Visit the Inc. 500 site, which includes a fully searchable database of winners from 1982 to the present


As a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, John Stallworth learned the value of focusing.

When John Stallworth sprinted to the middle of the field and jumped high to pull in a pass from quarterback Terry Bradshaw, he had no way to protect himself from getting hit by a defensive player. "It was pretty scary," says Stallworth, a former wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. "I was jumping up in the air not knowing what was going to happen with somebody hitting me. I had to maintain my focus."

Stallworth, who has four Super Bowl rings and holds almost every Steeler receiving record, may be the one Inc. 500 CEO who is actually qualified to indulge in all those hackneyed football metaphors that pervade business. Yes, he really has huddled, scored, and outrun the opposition. But more useful to Stallworth, the cofounder, president, and CEO of Madison Research Corp. (#418), in Huntsville, Ala., which develops and maintains computer and software systems, are the lessons he learned on the field: focus on the ball, play as a team, and plan for all contingencies.

Employees aren't able to focus easily, Stallworth says, when they're feeling constantly distracted. "People tend to worry about benefits, job security, what's expected of them, and how far they can go in their company," he explains. "We communicate about what's going on.

"Team building is important," he continues. "Chuck Noll, our coach, was good at that. He had a way of making everyone on the team feel he had an important job to do. I came away with that, and we try to do that here." The team also prepared quite studiously for fending off competitors, and Stallworth hasn't forgotten the value of that kind of thinking. "We watched films of other teams and prepared for what they would do on the field," he explains. "Now we try in our strategic planning and day-to-day business to prepare our folks for any obstacles in their way."

Stallworth knows all about obstacles. He played football because an athletic scholarship was the only way he could afford to study at Alabama A&M University. Even at that time, Stallworth was thinking about business. Before he graduated, he had a long chat with the dean of Alabama A&M's business school. In 1974 he became a fourth-round draft choice for the Steelers. "I never had any idea that pro football was even a possibility for me," he says. "Alabama A&M is not a hotbed for professional athletes." But in his 13-year professional career, he snatched more than 500 passes. Near the end of his career, he returned to Alabama A&M over the spring semesters to earn his M.B.A. He ran and lifted weights in the morning, studied in the afternoon, and attended classes at night. "I knew I wanted to run a business," he says. "And I wanted to be prepared."

In 1986, a year before he retired from football, Stallworth cofounded Madison Research with Sam Hazelrig. The two soccer dads, who met and talked on the sidelines while their kids kicked the ball around, had complementary skills: Stallworth had been trained in business and finance, while Hazelrig, an engineer, could manage technical projects. Around Huntsville there was ample high-tech work available from NASA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and major government contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. "A lot of companies then were starting in garages," says Stallworth.

The founders' first contract had them building machines to test valves and turbines for the Army's M1 tank, the only manufacturing the company has done. After that, Madison moved into software development, logistics, and management of computer systems. The big break came in 1993, when the company won a subcontract with Boeing Computer Support Services to maintain a communications network at NASA sites. Last year the company posted net income of $422,000 on sales of $9.7 million.

Hazelrig will retire soon, but Stallworth, who now employs more than 200, thinks he has picked up enough technical expertise to feel comfortable with that end of the business. He also plans to steer Madison out of the Small Business Administration's 8(a) program for minority-owned businesses. "We're focused on going after more commercial work outside 8(a)," Stallworth says.

Those two challenges--losing his partner and emerging from the protective wing of 8(a)--pose risks for the company. But Stallworth, who was involved with football in the days before players earned a king's ransom, has plenty of motivation to keep going. "People have the idea that everyone who played pro football can walk away with lots of money and retire to the beach," says Stallworth. "That's not the case."