PITTSBURGH - Jack Lambert didn't need much training camp time to realize the transition from Kent State to the NFL wouldn't be as difficult as he expected.
“Jack is sitting there in the locker room with his teeth out, a cigarette in his hand, saying, ‘When I first came here, my goal was to make the team. But now I know I'm going to start,'” former Steelers draft pick Bruce Henley said.
Lambert's confidence was mirrored by Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster and even free agent Donnie Shell, rookies whose impact was seen, felt and heard from the day they stepped foot on St. Vincent College's campus in July 1974.
This is the 40th anniversary of the Steelers' Class of 1974, a 21-member draft class that is the best in NFL history. Of the five Hall of Famers drafted by NFL teams that year, four were Steelers, an unprecedented talent haul that immediately propelled the franchise to four Super Bowl wins in six seasons.
“You're not thinking about those things, banging around in camp, but I knew they were good. Lynn was good, because I'd seen him play,” former Purdue linebacker Mart Gefert said. “Jack, with his demeanor and work ethic, you knew he had ‘it' — you just knew it.”
NFL veterans were on strike, so the rookies and 30 to 40 free agents had the run of camp until the labor dispute ended Aug. 10. Both Gefert and Henley said that time allowed the rookies to make an impression on coach Chuck Noll and his staff — and the other rookies.
Shell was a little-known safety from South Carolina State who somehow slid through the 17-round draft without being selected, but it quickly became evident he could play. He later made the Pro Bowl five times.
“He was full speed ahead, confident and loved to hit. He was always around the ball, and you could hear his hits ... from one end of the camp to the other,” Henley said. “The way he hit sounded different from the other players. Some of the wide receivers were intimidated.”
While that Steelers' class is largely ignored except for the Hall of Famers, two other picks had long NFL careers.
Defensive back Jimmy Allen made 31 interceptions in eight seasons, including nine in his final season with the Lions. Linebacker Charles Davis played seven seasons, all but one with the St. Louis Cardinals, and once had a five-sack playoff game against the Rams.
Gefert believes money, or the lack of it — the average salary was $56,500, and rookies made much less — contributed to the class' success.
“We were sitting around a dorm room comparing contracts, and some guys knew what guys from other teams were making,” Gefert said. “Some picks got this and that, but the Pittsburgh contracts were incentive-laden. I think we worked harder because there were incentives.”
Henley was disappointed when he was cut late in camp because, he said, ‘I came to think, ‘Man, I do have a good chance.' But when you came down to it, there were just too many good ones.”
More than any other NFL team ever had in a single draft class. The class to which all others are compared.
(Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.)