One Sunday In January

Bumped. Mr. Friedman drops another great entry into what I hope is turning into a series of posts like this. His 'One Sunday in December' was sure a treat. As is this. -Michael B. -


1989 had come to a close. The Pittsburgh Steelers had miraculously rebounded from being behind 92-10 to start the season. They had come all the way back to make the playoffs. In the final game of the decade hard charging Merril Hoge picked up 125 yards on the ground and through the air. Rod Woodson provided a "Heavenly Hit" and Gary Anderson kicked a 50 yard FG in OT to provide the margin of victory.

These now 1990 Steelers were red hot, winners of 4 games in a row. As the Steelers traveled to Denver for a Divisional Round Playoff game they were cool and confident. They were also a heavy underdog which suited them all just fine. After not making the playoffs 4 years in a row this Steelers team was full of the underdog types. But they also had a full head of steam.

On January 7th 1990, 75,868 crammed into Mile High Stadium in Denver to see the Bronco’s battle the Steelers for the right to go to Cleveland for the AFC Championship Game. During the span of the previous 4 years the Steelers franchise had played in exactly 0 playoff games. Now for the second week in a row the Steelers were lining up to win or go home. Bubby Brister and the Steelers offense would come out hitting hard and playing physical. Behind 2nd year Center Dermontti Dawson, Guards Terry Long and John Rienstra and Tackles John Jackson and Tunch Ilkin, RBs Merril Hoge and Tim Worley were absolutely killing the Bronco’s. The Steelers hit hard and often early. A Hoge TD on the ground and a 9 yard bullet from Brister to Louis Lipps had the Steelers in the lead 17-7 in the second quarter. Before halftime, John Elway marched the Bronco’s into FG range where rookie David Treadwell cut the Steelers lead to 17-10 at the half.

Like the final Sunday of the decade, on this first Sunday in January 1990 momentum seemed to be on the sideline of the Pittsburgh Steelers. When 1988 1st round pick Aaron Jones sacked John Elway (only the 2nd sack of Jones less than illustrious career) and Thomas Everett picked him off Elway actually seemed rattled. The Bronco defense certainly was as Merril Hoge continued to pummel the Orange Slush. Hoge would run for 120 yards on this Sunday and add another 60 yards on 6 catches through the air. Bronco safety Dennis Thurman kept yelling at his defense "Hoe-g is killing us!" until Tunch Ilkin yelled the corrective "It’s Hodge!" at him late in the third quarter with the Bronco defense sucking wind during a time out.

The Steelers truly believed they could win this game. Now the Steeler Nation was beginning to believe. Back in 1984 behind Mark Malone, Louis Lipps and Frank Pollard the Steelers had stunned the second year Elway at Denver in a Divisional Playoff game by scoring the last 14 points and winning 24-17. Could the Steelers Defense be Elway’s Kryptonite?

"When you’re up by 10 against John Elway, that’s not enough" Brister would quip later to the Post Gazette. "I didn’t know that at the time."

Vance Johnson, held in check most of the game by young Rod Woodson and ageless Dewayne Woodruff broke free for a 37 yard TD strike from Elway in the 3rd quarter. The Steelers buckled down. Bubby Brister who would complete 19/29 for 229 led the Steelers to long FG drives into the 4th quarter. Anderson connected from 35 and 32 as the Steelers failed to seal the deal with a TD on either drive. The Steelers somehow led the Bronco’s 23-17 midway through the 4th quarter. With time ticking away in the 4th quarter John Elway led the Bronco’s on a blood and guts drive that ended with 7th round draft pick Mel Bratton tricking the Steelers and scoring on a run from the 1. With the extra point the Bronco’s had surged into a 24-23 lead with 2 minutes left in the game. For the Steelers to win this playoff game on this Sunday a Roethlisberger type comeback was needed.

On the late Denver winter Sunday, Mile High Stadium was ecstatic. Merril Hoge would say that it was as loud as he ever heard a stadium. As the Denver night settles over the huddle, 11 exhausted Steelers stare each other down as the ground shakes under the player’s feet. Just like Houston the week before the Steelers need a score. Brister throws a rope on first down to Mark Stock which would have been a first down just short of mid field. Stock drops the ball. The Denver crowd roars in approval. On the play Dermontti Dawson is knocked woozy with a concussion and is helped from the field. Second year Center Chuck Lanza replaces the concussed Dawson. The players in the huddle strain to hear Brister over the crowd. They break huddle and Brister is in the shot gun calling for the snap. Lanza hesitates and then snaps the ball at Bubby’s ankles. Brister fails to secure the snap and the ball is fumbled forward. Hoge is now chasing the pigskin trying to pick it up and run. He can’t. The fumble is recovered by Denver. Game over. Some will say 1989 was Chuck Noll’s greatest coaching job of his storied career. They may be right.

Every Steeler fan knows how quick it all ends. In an instant the season, the drive for 5, and one for the thumb…it was all over. From the heights of euphoria over a "Heavenly Hit" to the depths of despair in Denver, Steeler Nation had ridden the NFL rollercoaster. Now the ride was over. It would be Chuck Noll’s last playoff run. In 1990 and 1991 the Steelers failed to qualify for the playoffs and Noll would retire. This of course opened the door for one Bill Cowher. But that my friend’s is another story for another Sunday.

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