This is my all-time favorite non-championship moment as a diehard Pittsurgh sports fan. It's part of a blog I wrote today. You can read the whole thing here: http://www.wayo72.blogspot.com I wrote this because I think we forget about the teams and moments that brought us so much joy because the end result wasn't quite what we wanted.
The Steelers Defeat the Colts in the 1995 AFC Championship Game
I know this is out of chronological order, but I wanted to save my favorite for last. It was a bitter/sweet time being a sports fan in the early 90's. It wasn't horrible. There were a lot of fun times, but it seemed like my teams never really got over the hump. The Pirates won three straight division titles but lost in the NLCS every time, each one being more heartbreaking than the last. The Steelers were pretty average in the 80's and their run in the 70's seemed almost mythical to me as I was too young to really appreciate those years. By the early 90's, Chuck Noll was in his last days as coach. The Steelers were actually 3rd in relevance to the Penguins and Pirates. The Penguins had won back-to-back Stanley Cups but I didn't care about hockey at that time. In fact, I was very jealous of their success because my Pirates, who I followed with great passion, always came up short. By 1992, the Pirates were in their last days of being a great baseball team (little did we know how long their futility would last) and Bill Cowher succeeded Chuck Noll as head coach of the Steelers. They were huge shoes to fill, no doubt, but Cowher brought a new energy to the team and to the city. Surprisingly, the team went 11-5 in Cowher's first season and were actually the number 1 seed in the playoffs. Unfortunately, they were no match for the Buffalo Bills in the divisional playoffs, as they fell, 24-3. The next season, they started slowly, but rebounded to clinch the last wildcard spot in the AFC before losing a heartbreaker to Kansas City in overtime. The 1994 Steelers looked to be the team to get over the hump and bring glory to the Steel City once again. They finished the year 12-4 and nosed-out the Cleveland Browns for the AFC Central Division crown and the number 1 seed. The Steelers easily defeated the Browns for the 3rd straight time in the divisional playoffs and the only thing that stood between them and their first trip to the Super Bowl since the 70's was an underdog Chargers team that nobody thought highly of. It was a foregone conclusion that the Steelers would roll over the Chargers in the AFC Championship game. The guys even made a Super Bowl rap video the week prior to this game. The Steelers controlled things early but could never put San Diego away. They only led 13-3 late in the 3rd quarter before the Chargers scored two late touchdowns to take a 17-13 lead. Quarterback Neil O'Donnell led them on a furious march down the field but came up short on 4th and goal from the 3. I was devasted. I was almost in tears. Nobody could believe that they had lost. It wasn't quite as bad as the NLCS, but it was pretty darn close. I knew one thing: Once again, one of MY teams came up short in a big game.
The '95 Steelers were still considered the favorites in the AFC, but they seemed to be sleep-walking through the first half of the year. They even lost to the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars. The final nail in the apparent coffin was a Thursday night beatdown by the Cincinnati Bengals at Three Rivers Stadium. They were 3-4 and there was very little hope. Surprisingly, Pittsburgh got on a roll. They won a very big overtime game in Chicago to improve to 5-4 and then a few weeks later, they came back from being down, 31-13, to those same Bengals and won going away, 49-31. They would go on to win 8-straight games and capture the AFC Central division and number 2seed in the AFC. Their road to the Super Bowl wasn't initially as clear as the previous year. But in their first game, they had their way with Buffalo. And the Chiefs, who had the number 1 seed, were stunned by the upstart Indianapolis Colts. I couldn't believe it. It's as if there was divine intervention and God was fixing what happened the previous season. Once again, the Steelers were going to be home for the AFC championship game and this time, their opponent was an even bigger underdog. Surely, the Black and Gold wouldn't stumble again with the entire city watching, or would they? Well, I'll be damned if they didn't struggle. O'Donnell was intercepted early and the Colts had a 3-0 lead. Down 6-3 late in the first half, O'Donnell rebounded and hit rookie phenom, Kordell "Slash" Stewart with a touchdown pass in the back of the endzone and Pittsburgh led, 10-6 at the break. I figured that the team would step on the throats of the Colts, who were only 9-7 in the regular season, and dispose of them pretty early in the second half. I was wrong. The Steelers were only ahead, 13-9, late in the game when Colts' quarterback Jim Harbaugh connected with Floyd Turner