Steelers Throwback Thursday: 25th anniversary of the 1998 draft class

Steel City Underground takes fans back in time to feature events, special moments, and historical times and players in the world of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Steelers Nation. Join us as we revisit these moments in our “Steelers Throwback Thursday” series.

Not every NFL Draft class for the Pittsburgh Steelers has produced a healthy crop of top-tier players or even a future Hall of Famer. In 1998, however, the Steelers added several new players to their team that would become historically significant. In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the ’98 class, we look back at how  they impacted the Steelers franchise.

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Alan Faneca (Round 1, No. 26 overall)

The Steelers entered the NFL Draft in 1998 looking to fill depth on their offensive line and find a player that would give them long-term consistency. With their first round selection, the Steelers chose LSU guard/tackle Alan Faneca, a kid who had 210 pancake blocks with the Tigers who only allowed one sack in his final collegiate season.

Limited early his rookie season, Faneca took over after injuries to Will Wolford and Jim Sweeney. He was known in college for being tenacious up front, a superior run-blocker at guard, and that didn’t change much once he began taking snaps as a starter. That year, he was awarded the Joe Greene Award as the team’s top rookie.

Faneca went on to miss just two games in his 206 game career (ten in Pittsburgh) while helping secure top 10 rankings in run offense for his team in 11 of his 13 seasons blocking for nine 1,000-yard rushers – including Jerome Bettis – and five 3,000-yard passers.

Faneca is a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2000s and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2021.

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Hines Ward (Round 3, No. 92 overall)

The Steelers already had something of a track record with discovering wide receivers to develop outside of the top two rounds of the draft, but Hines Ward helped Pittsburgh earn league-wide recognition for that trend. The Steelers selected the former multi-sport Georgia-native who also played three different positions for the University of Georgia Bulldogs.

Ward initially wore jersey no. 15 during the 1998 preseason, and then switched to his famous no. 86.

Pittsburgh Steelers 1998 NFL Draft Card: Hines Ward (Steelers archives)


Ward went on to solidify himself as one of the Steelers’ best-ever receivers due to his exceptional hands, athleticism, and prowess at blocking for teammates. He earned the team MVP awards, was a four-time Pro Bowl selection, logged a four-season streak of 1,000 yards (minimum) receiving, set a franchise record for receptions (112) and receiving touchdowns (12) in 2002 that stood until Antonio Brown set the new record.

Known for his smile, a famous Super Bowl catch from Antwaan Randle El, being named Super Bowl MVP, and his stellar playmaking ability, Ward has been nominated to the Hall of Fame but has not yet been inducted.

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Deshea Townsend (Round 4, No. 117 overall)

Townsend played quarterback in high school (Batesville, Mississippi) before switching to defensive back with the Alabama Crimson Tide where he was named All-SEC three years straight (1995-1997). After being selected by the Steelers, Townsend was primarily a nickel corner and special teamer initially.

At cornerback, Townsend’s speed made him formidable in coverage and as a pass rusher over the years.

During twelve seasons with Pittsburgh, he recorded 322 tackles, 15.5 quarterback sacks, and 18 interceptions. A sack on Matt Hasselbeck of the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL helped seal the win for the Steelers.

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Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala (Round 6, No. 178)

The Steelers found a fullback that could play tailback, as well, in Fuamatu-Ma’afala out of the University of Utah. In 1995, he was named Freshman of the Year in the WAC after rushing for nine touchdowns and 834 yards.

Fuamatu-Ma’afala found a place on the Steelers roster primarily as the lead to Bettis’ workhorse role out of the offensive backfield. “He’s a bad Ma’afala,” became a Chris Berman staple statement (on NFL Primetime) when the fullback would make a big play; it was a parody on the theme song from 1971 hit “Shaft.” It’s not a stretch to say that “The Bus” was helped to his outstanding career as a rusher due to the aid of his fullback.

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Other members of the class

Comparisons to the 2024 Class

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1998 class, there are already analysts and Steelers faithful that have made comparisons between those players and the 2024 class of Pittsburgh draft selections. Maybe it’s a bit of a crazy stretch, but it’s entertaining.

Like Ward, newly-acquired linebacker Payton Wilson – who blazed his 40-yard dash time during the Pro Scouting Combine and is known for his closing speed – has no ACL in one knee. Wilson is also considered a “draft steal.” Ward may not have initially been seen as such, but what he gave to Pittsburgh (who saw teams pass the receiver over in the draft) was definitely more than many imagined he would.

Receiver Roman Wilson has also drawn comparisons to Ward due to film that shows some fabulous blocks he made in college.

The Steelers also selected three offensive linemen – Troy Fautanu, Zach Frazer, and Mason McCormick – that are known for having a nasty streak and ability to pancake opposing defensive linemen and pass rushers. If they trio are anything like Faneca was, the Steelers may very well have another hot class to add to their NFL Draft success stories.

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