Recently, I wrote about some devastating losses by the Steelers and Pirates that were pretty hard to swallow for me as a fan. Well, today, I'd like to share a collection of memories that will always be some of my fondest as a fan: The day the Pittsburgh Steelers--one of my teams--finally got over the hump and made it to the Super Bowl.
Growing up as a Pittsburgh sports fan in the 80's, it was slim-pickin's around here. The Steelers were mediocre to below-average for the better part of the decade, and the Pirates were one of the laughing-stocks of baseball in the mid-80's.
The Penguins were also one of the worst teams in the NHL, but they did have an exciting, young player named Mario Lemieux (maybe you've heard of him) who would eventually lead the Penguins out of their long-history of failure to the top of the mountain with two-straight Stanley Cup victories in 1991 and 1992. That would have been great for me, but the only problem was I wasn't much of a Penguins fan back then. In-fact, I barely followed the sport of hockey. No, my teams were the Steelers and the Pirates. (For those counting at home, I also had a great love for the Pitt Panthers football and basketball programs.)
Speaking of the Pitt basketball program, in 1987 and '88, the Panthers were considered one of the favorites to make it to the Final Four, particularly in 1988 behind the stellar play of NBA players, Charles Smith and Jerome Lane. Despite being a top 5 team the entire season however, the Panthers were upset in the second round by Vanderbilt. That upset loss started what seemed to be a trend of my teams falling short time and again.
The Panthers never made it to the Final Four in the late 80's and the Pittsburgh Pirates failed to make it to the World Series despite winning the National League East three straight seasons starting in 1990. Each NLCS defeat was more devastating than the year before with the grand finale being the soul-crushing loss to the Atlanta Braves in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. As I wrote in a previous post, it was, without question, the worst loss I have ever experienced as a fan.
As for the Steelers, their fortunes were pretty low in the early 90's when Bill Cowher took over as Head Coach in 1992. But Cowher immediately instilled a winning-attitude in the team and the City was excited about the Steelers once again.
By 1994, it seemed inevitable that the Steelers would at least make it as far as the Super Bowl. They had the best record in the AFC that year and homefield advantage all throughout the playoffs. Led by Neil O'Donnell, Eric Green, Barry Foster, Yancey Thigpen, Dermontti Dawson, and John L. Williams on offense and Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake, Kevin Greene, and Levon Kirkland on defense, the Steelers had one of the most talented teams in the league when they faced the underdog San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship game at Three Rivers Stadium. The Super Bowl appeared to be their destiny.
Unfortunately, the Chargers had different plans and the Steelers quest for the Super Bowl came up three yards short. Another year, another team biting the dust with everything on the line. When would it ever end?
The Steelers were still the favorites in the AFC in 1995, but they appeared to be sleepwalking through the first half of the season. Rod Woodson, their all-world cornerback, suffered a season-ending injury in the first game and the Steelers were 3-4 after 7 games. The ugly first half of the season included a loss to the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars and a blowout loss at home to the Vikings. The final dagger in the heart of the team's playoff chances appeared to be a 27-9 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in a Thursday night contest at Three Rivers Stadium. Myron Cope even questioned whether the team could recover and remarked that Super Bowl teams don't normally get smacked around at home twice in the same season.
But the fortunes of the team changed on a dime. The Steelers decided they were going to forget about the past and just make it a 9-game season. They immediately got on a roll and won 8-straight games, including a huge overtime win in Chicago and an almost miraculous 49-31 victory in Cincinnati after trailing 31-13 in the second half.
It was one of the most exciting stretches of football in franchise history. The Steelers finished 11-5 and captured their second-straight AFC Central Division. They didn't earn homefield advantage for the playoffs but were the number 2 seed behind the Kansas City Chiefs.
In the divisional round of the playoffs, the Steelers faced off against the perennial AFC heavyweights, the Buffalo Bills. Steeler fans were a little leery of Jim Kelly's offense, but the Steelers controlled the majority of the game and won going away, 40-21. Most people figured the Steelers would have to travel to Kansas City to play the Chiefs for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
The next day, my family and I sat and watched in disbelief as the Chiefs lost to the 5th seeded Indianapolis Colts, 10-7, at Arrowhead stadium.
When Kansas City's kicker missed a last-second field goal to secure the win for the Colts, my sister and I celebrated as if witnessing a victory by the home team.
