Swans are typically recognized as graceful birds, majestic in their movements and fast in the water. When in flight, swans display balance and strength.
During his memorable career, former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Lynn Swann earned similar descriptors.
He was graceful in his movements, owing to a background in dance.
Today in 1976, Steelers beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl X as MVP Lynn Swann makes one of the most iconic catches ever pic.twitter.com/u4fxuB1k8W
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) January 18, 2016
He was fast on the gridiron, accounting for more than 300 receptions and 50 touchdowns.
Swann was a talented jumper and could outleap opponents and glide through the air to catch a football.
When battling a defender or staying in bounds to gain extra yardage, Swann showed outstanding balance and strength.
After a highly successful college career at USC, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Swann. He arrived in the Steel City in time to help the franchise win four Super Bowls.
Since retiring from the game, Swann has spent time in television, politics, and athletic administration.
This is the story of Lynn Swann.
Junipero Serra High School
Lynn Curtis Swann was born on March 7, 1952, in Alcoa, Tennessee.
OTD Mrs. Swann gave birth to a 4X Super Bowl champion and Hall of Famer!!!!
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Lynn Swann!!!! pic.twitter.com/le13lqZ00b
— VintageSteelers (@VintageSteelers) March 7, 2023
When he was two years old, the Swann family relocated to San Mateo, California.
Lynn was a natural athlete and began taking dance lessons when he was in elementary school.
By the time he arrived at Junipero Serra High School, he was ready to make his mark as the next great Padre.
Junipero Serra is a decorated school that has churned out many high-profile sports figures through the decades.
Those names include former USC and LA Rams coach John Robinson, baseball great Barry Bonds, and seven-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady.
Just a reminder: Tom Brady, Barry Bonds, Lynn, Swann, and David Bakhtiari all attended the SAME high school! (Junípero Serra High School) pic.twitter.com/MVSHvvzbWu
— RJ (@JCrossoverSzn) April 20, 2021
Swann didn’t begin making his mark on the gridiron until he was a couple of years into his prep career.
By that time, he was already an accomplished basketball player and long jumper during track season, but Swann was still on the JV football team—until fate intervened.
Before his sophomore year, one of the Padres’ star receivers was injured, and Swann was summoned from the JV team to see if he could contribute.
The rest is history.
“So Lynn Swann gets called up from the junior varsity,” said former Serra teammate Karl Vorsatz. “We scrimmaged Jefferson, and Jesse Freitas, Jr. throws this pass about 30 yards downfield and Swann goes straight up to catch it, like he was an elevator. We knew this guy was unreal.”
His ability to jump was nothing new.
Swann had continued to take dance lessons for several years, and the hard work was beginning to pay off.
“I took dance lessons from the fourth grade until my junior year in high school,” said Swann. “After Super Bowl X, when I was named MVP, someone referred to me as the ‘Baryshnikov of football.’”
As he gained notoriety for his football prowess, Swann gained even more attention when he jumped more than 24 feet in the long jump during a competition.
Good morning! Happy birthday to Lynn Swann. He won 4 Super Bowls, including an MVP award. As a high schooler, he won the CA long jump title, beating a future Olympic gold medalist.
— Steve Cortes (@CortesSteve) March 7, 2019
He then outleaped future Olympic gold medalist Randy Williams for the state title as a senior in 1970.
Swann was such a talented athlete that his football coach once joked, “If Serra wanted to win a tennis title, they’d give a tennis racket to Lynn.”
Several colleges visited Swann during his senior year to entice him to be a part of their athletic program.
USC head football coach John McKay offered him a scholarship as well and Swann became a Trojan.
Swann didn’t play for the team as a freshman in 1970, but he started as a receiver on McKay’s primarily run-based offense in 1971.
That season, Swann caught 27 balls to lead the Trojans in receptions. He also had 305 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Then, in 1972, both Swann and USC reached the pinnacle of success.
As a junior, Swann caught 27 passes for the second year in a row and had 543 receiving yards and three touchdowns, adding 117 yards on the ground.
— Retro Sports (@RetroSports411) July 16, 2017
The Trojans had a stacked roster that included quarterback Pat Haden and running back Sam “Bam” Cunningham.
For most of the season, USC blew out several opponents including 18th-ranked Washington, 34-7, 14th-ranked UCLA, 24-7, and 10th-ranked Notre Dame, 45-23.
USC then faced third-ranked Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, and Swann scored the first points of the day on a 10-yard touchdown reception from Mike Rae.
Ohio State tied the game at seven before halftime, but the Trojans opened the floodgates in the second half and won easily, 42-17.
It was USC’s seventh national championship.
The Trojans began the 1973 season well, winning five of their first six games and tying Oklahoma.
Near the end of October, Notre Dame upended USC by nine points, but the men of Troy won their remaining regular season games for the right to return to the Rose Bowl.
