With Doc Brown’s permission, I’m trading in my orange vest and skateboard for a black No. 36 jersey and a Terrible Towel. As I approach the same number of mph that adorned the jerseys of Lynn Swann, Andre Hastings and Courtney Hawkins...I smile, knowing the period to which the Delorean is ushering me. It’s an era when the nation was trying to figure out why another second -- a leap second -- was added the day before to the time for the first time since 1998, King Kong was tops at the box office, and the number one song in America was “Don’t Forget Us“ by Mariah Carey.
Meanwhile, in the City of Steel, the calendar was reading 2006...but the professionals that made playing football locally their primary source of income were intent on extending 2005 a little bit longer. Their derailed season was back on track and the “four game season” that Bill Cowher had proposed after a near-diastrous three-game skid in November and December was coming to a close.
The opponent that day was the 6-9 Detroit Lions. The Lions defense was besieged by injury, but the team was full of pride and looking to end their season on a high note. The Steelers were in need of a win, or a Kansas City loss, to sneak their way into the playoffs as a sixth seed. Weeks earlier, it looked like a long-shot, but on this perfect, 38-degree day...it was nothing but a new year and new hope on the North Side.
It was also believed to be the final game at home in the storied career of Jerome Abram Bettis. Although the Steelers typically only announce starters, Bettis headlined the intros to the boisterous delight of the black-and-gold-clad crowd. Bettis wasn't the only legend the Steelers were honoring that day, as Joey Porter orchestrated the defensive players to wear throwback Lions jerseys in tribute to their Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau, who played for Detroit.
After the visitors did nothing to start the game and punted, Clint Kriewaldt pancaked Casey Fitzsimmons to free Antwan Randle-El who blazed 81 yards to the end zone to open the scoring at 7-0. Dick Jauron’s team was not going to lie down though, as QB Joey Harrington (3/4 for 56 yards on the drive) overcame James Farrior’s second sack of the season and engineered an eight-play scoring drive that concluded with an 11-yard toss to Bernard Pollard. The score was seven a side.
Later on, in the quarter after the Steelers' first drive amounted to nothing but a Chris Gardocki punt, Joey Harrington faced a 3rd-and-13 deep in his own territory. But the embattled quarterback scrambled to his right, pump faked and found running back Sean Bryson, who was running deep on the play for 63 yards. Two plays afterwards, Corey Schlesinger scored from a yard out to make it 14-7 in favor of the road dogs.
Over in the Midwest, Shayne Graham’s FG tied it for the Bengals against KC. Were the resting Bengals going to lend a helping hand?
Special Teams continued to aid the Steelers. Dan Kreider made a key block to free Ricardo Colclough as he returned the ensuing kickoff 63 yards. With :21 remaining in the opening quarter, Jerome Bettis bulled his way in from two-yards out for his seventh TD of the season. The score was now tied at 14.
Elsewhere, KC took the lead over Cincy when another Tynes field goal made it 6-3.
After twice trading punts, the Lions were in the midst of a solid return by Eddie Drummond. But Ricardo Colclough hit the former Nittany Lion, causing him to cough up the rock, and Brett Keisel pounced on it at the Detroit 37. From there, Willie Parker took over with three runs to get the Steelers down to the five. Then Jerome Bettis continued his super mission with a scoring jaunt from the five. JB’s second score made it 21-14 Steelers, just inside the 2-minute warning.
Meanwhile, scoreboard watchers saw the Chiefs extend their lead with Larry Johnson’s first TD of the game, a 49-yard sprint. KC 13-Cin 3.
The Lions quickly went on the move with a screen for the first down by Paul Smith. But Troy Polamalu stalked the ball carrier from behind and punched the pill loose into the waiting arms of Aaron Smith at the Detroit 25. It wouldn’t pad the lead though, because two plays later...Roethlisberger got picked-off. The lead at halftime was seven, however Kansas City led 20-3 in their game when Johnson scored again.
To start the third quarter, the Steelers went on a steady diet of Willie Parker (33 yards on five carries in the drive) to get them into Lions' territory. Then Roethlisberger finally connected with Hines Ward (shut out the entire first half) for a 40-hard hookup to the four. It was Hines’ 119th consecutive game with a catch. The catch made it become time to ride “the Bus” again. Four yards later, Bettis was celebrating in the end zone and the crowd was vociferously begging him to stay. More on that later, I promise. Steelers 28 Detroit 14.
Joey Harrington, who was presumably playing for his football career, would not go away. To cap off the next drive of 12 plays, the former top-three pick overall connected with Roy Williams for 15 yards and a score. With 5:38 left in the third, the score between the ketchup bottles read Steelers 28 Lions 21.
Winning the game was becoming mandatory when news came in that Kansas City’s Larry Johnson scored for a third time to make the score 27-3 over the Bengals. The Steelers could not afford a letdown against the Lions and needed to put the game away to advance to the postseason.
True, the Steeler lead was back down to seven, but Pittsburgh found their championship swagger in the season’s final stretch and answered right back immediately. To finalize a drive that featured mostly Willie Parker again and a 43-yard collaboration with Heath Miller, No. 7 ran for seven around the right side and extended the lead to double-digits again. Jeff Reed’s XP made it 35-21 with 49 seconds to go in the third.
It would stay that way, as the fourth quarter featured mostly punts. Ben threw an interception to Andre’ Goodman inside Detroit real estate, but nothing came of it except another punt. The Steelers received the punt with 4:56 left and proceeded to drain Detroit of their timeouts and run out the clock. It was a good thing too, because KC had won 37-3 and the Steelers would have been eliminated with a loss. The win was harder than anticipated, but gave them a ticket to the dance that would ultimately result in a trip back to Motor City -- this time minus the Lions. The rest is pretty amazing history, but you all know that.
At first glance, this game seemed like just another season finale before a playoff run. In the scheme of things, this contest probably doesn’t rank in the top-6 games of the 2005 season. But the win and the Heinz Field send-off to Bettis helped continue the magical run, culminating in the Steelers’ return to the Super Bowl podium. The fan tribute to their beloved “Bus” seemed to add fuel to his hope of a homecoming farewell.
For me, this game ranks as the setting for one of the most important moments of my entire life. I was dating a woman in Hagerstown, MD, for just a little over six weeks. She wasn’t a fan of football at all. Never had she even watched a game on television until she met me. She began to watch on her own in order to relate to me more. Because of my sometimes ridiculous fanaticism, she was afraid that I’d view her as a jinx during that 3-game losing streak that threatened the season. I had gotten a hold of two ducats for the game and asked her to go with me.
We were having a good time and she was following along the best she could, when something poignant happened. Bettis found his way into the end zone for the third time and the crowd erupted into a chant of “One more year”.
No. 36 smiled wider than a Casey Hampton tuxedo and raised his helmet to acknowledge the crowd. I looked over to discuss the significance of the moment to my date, but I didn’t need to. Her eyes were full of joyful tears, as she was waving my Terrible Towel. She grabbed my hand when she noticed the same tears pouring from my eyes. That very moment, I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life and have a family with this woman. Not because of the Steelers or football or the fact that I just wolfed down a Pittsburgher from Primanti Brothers...but because this woman was so moved at a crowd’s appreciation for something that she knew was important to me and that I loved so much.
Thirty-five days later, the Steelers won the Super Bowl. But on that first day of 2006, I won way more than anybody else in Heinz Field or Steelers Nation. I shared my Steelers with Jennifer and felt assured that I had my partner through Super Bowl glory or 0-16. Now, I call her my wife of eleven years and the mother of my children. Football didn’t bring us together, but it helped merge our two hearts into one.