I could not believe the fortunes of my Steelers. Immediately after watching the Chiefs game, I had to go out and shovel snow in the back yard and that's when it occurred to me that maybe God had intervened and given the Steelers a chance to fix what they screwed up the previous year. I'm serious, that's what I was thinking as I shoveled that snow. Being a Steelers fan, naturally I believe in Divine Intervention. It was God's plan for the Steelers to make it to Super Bowl XXIX and they blew it but since He's a forgiving and loving God, He gave them another shot.
The scenario was almost identical to the 1994 AFC Championship Game: The Steelers were heavy-favorites playing at home against a team that nobody thought even had any business being there. I was trying to fight the urge to feel over-confident like I did the year before but it was pretty hard given the circumstances.
In-fact, the entire mood of the city was exactly like it was for the San Diego game. People were already looking ahead to the Super Bowl. I mean, who could blame them? The Colts were 9-7 in the regular season and only one 9-7 team had ever made it to the Super Bowl. Surely, the clock was about to strike midnight on Indianapolis' Cinderella season.
Right before the start of the game, my uncle Eugene and I looked at each other as if to say, "We got this!" However, very early in the game, a Neil O'Donnell pass was tipped and intercepted. This time, my uncle and I looked at one another as if so say, "here we go again."
The teams traded field goals for most of the first half and the Colts led, 6-3, late in the second quarter. However, right before the half, Neil O'Donnell hit rookie sensation Kordell "Slash" Stewart with a controversial 5-yard touchdown pass and the Steelers led, 10-6. The reason the play was controversial was because Stewart stepped out of the back of the end zone before he caught the touchdown. Fortunately, there was no instant replay in 1995 and the touchdown stood. The Steelers were ahead by 4-points at the break and just like the previous year, my brother Joey called me at halftime feeling pretty confident that the Steelers were headed to the Super Bowl.
I must admit I was pretty confident, too. I felt it was just a matter of time before the Steelers went up by two or three scores on the out-classed Colts.
But just like with the Chargers in 1994, the Steelers never did shake the upstart Colts. The teams traded field goals again in the 3rd quarter and it was 13-9 Pittsburgh heading into the final period.
Colts' kicker Cary Blanchard missed a field goal to keep the score 13-9 and everyone watching the game in my grandmother's living room jumped for joy. I had visions of the Steelers going on a long, time-consuming drive and putting the game away with a Bam Morris touchdown run. But for the second-straight year, the Steelers were stuck on 13 points.
The Colts had the ball near mid-field mid-way through the 4th quarter. Colts' quarterback Jim Harbaugh, that year's Captain Comeback, dropped back to pass and hit Floyd Turner with a 47-yard touchdown strike. I was stunned. It was Humphries to Martin II. "Here we go again" indeed.
Yes, the Steelers had a favorable match up in the AFC Championship Game for the second-straight season. Maybe God really did give them another chance. But for a second-straight year, they were throwing it away before our very eyes.
Heck, it was almost the identical score to the San Diego game. The Steelers trailed, 16-13, with time and hope, once again, running short. My sister had a headlight out in her car and I told my uncle I would help him change it after the game. When Turner scored his touchdown and the Steelers failed to move the ball on their next drive, my uncle said, "they're done! Come on, let's go fix that light."
Well, I couldn't pull myself from the screen and neither could anyone else, thankfully. With very little time left, the Colts had a chance to salt the game away. It was 3rd and 1 and Colts' running back Lamont Warren appeared to have not only a first down, but maybe even clear-sailing straight to Arizona and Super Bowl XXX. But out of nowhere, Pittsburgh's young cornerback, Willie Williams, tripped up Warren and tackled him behind the line-of-scrimmage and the Steelers still had life.
The Pittsburgh offense basically had one last shot to either tie the game or take the lead. Very early in the drive, Colts' linebacker Quentin Coryatt stepped in-front of a Neil O'Donnell pass intended for Ernie Mills and nearly intercepted it. Fortunately, Mills stuck his hand in and broke it up.
Just before the 2-minute warning, the Steelers faced a 4th and 3 and just like the year before, their season hinged on 3-yards. The tension in my grandmother's living room was so thick you could cut it with a knife (sorry for the cliched expression) but for some reason, one of my relatives was talking on the phone. I can't remember if it was my grandmother or one of my uncle's, but whoever it was, they must of had ice-water in their veins. Who could talk on the phone at a time like that?