Meanwhile, Swann was a team captain for his senior season and had his best year yet.
In route to winning the team MVP award, Swann caught 42 passes for 714 yards, six touchdowns, and added another 99 yards rushing.
— Gridiron Icon 🎙️ (@IconGridiron) May 20, 2020
His play brought Swann a unanimous All-American designation and praise from McKay.
“He has speed, soft hands, and grace,” remarked McKay.
Ohio State returned to Southern California to play the Trojans in the Rose Bowl.
Unlike the previous year, the Buckeyes dominated in the second half and won handily, 42-21.
Swann ended his college career with 96 receptions, 1,562 receiving yards, 11 touchdowns, and 26 carries for 200 rushing yards.
He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
Almost a Cowboy?
As the 1974 NFL Draft approached, Swann was widely considered to be the best receiver in the draft.
In Pittsburgh, the Steelers needed a pass-catcher and were torn between taking Swann or Alabama A&M receiver John Stallworth with their first pick.
Years later, a Steelers beat writer, Vito Stellino, wrote that Pittsburgh head coach Chuck Noll liked Stallworth better than Swann.
However, according to Stellino, Noll was overruled.
“… the scouts said, ‘Yeah, but Swann’s going to USC, you know, he’s not going to last much longer (in the draft).’ And the word at the time was that the Cowboys would have taken Swann on the next pick if the Steelers had passed him,” recalled Stellino. “They couldn’t have gotten Swann if they took Stallworth in that round.”
The 1974 NFL Draft
Pittsburgh had only recently become a competitor in the NFL, and the team was looking to get to the next step of its ascendancy.
The franchise originated in 1933 and didn’t make the playoffs until 1947.
It was another quarter of a century before Noll arrived to take the Steelers back to the postseason in 1972 and win an improbable game against Oakland in the “Immaculate Reception” game.
In 1973, Pittsburgh returned to the postseason only to have the Raiders get revenge from the season before.
Director of Player Personnel Dick Haley and his scouts put together a draft strategy that became a model for the rest of the NFL.
Memories of 1974 #PittsburghSteelers #HOF draft. Lynn Swann #USC, Jack Lambert #KentState, John Stallworth Alabama A&M #AAMU, Mike Webster #Wisconsin. #AAMUBulldogs #CollegeFootball #NFLDraft @ClintKPoppe @FilmHistoric @elevenbravo138 pic.twitter.com/Pdc5z0NCdQ
— History of College Football (@HistColFootball) April 28, 2022
With their 21st overall selection in the first round, the team took Swann. (Dallas took North Carolina State running back Charley Young with the next pick.)
Then, linebacker Jack Lambert arrived in the second round before Noll’s receiver, Stallworth, came in the fourth round.
The team snapped up Wisconsin center Mike Webster in the fifth round and added South Carolina State safety Donnie Shell as an undrafted free agent.
Pittsburgh Magical Season
No one knew at the time that all five players would one day become NFL Hall of Famers.
However, the team had a pretty good idea of what they had by the end of the ’74 season.
During his rookie year, Swann started just two games and caught 11 passes for two touchdowns.
He did see significant time on special teams and returned 41 punts for a team-record 577 yards (which also led the NFL that year) and one touchdown. He also earned a spot on the PFWA All-Rookie Team.
Excluding 2019, 1974 had 6 players drafted in the 1st Round make at least one Pro Bowl, the fewest in the 1st round of any draft in the Common Draft Era (since 1967).
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 25, 2020
Pittsburgh’s offense was ranked sixth in the NFL while Lambert and the “Steel Curtain” defense was second overall.
Pittsburgh won 10 games, then beat Buffalo and Oakland in the playoffs before taking on the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX.
During the Steelers’ first-ever title game, Minnesota’s “Purple People Eaters” defense was no match for the Steel Curtain and Pittsburgh won, 16-6, for its first franchise championship.
Swann turned out to be an afterthought in the contest and finished with one rushing attempt for negative seven yards.
Swann was fortunate to win a world championship in his rookie year, but he was committed to improving his game in 1975.
He cracked the starting lineup for 12 games and saw playing time in all 14 contests.
That helped Swann increase his stats to 49 receptions for 781 yards and co-lead the NFL in touchdown receptions with 11.
#HappyBirthday Lynn Swann!
Swann was named All-Pro and selected to the Pro Bowl in 1975, 1977 and 1978, and was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1970s and the Super Bowl Silver Anniversary Team! #YinzFact #HereWeGo pic.twitter.com/kMBqFgKNcL
— YinzChat (@YinzChat) March 7, 2023
He received the first of his three Pro Bowl nods and was voted as a second-team All-Pro.
Pittsburgh rode Swann and their fifth-ranked offense to a franchise record 12 wins and victories over Baltimore and Oakland in the postseason.
