Lynn Swann might never have played a down in Super Bowl X, might never have turned the Orange Bowl turf into his personal canvas for pass-catching artistry, if not for some ill-conceived trash talk by Cowboys cornerback Cliff Harris.
Two weeks before the game, Pittsburgh's promising second-year wide receiver had been slammed by Raiders defensive backs Jack Tatum and George Atkinson in the AFC Championship Game. The Steelers won 16-10 to earn their second straight Super Bowl berth, but Swann had landed in a hospital bed with a concussion.
He wondered if he would be ready to play in Miami, or even if his young career might have been jeopardized by the brutal hit.
"For my part, I'm certainly grateful that there were two weeks between the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl to give me a chance to recover and to heal," Swann, 56, said recently.
"When you get a concussion, there's not a real easy way to find out whether you've recovered from it or not. … Back then, they didn't have the tests they do today. So I didn't know if I'd have a chance to play or not."
Doctors ultimately cleared the former Southern Cal standout to play, but they left the final decision to him. When the Steelers arrived in Miami, Swann was listed as doubtful for the game. And he was discouraged during workouts.
"I practiced lightly. It wasn't a great week," he said. "It didn't seem to be there. I think it was a matter of my own confidence, not being able to find a definitive answer. And while I felt fine, I wasn't quite sure if I was."
The day before the game, his status was still up in the air — until he read a quote from Harris. "He made a comment that — and I'm paraphrasing here — if I were to play and come across the middle, he'd knock my head off," Swann said.
What Harris actually said was tamer, but the message was the same: "I'm not going to hurt anyone intentionally, but getting hit again while he's on a pass route must be in the back of Swann's mind. I know it would be in the back of my mind."
Swann was infuriated, thinking his courage had been questioned. "I took that as a direct threat and challenge," he said. "So I made up my mind I was going to play."
What No. 88 did looked more like acrobatics than football. His electrifying Swann dive of a catch helped propel coach Chuck Noll and his Steelers to their second straight Super Bowl title and has become one of the enduring images in Super Bowl history.
That amazing play — 33 years and almost two weeks ago — was voted the best Super Bowl moment by visitors to tampabay.com, the St. Petersburg Times' Web site.
"It's always fun that something you did so long ago still is considered to be the best," Swann said.
The juggling, lunging 53-yard catch of a Terry Bradshaw pass highlighted a day for the ages for Swann, who caught four of the five passes thrown to him for 161 yards and a 64-yard fourth-quarter touchdown that capped the Steelers' scoring.
Swann entered the game hoping to make his first catch quickly to settle himself and build confidence: "The first pass was extremely important. I set out to make that first pass thrown to me a completed catch."
He got his wish. In the first quarter, Bradshaw connected with him on the right side for a 32-yard gain, with Harris on the coverage.
Then came his gem. With just more than three minutes left in the half and the Cowboys ahead 10-7, Pittsburgh faced third and 6 from its 10 and a big decision.
"I don't think Chuck and the Steelers were thinking of throwing the football," Swann said. "We were backed up against our own end zone a little bit there, and the football team had always been fairly conservative, obviously wanting to run the ball more than pass the ball. And so we didn't want to take a chance throwing the football a lot. But when we got to third and 6, and when the play was called, we felt like we could execute it."
It was a pass down the right side, slightly underthrown, allowing Dallas cornerback Mark Washington to catch up to the streaking Swann and tip the ball as each leaped to make a play.
Swann maintained his concentration as he tumbled forward, tipping the ball himself, juggling it, then pulling it into his grasp as he stretched his 5-foot-11, 180-pound frame horizontally above the turf. The reception didn't lead to any points. But the play was huge in terms of field position. It prevented the Steelers from having to punt from their end zone and denied Dallas a chance to pad its halftime lead.
"If I'd done it right the first time, it wouldn't have been that big of a deal," Swann said. "But because Mark had tipped the ball away, I was able to get up in the air and tip it again. Then my ability to adjust and stay focused on the ball and make the catch as I was falling down made it into a spectacular play."
Swann's touchdown — a play in which Bradshaw was knocked out after releasing the ball — put Pittsburgh ahead 21-10 with three minutes left.
"That was the game-winner, but I don't think it had the drama of the other catch," said Swann, who retired in 1982 and entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001. "That one was like life, being challenged and finding a way to overcome it."