Thankfully, O'Donnell hit Andre Hastings with a pass down to the Colt's 38 and the Steelers were still alive. Right after the two-minute warning, O'Donnell went for broke and hit Ernie Mills with a perfect pass all the way down to the Colt's one-yard line. When Mills caught that ball, my two uncles jumped up and embraced. I'll never forget that moment as long as I live. For you Colts fans out there, when Mills came down out of bounds, he lost control of the ball. It was clearly a catch, but in today's NFL, it probably would have been reviewed and overturned. Sorry.
Could the Steelers do it? Could they take the lead or would they have to settle for a field goal? A Bam Morris run got nothing on first down, but on second down, Bam-Bam fought his way into the end zone and the Steelers had a 20-16 lead. After the touchdown was signaled, Steelers tackle John Jackson jumped up and down like a little kid, Neil O'Donnell walked over to the crowd and blew a kiss to someone, and the Cowher clan had a group-hug up in the Steelers luxury box. It was a very special moment. I was sitting on the floor next to my sister, and I'm not ashamed to say I got choked up just a little. The Steelers had the lead with 1:34 remaining. The Colts needed a touchdown to win the game. A field goal couldn't save them. No way would the Steelers' defense let Harbaugh march his team down the field for the winning score.
But I knew I had to keep my compusure. I had seen this all way too many times--Pitt's devastating losses in the late 80's, Sid Bream sliding across home plate, Dennis Gibson denying the Steelers just a year earlier--and I was worried I'd get burned again.
Harbaugh did start to lead his team down-field, but for a split second, the Steelers had the AFC Title in their grasps when defensive back Chris Oldham had both of his hands on one of Jim Harbaugh's passes. Unfortunately, just like Coryatt, he couldn't secure it, and Indianapolis was still alive. Harbaugh eventually had the Colts at the Steelers' 29 yard-line with 5-seconds left. It was Hail Mary time. Once again, everyone in Steeler Nation had to wait for a pass in the endzone to see if Pittsburgh would advance to the Super Bowl. Harbaugh's pass came down in the front right-corner of the endzone with Colts and Steelers players waiting to fight for it. Colts' receiver Aaron Bailey got his hands on the ball as he fell to the turf with several Steeler flailing at it, and for a brief moment, he appeared to catch it. In-fact, NBC color-man Phil Simms exclaimed, "He caught it! He caught the ball!" For a split-second, I saw every devastating loss that I had experienced flash before my eyes.
I'm not sure if anyone remembers this, but right around the time of that final play, certain viewers in the Pittsburgh area lost their cable-feed and it didn't come back on until after the play was over. I'm not sure exactly when the video-feed was lost, but I couldn't imagine being without cable at that exact moment. I would have surely had a heart-attack.
Thankfully, Bailey didn't catch the ball, it hit the turf and when I saw the officials' arms waving "incomplete" I jumped up and ran and did a belly-slide into my grandmother's kitchen. When my little slide was over, I found myself next to the stove where my uncle Tony was preparing something for dinner. Much like the phone conversation when it was 4th and 3, I couldn't figure out why one of my relatives was doing something other than watching such a climactic moment. Anyway, my uncle looked down at me and said, "grow up."
I couldn't help it. After a game like that, a slide across the floor seemed pretty appropriate. Along those lines, I had just recently learned how to drive and I took my uncle's car out for a ride just to take everything in and maybe even honk the car horn a few times. I don't remember any crazy celebrations going on, just an African American man walking alone. I beeped my car horn at him as I drove by and he acknowledged it with a slight-smile. He was the first, and to-date, only person I have ever honked my car-horn at in a celebratory manner.
The Steelers would face the Cowboys in the Super Bowl and later that evening, NFL Films was playing highlights of the two teams' epic battles from the 70's and it was at that moment that it really sunk in: the Steelers were in the Super Bowl. With all due-respect to Mario and the rest of the Penguins of the 90's, after many near-misses, one of MY teams had finally gotten over the hump!
We all know how Super Bowl XXX turned out, but the 1995 Steelers season was a truly special time for me as a fan and I will never forget it.