In 1974, longtime Las Vegas Events president Pat Christenson was a damn fine amateur wrestler at the University of Wisconsin. He would go on to win the 167-pound NCAA championship in 1976.
In those days, the weight room at Wisconsin wasn’t much bigger than a closet, Christenson said. Mostly free weights just lying around. Guys were on their own. Strength coaches were not prevalent then, not even in the Big Ten.
Christenson said sometimes — practically every time — when he would go to the modest Wisconsin weight room to lift this football player with bulging biceps already would be there.
This was Mike Webster. And that was Mike Webster, Christenson said. Fiercely dedicated to making himself better. Fiercely dedicated to lifting those dumbbells in the Badgers’ sweaty weight-room closet.
“No one outworked him in the weight room,” Christenson said.
In 1974, the Pittsburgh Steelers had Ray Mansfield at center, and the Ranger still was in his prime — and Webster was sort of small (except in the biceps) for an offensive lineman. But Pittsburgh made him its property, anyway, in the fifth round.
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Beginning Thursday, the NFL will hold its annual draft of college players at Radio City Music Hall in New York. It is a big stage. It is a big deal. Millions will watch on TV. Some among the millions will post mean things about ESPN draft host Chris Berman on Twitter.
Some will struggle to spell “Sal Paolantonio,” and some then will be chagrined to discover they have only 126 characters remaining to complain about the Jets’ first-round pick.
Forty years ago, in 1974, pro football’s draft wasn’t televised, so people sometimes forget that four of the Steelers’ first five picks went on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Lynn Swann. Jack Lambert. John Stallworth. Mike Webster.
Greatest single-team draft haul ever? Yeah. I’d say so.
But could you have predicted it?
Those in the Steelers’ war room on that day, those sporting the horn-rimmed glasses and the plaid sports jackets and toting the manila folders before there were laptop computers, like to think so.
Others weren’t so sure. This is how Sports Illustrated began its story on the 1974 NFL Draft:
“Jim Kensil, executive director of the National Football League, stepped up to a microphone in the Georgian Ballroom of New York’s Americana Hotel and, in the uninflected tones of a station-master, recited, “The New York Giants on their second-round pick select Tom Mullen, guard, Southwest Missouri State.” Two hundred people cordoned off behind velvet ropes in the back of the room booed …
“… it was not just that Tom Mullen was unknown — even commissioner Pete Rozelle admitted he didn’t recognize the first 10 picks in the second round …”
So by the fifth round, when the Steelers picked center Mike Webster from Wisconsin, commissioner Rozelle probably was taking a walk in Times Square and smoking a cigarette.
Webster much later would become a sad story; he was living out of his truck that had a garbage bag in lieu of a passenger-side window before he died at age 50, ostensibly from absorbing too many hits in the trenches.
But how many guys drafted in the fifth year or beyond go on to make the Hall of Fame?
The answer is two: Richard Dent, eighth round out of Tennessee State in 1983; Shannon Sharpe, seventh round out of Savannah State in 1990. Sometimes back then, guys from the smaller Southern schools would slip through cracks to where not even Mel Kiper could identify them.
(There also have been 14 undrafted players whose busts are on display in Canton, Ohio, but only three since the modern era began in 1970: Jim Langer, John Randle, Warren Moon).
To illustrate the magnitude of Webster’s accomplishment using today’s criteria, 11 of the 26 players drafted in the fifth round in 1974 do not even have their own Wikipedia page.
If you weren’t at the Americana Hotel in 1974, or were among the cordoned off beyond the velvet ropes in back, this was how the names were listed on the Pittsburgh chalkboard:
Lynn Swann, WR, Southern California, first round, 21st overall; Jack Lambert, LB, Kent State, second round; John Stallworth, WR, Alabama A&M, fourth round; Jimmy Allen, DB, UCLA, fourth round; Mike Webster, OL, Wisconsin, fifth round.
All except Jimmy Allen (who had some good years with the Lions) would form a nucleus that helped the Steelers win Super Bowls during the 1970s. How many times did John Facenda, the Voice of Doom, recite their names on NFL Films amid snow flurries while that dramatic music played in the background?
Greatest single-team draft haul ever? Yeah. I’d say so. Even Mel Kiper Jr. would have to say so.
Swann, Lambert, Stallworth, Webster.
Each has his own Wikipedia page. The biographies are quite lengthy.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.