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Steelers Throwback Thursday: A black-and-gold star is born in San Diego

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BTSC flashes back to a Monday Night Football thriller that helped shape a Super Bowl team.

Pittsburgh Steelers v San Diego Chargers Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

It’s BTSC Delorean time again. This week we go back to an era when Pakistan tragically lost 86,000 in a 7.6 earthquake, Kanye West was atop the music charts with Gold Digger, Wallace and Gromit was biggest among movie goers and the trial of Sadaam Hussein was a mere nine days away.

Welcome to October 10, 2005.

Going into the contest, the 2-1 Steelers were coming off of a bye-week after losing to the Patriots in Week 3, while the 2-2 Chargers had bludgeoned those same Pats in Week 4. The Steelers had the highest-rated quarterback in the NFL in Ben Roethlisberger, while a hot Drew Brees was playing in his final season as the Chargers’ signal-caller. Both quarterbacks were facing dangerous defenses. Jerome Bettis was making his season debut for the Steelers and was set to split time with Willie Parker, while Bill Cowher’s defense was minus Clark Haggans. This gave a young No. 92 a shot at playing.

A funny thing happened before the game. San Diego was pumped for their first chance to host a Monday Night Football telecast in nine years. Governor Schwarzenegger was in the house to see his team. That was also a time when celebrities would open MNF with a vignette that would ask “Are you ready for some football?” — before Hank Williams Jr. crooned the opening theme.

On this night, they were fittingly doing a military theme with a fly-over and a USMC drill sargeant barking the catch-phrase in military style. It was pretty cool. However, they brought out a PR person who was there to explain the process. Upon entering Qualcomm Stadium, fans received tiny white washcloths sponsored by Diet Pepsi that read 100% chance of lightning. She asked the crowd (about one third of which was wearing black-and-gold) to wave the white towels and cheer the Chargers. Wait...doesn’t waving a white flag or towel signify surrender? But I digress. When she said that, the Steelers fans took it as their opening to wave their much bigger Terrible Towels and chant “Here we go Steelers!” with authority. The poor woman was flabbergasted. She started to stutter and then managed to get out a “Come on guys, we’re in San Diego.” That made the representatives of Steelers Nation chant louder. She left in defeat and the show began, followed by the game.

The offenses of the Steelers and Chargers did very little early in this game. Ladamian Tomlinson started to reel off huge chunks of yardage, but a Joey Porter sack of Brees and Ike Taylor’s almost interception forced a punt. With Jerome Bettis finally in a game and running well, the Steelers moved into San Diego territory. However, Chargers rookie Sean Merriman burst through the line, sacked Roethlisberger and recovered the subsequent fumble. The first quarter ended a few plays later in a scoreless tie. Pittsburgh’s record of scoring in the opening quarter in 17 straight games ended there.

In the second quarter, disaster almost struck for the Steelers when No. 7’s pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and Donnie Edwards almost came down with it. However, Hines Ward had been called for a false start and the whistle blew, but the players didn’t know the play had been whistled dead. The Chargers would have been making a case for a replay review of the interception, but the play didn’t count, so they couldn’t. A few plays later, Ben completed a pass over the middle at the 33 to Hines Ward over DB Quentin Jammer. Ward, who didn’t appear to be contacted, got up and ran all the way into the end zone for a signaled touchdown. But San Diego challenged the ruling on the play. Broadcasters Al Michaels and John Madden thought the touchdown would stand, but referee Jeff Triplett ruled that Jammer touched Ward’s foot and the TD ruling was overturned. It wouldn’t matter though, as a pass to Antwaan Randle-El got the ball down to the 12. A few plays later, Drayton Florence came in on a blitz and Ben immediately took off for a 7-yard jaunt into the end zone. With 9:14 left in the half, the Steelers led the home team 7-0.

