He was late to football and deemed too small to play for the city’s powerhouse high school program. He went unnoticed by most college teams in an era when traditional Southern programs weren’t heavily recruiting black athletes.
However, the Rev. Sylvester Croom Sr., the father of his best friend and teammate, knew some coaches at his alma mater, Alabama A&M. He put in a good word.
It worked out quite nicely for the player. A young man named John Stallworth. It worked out well for Alabama A&M and for the sport of football in general.
And it worked out well for Huntsville and the surrounding area, in which Stallworth has served as a business leader, innovator and generous contributor to charitable and civic endeavors. His tireless work through the John Stallworth Foundation is inspired by the generosity of Rev. Croom from five decades ago.
As Mayor Tommy Battle said in a 2014 “Sports Illustrated” feature,” John is a quiet leader. He tries to stay out of the forefront, but he is one of those people when they move through this community, they make a difference.”
The Foundation, which hosted the 16th annual John Stallworth Celebrity Golf Tournament in early June, has helped numerous students attend Alabama A&M and other universities in the area, awarding more than $550,000 in assistance. Some 15 students are currently receiving aid through the Foundation.
John is a great testament to what it’s all about, to giving back.”
“We’ve all, at some point, have had someone give us a helping hand,” Stallworth says. “We’ve got kids out there who deserve the opportunity, who may not run fast or jump high, but deserve to go to college.”
Kids like Brittney Christian, who says, “They’re the only scholarship foundation that’s this family oriented. They reach out. They know who we are as people. We’re not just somebody they give money to.”
Indeed, it is very much a family, starting with John’s wife Flo, a former teacher who gathers a committee of educators to help choose the scholarship recipients, then follows through with the students throughout their years on campus to offer help and inspiration.
“Without Flo, this would never have gotten off the ground,” John says.
Life work after football
It’s third down and 8, 12:15 to play and the Pittsburgh Steelers are trailing the L.A. Rams in Super Bowl XIV. Terry Bradshaw calls 60 Prevent Slot Hook and Go. It demands that Stallworth give a brief stop-and-go fake that gives him slight separation from defensive back Rod Perry.
The pass hangs in the air long enough for Stallworth to think: “Darn it, Bradshaw you’ve overthrown me.” Instead, it arrives over Stallworth’s right shoulder, just ahead of the lunging Perry. It goes for a 73-yard touchdown that puts Pittsburgh ahead for good. It becomes the cover shot of the next issue of “Sports Illustrated.”
“A young athlete’s dream come true, to do that in a Super Bowl,” he says.
Signature moments like that led to his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002. He was a three-time Pro Bowl selection and won four Super Bowls with the Steelers.
But even as his career blossomed, coach Chuck Noll reminded players about one’s “life work” after football. It inspired Stallworth to earn real estate and insurance licenses in the offseason and earn a business degree at Alabama A&M. In 1986, the year before he retired from the NFL, he started Madison Research, recalling with bemusement how the three-person staff typed proposals for government contracts on an electric typewriter with the “T” off-kilter.
In 20 years, the company grew to 375 employees across 15 states. He sold Madison Research, then co-founded Genesis II to serve as holding company for investments and charitable work.
Among his investments: The former Steelers’ wide receiver is now a part-owner of the team he helped lead to four Super Bowl championships.
Recruiting for a cause
John Stallworth is meandering across the River Course at Hampton Cove in a golf cart, trailed by a photographer. He is going backward, 18 through 1, to catch each of the groups playing in the tournament, chatting with each and posing for photos.
“The folks of Huntsville, Madison County, northern Alabama have opened their hearts to what we’re doing,” Stallworth says of the support.
So have his friends and former teammates. Consider this list of Hall of Famers who have joined him for the golf tournament, or his biennial Celebrity Roundtable: Terry Bradshaw. Franco Harris. Mel Blount. Lynn Swann. Anthony Munoz. Andre Reed. Steve Largent. Joe Greene.
They come for Stallworth – though “my ego won’t let me go that far,” he says – and they come for the cause.
Blount, one of the greatest defensive backs in football history, has been a participant since the tournament’s outset and a regular visitor to Huntsville since the 1970s.
“John is a great testament to what it’s all about, to giving back,” Blount says. “He and Flo really pour their hearts into it.”