During the contest against the Raiders, Oakland safety George Atkinson delivered a vicious blow to Swann that knocked the receiver out of the game.
Even without him, the Steelers advanced to play for another championship.
Super Bowl X
Due to Atkinson’s hit, Swann spent two days in the hospital before being cleared for Super Bowl X against the Dallas Cowboys.
“I honestly didn’t know until a couple of minutes before the kickoff whether I’d play,” Swann said. “I felt fine and I wanted to, but I wasn’t sure I would.”
Apparently, the injury he sustained in the AFC Championship game did nothing to deter Swann from a date with destiny.
In Super Bowl IX, Swann had been a little-used backup player. That would not be the case one year later.
During the first quarter, Bradshaw connected on a nifty 32-yard completion to Swann along the sidelines that defied belief.
As Swann went in the air over Dallas player Mark Washington, it looked like he would catch the ball, but land out of bounds.
Amazingly, the balletic Swann kept both feet in bounds for the completion.
Though it garners less recognition than his iconic "Levitating Leap" reception, Lynn Swann's beautiful 32-yard "Kangaroo Catch" on the #Steelers' first scoring drive of Super Bowl X was equally as impressive. pic.twitter.com/LdEvT1a4jd
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 18, 2023
The reception has since been dubbed “The Kangaroo Catch.”
Then, in the second quarter, Bradshaw heaved a 53-yard bomb to Swann that was tipped by Washington before Swann corralled the ball while on his knees.
That reception also has its own name: “The Levitating Leap.”
Lynn Swann's "Levitating Leap"
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 18, 2023
In the fourth quarter, Bradshaw and Swann connected again, this time on a 64-yard touchdown that put Pittsburgh ahead, 21-10.
Dallas couldn’t keep up and lost to the Steelers, 21-17.
Swann was named the game’s MVP after his four-catch, 161-yard, one-touchdown performance.
“My big catches that day are what people remember,” said Swann. “But in coming back from my concussion, my biggest catch occurred on the first pass that Terry threw to me. I went up for a high, graceful reception that gave me the confidence I needed to make the other catches later on.”
For his part, Dallas’s Mark Washington was left shell-shocked.
“I don’t care what kind of catch a guy makes if he beats me,” Mark Washington said. “Swann just beat me one time too many.”
Super Bowl XIII
In 1976 and 1977, Pittsburgh went to the playoffs but was bounced by the Raiders and Broncos respectively.
Swann caught a total of 78 passes and 10 touchdowns during that time and returned to the Pro Bowl in ’77.
Pittsburgh got back on track in 1978 when the team won a new franchise record 14 games on the strength of its fifth-ranked offense and top-ranked defense.
Swann had his best year as a pro when he caught 61 passes for 880 yards and 11 touchdowns, leading to a Pro Bowl and his only first-team All-Pro nod.
“I’d like to say that we developed Lynn Swann,” said Chuck Noll. “But the truth is he was perfectly developed as a football player the first time he stepped on our practice field.”
During the playoffs, Pittsburgh proved to be a buzzsaw and destroyed Denver and Houston by a combined score of 67-15.
Dallas and Pittsburgh returned to play each other in Super Bowl XIII, and the contest nearly ended in a Steelers blowout.
After Swann caught an 18-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh was ahead comfortably, 35-17.
The Cowboys scored twice in the final quarter to close the gap but still lost, 35-31.
1-21-1979, the Steelers beat the Cowboys 35-31 in Super Bowl XIII. Terry Bradshaw threw for 318 yards, 4 touchdowns & an interception. Lynn Swann caught 7 passes for 124 yards & a TD and John Stallworth caught 3 passes for 115 yards & 2 TDs. pic.twitter.com/mnHHwKVMYy
— Scott F (@TheFrizz87) January 22, 2020
For the second Super Bowl in a row, Swann played well, catching seven passes for 124 yards and a touchdown.
Bradshaw took the MVP award after passing for 318 yards, four touchdowns, and an interception.
More of the Same
Pittsburgh wasn’t done by a long shot.
In 1979, the offense was even better than the year before, ending the season as the NFL’s best with an average of 26 points per game.
Swann was part of that talented group, racking up 41 receptions for 808 yards and five touchdowns and adding his only career rushing score as well.
The Steelers took their 12-4 record into the postseason and eliminated Miami and Houston to reach their fourth Super Bowl.
During the game, the LA Rams looked better than advertised and led at halftime, 13-10.
Then, early in the third quarter, Swann put Pittsburgh ahead when Bradshaw found him for a 47-yard touchdown.
Pat Thomas with the big hit on Lynn Swann in Super Bowl XIV @NFL @steelers @RamsNFL @RockyBleier @EbbetsVintage @Ol_TimeFootball @Super70sSports @ProFootballHOF @NFL_Journal pic.twitter.com/OpprkQRp85
— NFL Classic! (@79_nfl) February 5, 2020
LA re-claimed the lead minutes later, but two Steelers touchdowns in the fourth quarter gave the franchise its fourth world title, 31-19.
