'97 American Bowl foreshadowed the excitement of that season

Playing in a land that Dan Rooney would later become ambassador of, the Steelers gave their fans a preview of what was to come in the 1997 season. The preseason game was also a lesson to a young Steelers fan about how a player's preseason success doesn't guarantee future stardom.

The life of a young sports fan.

When you're 12-years-old, every game matters. Even a preseason football game played in a different country.

I'll never forget waking up on Sunday, July 27th, 1997 and finding out that the Steelers would be playing on national TV later that day. My excitement was even more heightened when the title of the game was dubbed the "American Bowl" between the Steelers and the Bears.

Maybe it was because I was a football crazed kid just beginning a life of football fandom. Maybe it was because the Steelers has lost a "bowl" just 19 months earlier, and I didn't want to see them lose another one, even one that was much, much, much less significant. Whatever the reason, I've never cheered harder (and never will again) for a preseason contest.

The game, played at Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland, was a foreshadow of things to come for the Steelers in 1997. The raw talent of new starting quarterback Kordell Stewart, the balletic play of wide receiver Yancy Thigpen, the dominant running style of Jerome Bettis, a dominant, suffocating defense and, maybe most of all, nail biting, exciting finishes.

Pittsburgh, 10-6 the year before and winners of the AFC Central Division for the third straight year, slayed the Bears (7-9 the previous year) from the onset. Stewart wasted no time on the Steelers first drive, hitting Charles Johnson for a 44-yard pass play that set up a three-yard scoring jaunt by the Bus. Stewart and the Steelers offense moved with almost as much ease on their following possession. An 18-yard catch by Johnson sandwiched between two 21-yard catches by Thigpen set up a 43-yard field goal by newcomer Chris Jackie for a 10-0 Pittsburgh lead early. Anchored by the starters, the Steelers offense rolled up 445 yards that included 172 on the ground.

The Steelers starting defense that would allow just 3.3 yards per carry that season feasted on the Bears starting 11. Anchored by Levon Kirkland, Joel Steed, and Carnell Lake, Pittsburgh's defense permitted a mere 252 yards and 10 first downs as Pittsburgh led 13-3 at the half.

With both reserve units in for the second half, the Steelers would stretch their lead to 16-3 before two Bears touchdowns cut the gap to six points at 23-17 with 2:23 to play.

In a season that would later see the Steelers play (and win) three games that would go into overtime, Pittsburgh showed a resolve late in the American Bowl that would later tell the story of their regular season. With just over a minute left, rookie George Jones busted through the line and scampered 35 yards for the game-winning touchdown. George, who gained 84 yards on 17 carries and two touchdowns, was one of the Steelers that stuck around on the "pitch" after the game to receive the game trophy along with his game MVP award.

Unfortunately, my prediction that Jones would become the next Barry Foster didn't materialize. Looking back on it, George's finest came as a pro came on that overcast day in Dublin. But on that day, George and the Steelers gave Steelers fan a preview of one of the most exciting seasons in franchise history.

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