament. I was part of his “Round Tables” with famous athletes, and even helped emcee the inaugural event. I’ve gotten to know so many of his former teammates and NFL friends.

Then, one day, I saw that Sports Illustrated started a series called “Pro-Files,” which told the stories of former athletes that had gone onto business success. With Stallworth’s charitable endeavors, the since-sold Huntsville-based defense contractor company he started as a three-person endeavor (with one balky IBM Selectric typewriter that had a stubborn T key) and his partial ownership of the Steelers, I suggested him as a story subject to SI editor Mark Bechtel, who grew up in Huntsville.

The SI story

Bechtel and fellow editor Jon Wertheim took a gamble. They asked me to write the story instead of handing it off to an SI staffer. Here’s the link, if you’d like to check it out. There were a few things I might have changed — like the word “tycoon,” which to me brings to mind the little dude with the monocle in “Monopoly” — but I’m proud of the work.

What I’ll always most appreciate is that this attention-averse businessman agreed to the interview (and time-consuming photo and video shoots) not because he needed to be in Sports Illustrated again. He’d already been on the cover, with his Super Bowl-winning catch against the Rams. He agreed to do it so a sportswriter friend might finally have a byline in Sports Illustrated. That’s John.

So, on a day when he’s celebrating his birthday, it’s all the gifts that John Stallworth has given that resonate with me. It makes me realize that it’s really cool when a football hero can become a friend. It’s even better when a friend becomes a hero.

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