Pittsburgh Steelers v San Diego Chargers Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Towards the end of the second quarter, Brees was moving the ball courtesy of passes to his big TE Antonio Gates. But from the Steelers’ 35-yard line, No. 9’s ball went through the hands of the Kent State hoopster and into those of another Kent Stater wearing No. 92 by the name of James Harrison. Deebo, subbing for an injured Haggans, returned the ball to midfield while hurdling a Chargers player along the way. The Steelers worked their way all the way down to the one-yard line, aided by two 15-yard penalties committed by San Diego’s defense. It took some doing and another penalty, but Jerome Bettis finally forged in from one-yard out. With 1:35 left in the half, the Steelers were up 14-0. However, Darren Sproles gave the home team great field position by returning the ball to the Steelers’ 47. Eric Parker, Gates and Tomlinson then caught Brees passes, including the touchdown toss to Gates from the 10-yard line in less than a minute. At halftime, the score was 14-7.

Pittsburgh Steelers v San Diego Chargers Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

In the third quarter, Sproles’ fair catch attempt hit him in the face mask and bounced right in the hands of Chidi Iwuoma after a punt from Chris Gardocki. However, the referee explained that it was fair catch interference because Iwuoma never gave him an opportunity to re-catch the ball he muffed. Cowher was irate and even Madden called the decision “baloney.” But the rule, even though a suspect one, was called correctly. Instead of the Steelers starting from the San Diego 37, the Chargers did. They converted that opportunity into three points when Nate Kaeding kicked one through from 34 yards out. After the Steelers failed on their next two drives, Kaeding would nail two more kicks from 32 and 41 respectively. All of a sudden, San Diego led 16-14 with 11:45 left in the game.

The Steelers would roar back though. In a mere 71 seconds on the clock, the Steelers answered. Quincy Morgan returned the kickoff 37 yards. Then, Big Ben found Hines twice for 46 yards. On the third play of the drive, rookie Heath Miller caught a ball from Ben for a 16-yard TD to make the score 21-16 Steelers.

But Brees wasn’t done, despite pass breakups by Ike Taylor and the omnipresent Troy Polamalu. The Chargers reached pay-dirt again when Tomlinson (who dominated on the drive) scored from the two. With the score now 22-21, The Chargers went for two. But the conversion failed when Larry Foote stopped Tomlinson short. With 4:42 remaining in the game, the Chargers led 22-21.

With the clock rapidly draining, Pittsburgh was compelled to answer. Despite receptions by Ward and Randle-El, the Steelers mainly rode “the Bus.” Including two 3rd-and-1 conversions, Bettis carried seven times for a clock-draining 21 yards. But with 1:18 left, bad stuff happened. Luis Castillo nailed Ben who went down in a crumpled heap with an apparent knee injury. Charlie Batch entered to try to get the Steelers into Jeff Reed’s range and drain time. Batch never attempted a pass — instead it was all Jerome. With ten ticks left on the clock, Reed entered on a 3rd-and-5. No. 3 nailed the kick right down the middle. Ben celebrated from the fans, while an estimated 15-20,000 fans in the stands danced with glee.

The Chargers got the ball to the 50 on the kickoff before Sproles fumbled and the Steelers recovered. The final score was 24-22 and Bettis, playing his first game of the season, wound up on ABC’s horse trailer as player of the game. It was an important game that helped shape this eventual Super Bowl Champion.

Pittsburgh Steelers v San Diego Chargers Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

As for me, I was 13 rows up on the 50-yard line behind the Steelers’ bench for this game. My best friend (since 1982) lives in LA and we decided to splurge and attend this game together. There were so many Steelers fans in the stands, it felt like a home game. The Chargers fans were nicer before the game started, but still pretty cordial all the same. Every time the Chargers scored, we would laugh and enjoy the goofy San Diego Super Chargers song that they played from the 70s. It was a pretty amazing fan experience all around.

Right before kickoff, I felt so inspired that I ripped my Antwaan Randle-El visitors jersey off of my poorly-sculpted body. I was quickly told by a security guard that I couldn’t disrobe at a Chargers game. Is there an ordinance on that in San Diego? So I put my shirt back on. I was also wearing a goofy winter hat that looked like a Steelers helmet and some eye-black. One fan offered me $100 dollars for it on the spot, but I declined. In the first quarter, I noticed a female camera person from ABC point to me, so I cheered and mugged for the camera. Nobody saw me on TV, nor could I find me anywhere on playback. What I didn’t know was that my image would later be used for an ABC Good Morning America promo for a contest looking for the NFL’s greatest fans in January. I was shocked when I saw it on television. I guess that security guard didn’t know talent when he saw it. Luckily, the camera operator did.