on a 47 yard touchdown midway through the 4th quarter. The Colts were up, 16-13, and I couldn't believe it. My sister needed a headlight replaced on her car, and I was going to help my uncle fix it after the game. After the touchdown, he was disgusted and said something like, "Let's just go out and fix that light. They're done." And I was beginning to think they were done. They couldn't move the ball at all on Indianapolis when they needed to the most. The Colts actually had possession with only a few minutes left and it was 3rd and 1. Colts' running back Lamont Warren appeared to have clear sailing over the left side. It looked like he not only had an easy first down, but he could have gone all the way. Out of nowhere, Steelers cornerback Willie Williams came flying from behind and grabbed Warren by the ankle and stopped him short of the first down. The Steelers had one last shot to either tie the score or take the lead. Very early in the drive, Colts linebacker, Quentin Coryott nearly put the Steelers away with an interception, only to have it broken-up by Steelers receiver, Ernie Mills. Later in the drive, O'Donnell hit receiver Andre Hastings on a 4 and 3 to stay alive. The very next play, O'Donnell hit Mills for a 37 yard pass down to the Colts' 1-yard line. To this day, I can remember my two uncles jumping up and down and embracing one another after the play. Two plays later, Steelers running back Bam Morris punched it in and the Steelers were ahead, 20-16, with just 1:34 remaining. I thought it was in the bag. In-fact, tears started welling up, but I kept my compusure. And, it's a good thing I did because Harbaugh led the Colts down the field and despite a near-interception that would have sealed the game, the Colts were at the Steelers 30 yard-line with just 5-seconds left. There was time for one play. Harbaugh let loose on a hail-mary pass. The Colts receivers and Steelers defenders converged on the ball in the right corner of the endzone. The Steelers tried to bat the ball down, but Colts receiver Aaron Bailey had the ball on his chest as he fell to the turf, and all he needed to do was close his arms. Thankfully, he didn't and it fell to the ground. In the confusion of that last play, NBC's television crew wasn't sure what happened and Phil Simms screamed, "He caught the ball!" For a split second, I saw another heartreaking loss flash before my eyes, but then I saw the officials signal incomplete and I jumped up and ran into the kitchen and slid across the floor. My uncle Tony, who for some reason was cooking on the stove during this climactic moment, looked down at me and said, "Grow up." It was a tremendous feeling and a great relief. My Steelers had finally gotten over the hump. One of MY teams had finally made it to the last game. The Steelers were onto Super Bowl XXX. For the first time in my life, I had a reason to go out and honk a car horn. And conveniently enough, I had just gotten my license a couple of months prior so I got in a car and drove around honking my horn at complete strangers. The Steelers were to face the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl. For someone like me, who grew up watching highlights of the epic Steelers/Cowboys Super Bowls from the 70's, it couldn't get any better. I knew Pittsburgh would be the underdog and even though I was extremely optimistic, I was prepared for a loss. The Cowboys had just won two Super Bowls earlier in the decade and they were the team of the 90's. The two weeks leading up to the game were tremendous. I watched every Super Bowl special I could find on tv. I read every newspaper article I could find. I bought Super Bowl XXX memorabilia. I did it all. Truly one of the greatest times of my life. And the game was actually pretty exciting. The Cowboys dominated early, but Pittsburgh came back and actually outplayed them in the second half. We all remember the two infamous interceptions thrown by Neil O'Donnell that led to the Steelers downfall. To this day, people are bitter about that game and I don't know why. Well, I do know, it was the Super Bowl, but you would think the two recent Super Bowl victories would allow those feelings of anger and disappointment to dissipate, but they're still there. Anytime people talk about the worst losses in the history of Pittsburgh sports, Super Bowl XXX is up there at the top of the list.
The Steelers have been to the Super Bowl 7 times and that was their only loss. I think most sports fans would take that. Just ask the Bills or Vikings fans if they'd like to have just one championship, and I'll bet they'd say yes.
Don't get me wrong, I was disappointed. I even wrote "What Could have Been" on the vhs tape that I used to record the game.
But after so many near-misses, it was nice to see one of my teams at least play for a championship. I don't look back on Super Bowl XXX and cry. In-fact, I'm proud of that team.
I'll never forget that AFC championship game or any of the moments I have listed on here.