During Super Bowl XIV, Swann had five receptions for 79 yards and a touchdown.
Swann Unexpectedly Retires
The Pittsburgh dynasty crumbled suddenly after 1979 and four Super Bowls.
In 1980, the franchise won nine games but missed the postseason. They followed that with another playoff whiff and an eight-win season in 1981.
Swann was still consistent and totaled 78 receptions for 1,215 yards, and 12 scores combined.
As the 1982 season got underway, the NFL Players went on strike after Week 2, and the season was condensed to nine games.
Swann started eight games and had 18 catches for 265 yards. He didn’t score a touchdown for the first time in his career.
— Steelers Depot 7⃣ (@Steelersdepot) March 7, 2023
The Steelers returned to the playoffs with a 6-3 record but lost in the First Round to San Diego.
After the season ended, Swann decided to retire.
The move came as a shock to most people as he was only 30 years old at the time. He was still at the height of his profession.
“Emotionally and mentally, I’m ready for the change and prepared to leave the secure womb of football I’ve lived in for so many years,” Swann said. “I had my mind made up before the season that if everything fell into place I would retire at the end of this year.”
During his retirement announcement, Swann shared that he had never intended to play football as long as he did.
“I told myself in the beginning that I wouldn’t play more than five years,” Swann said. “Then No. 6 came along, and No. 7 and No. 8 and No. 9. Now it’s over. I never thought of myself, really, as a football player,” he added. “I never thought that’s what I should be doing. That was a fluke from the beginning.”
During his NFL career, Swann had 336 receptions, 5,462 yards, 51 touchdowns, 72 rushing yards with one rushing score, and 739 punt return yards and a touchdown.
He was a three-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro, NFL touchdown reception co-leader once, four-time Super Bowl winner, and Super Bowl MVP. He also became NFL Man of the Year in 1981 for his charity work.
Happy 71st Birthday to Lynn Swann!#PittsburghSteelers (1974–1982)
🏈 Games played = 116
🏈 Receiving yards = 5,462
🏈 Touchdowns = 51
🏆 4× SB champ
⭐ SB MVP (X)
⭐ PFWA All-Rookie Team (1974)
⭐ 3× Pro Bowl
— JVAN (@VanderlansJim) March 7, 2023
Swann was later added to the NFL’s 1970s All-Time Team, the Steelers’ All-Time Team, the Steelers Hall of Fame, and the Pittsburgh Pro Football Hall of Fame.
At the time of his retirement, Swann’s reception, yardage, and receiving touchdown marks led the Steelers.
His 398 all-purpose yards and 364 receiving yards in four Super Bowls also led the NFL at the time.
In 2001, Swann was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“I could not be here without the overwhelming support of Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll,” said Swann during his induction speech.
Swann Keeps Busy
Since he was only in his early 30s when he retired, Swann found plenty to do after leaving the NFL.
For several years, he was a reporter and analyst for ABC Sports. He covered some of the biggest sporting events around the globe including the winter and summer Olympics, the Iditarod Sled Dog race, horse racing, and college and professional football.
On January 1, 1996 Keith Jackson, Bob Griese and Lynn Swann called Northwestern vs USC Rose Bowl on ABC. pic.twitter.com/GofbEXEW1K
— Announcer Database (@SAnnouncer_DB) June 15, 2015
Swann then spent time in politics as a chairman for the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports before declaring his candidacy for governor of Pennsylvania in 2006.
His attempt to become the state’s first African American governor came up short against Ed Rendell, who took 60% of the vote.
When he wasn’t hosting sporting events or trying his hand at politics, Swann sat on the boards of numerous businesses including the Heinz Company and Hershey Entertainment and Resorts.
Tumultuous Tenure as USC AD
In 2016, USC hired Swann to be their new athletic director, a position that he had not sought, but was excited to try his hand at.
“It’s a job I feel like I’ve prepared for my entire career,” Swann said.
Unfortunately, during his time at SC, the athletics program took a direct hit due to the “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal.
Wealthy school donors had partnered with some USC coaches and officials to create fake athletic profiles for their children so they would receive scholarships.
The scandal involved an FBI investigation and rocked the school.
Then, in 2018, the USC football team suffered through a 5-7 season, the lowest win total by the Trojans since 2000.
By early 2019, there was enough negative press surrounding the Trojan athletic program that Swann resigned in September of that year.
Breaking: Lynn Swann has resigned as USC athletic director, effective immediately, according to multiple reports. pic.twitter.com/HnNSWyxZwG
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 9, 2019
More recently, Swann and his wife, Charena, moved to Georgia.
The couple has two sons, both of whom followed in their father’s shoes by becoming football players.