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One Sunday In December

 

The Pittsburgh Steelers began the 1989 season by getting pummeled. Already absent from the playoffs since 1984 the Steelers were embarrassed in the first two games of 1989 by division rivals Cleveland and Cincinnati. After dropping the opener to Cleveland 51-0 with a keystone cops like performance, the Steelers followed that up with a 41-10 drubbing at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals.

The score after two weeks in 1989; Opponents 92 Steelers 10. This was quite embarrassing to say the least Steelers Nation. And this was in the days before NFL Package on Direct TV and before satellite bars had the signal in their back pocket. Think of the embarrassment of sitting in your favorite Southern California Steelers bar unable to find the satellite signal and being forced to road trip down Topanga Canyon Blvd to the local Brown’s Backers Bar? Entering the dark brown den of the enemy in Steelers gear a group of us black and gold homers were booed and jeered as we entered to a 35-0 deficit in the first half. Humility learned.

 

Back in Pittsburgh the local scribes and talk show hosts were going insane. The talk of the town was not if the Rooney’s would fire 4 time Champion and future Hall Of Fame Head Coach Charles Henry (The Emperor) Noll but when. Noll was stoic and calm. In the locker room after the second blow out he held the team together with his confidence and optimism. But he was realistic. I seem to remember Noll saying “Either we just played the best two teams in football or it’s going to be a long season.” Merril Hoge told me the confidence Noll had in himself and his system gave the Steelers hope.

For the 1989 Steelers it was time to get back to basics. Led by their fiery if non athletic QB named Bubby Brister the Steelers reeled off 4 wins in 6 weeks and evened their record at 4-4. After splashing the Dolphins in rain soaked Miami the Steelers were 6-6. After closing the season with 3 straight victories the underdog, under manned but over achieving Pittsburgh Steelers had made the playoffs for the first time in 5 years. It set the stage for 2 of the most exciting Sunday’s in the midst of a 5 year exercise in futility. This story about the first.

It was December 31 1989. It would be the last football game of the decade. The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to Houston to play black hat Jerry Glanville and the Houston Oilers. The Oilers absolutely kicked the Steelers hind quarters in Houston earlier in the year 27-0 in one of 3 shutouts the Steelers suffered. Noll lambasted Glanville at mid field in the game’s aftermath for “dirty play.” Without Brister, Todd Blackledge was inept although he led the team in rushing with 13 yards. Later in the year in a controversial game at Pittsburgh where Houston was awarded a 4th second half time out the Oilers won again 23-16. Again Glanville gloated.

On this Sunday in Houston it was different. This Steelers team was surging with confidence and riding a 3 game winning streak. Early in the game rookie Jerry Olsavsky blocked a punt and Pittsburgh recovered deep in Oiler territory. On 4th and 1 from the Oiler 9 the usually conservative Noll went for pay dirt. Tim Worley shook off Oiler LB Robert Lyles and ran over Pro Bowl safety Bubba McDowell for a Steeler TD. It was a punch in the face. Chuck Noll and the Pittsburgh Steelers had just delivered a stern message to Jerry Glanville and the Oilers. The Steelers had come to Texas to win.

Two Houston field goals, one after a Worley turnover, cut the lead to 7-6. Late in the 2nd quarter Merril Hoge broke off a huge 49 yard run breaking tackles and carrying defensive backs along the way. With less than two minutes to go in the half and facing another 4th and 1, Noll elected to kick a FG giving the Steelers the lead 10-6 at the half. The field goal battle continued through the third quarter. The tough Steelers defense led by Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake, Greg Lloyd and Hardy Nickerson had kept potent Warren Moon out of the end zone. With the score 16-9 in the 4th quarter uneasiness settled over the Steeler Nation. After Pittsburgh had dominated the game with physical play on offense and defense the Oilers were still hanging around in the 4th quarter. It seemed like only a matter of time before Warren Moon would take off in the Astrodome. And he did. Moon put the ball in the air and directed a 10 play drive that ended with Ernest Givens catching an 18 yard TD pass and the Oilers knotting the score at 16. The Astrodome was now buzzing and getting louder. The Oilers had gained momentum.

Late December playoff games are where legends are made. With 5:16 to go the Steelers began at their own 18. Bubby Brister looked at Merril Hoge in the huddle and said “It’s time to find out what we’re made of.” Brister hit Lipps with a dart good for 10 and a first down. Worley ran for 11. Brister then gave the ball to Hoge who on a reverse handed the pigskin to Dwight “Hands Of” Stone. The fleet feet of Stone picked up a nifty 22 yard gain on the reverse and momentum was switching as Oiler fans began shifting in their seats. Worley picked up 6 yards. Then Hoge ran for 6 yards. Then another Hoge run. Then another. At the one yard line with the two minute warning on the horizon, Merril Hoge plowed for a 1 yard TD and a tie game. A big play by Greg Lloyd thwarted the late Oiler rally sending this playoff game into overtime.

In overtime the Steelers won the toss and did little. A poor punt by Harry Newsome gave the Oilers the ball just over mid field in Steelers territory. The Astrodome was now louder than a jet engine urging the Oilers to put away these pesky Pittsburgh Steelers. On the Oilers first play from scrimmage in OT, Steelers LB David Little noticed the Oiler TE lined up next to the tackle. “Ohio!” screamed Little to his teammates as he sensed a run to the left. As the ball was handed to big Lorenzo White, Greg Lloyd filled the gap Little had called out forcing White outside. What happened next will forever be a shining star in Steelers Lore. Steelers’ broadcaster Myron Cope called it “The Heavenly Hit.” As White broke outside, future Hall Of Fame CB Rod Woodson came streaking like a torpedo, hitting hard and low, dislodging the ball from White. “This is a sellout game. If you don’t sell your body out now and go flying at someone you’ll never do it.” Woodson told Sports Illustrated after the game. Woodson recovered at Houston’s 46. Late December playoff games are where legends are made. The Steelers and Chuck Noll played their hot hand. Merril Hoge forever earned his Steelers stripes running through, around and over Houston Oilers setting up a 4th and short at the Oiler 33. “Click” Gary Anderson, Mr. Automatic, kicked it through the uprights and the Steelers had a shocking and stunning 26-23 playoff victory to end the decade. Noll said “It was a very emotional thing for this team. It was a gut check.” Defensive Coach Mean Joe Greene simply explained “They believe.”

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