At the tail-end of the first installment of Back To The Future, Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown mentions, “I guess I’ll get to see who wins the next 25 World Series”. I’m guessing the Delorean that I employ for this column is tired of baseball, because for the second consecutive week the time circuits are set to a Steeler game that took place on the same day as the final game of that year’s Fall Classic.
With that being stated as such, let’s go back to the day that a former Pirate manager, Jim Leyland, finally won the World Series as his Florida Marlins outlasted the Cleveland Indians 4-3 in extra innings of the seventh game. It was also around that time when Bill Clinton was probably still thinking that his reputation was safe as Presient of the United Sstates, Seinfeld was still topping the Neilsens in the last season of its run and Boogie Nights had just been released.
Meanwhile, I was making the trip from (my then-residence) West Virginia to Three Rivers Stadium to watch the Steelers battle a newly-minted rival, the Jacksonville Jaguars. Tom Coughlin’s team had defeated Pittsburgh in Florida in Week 3 and his 5-2 Jags were looking to knock the 5-2 Steelers from their perch and stand alone at the top of the AFC Central. Jacksonville was also hoping to sweep the season series after their 30-21 victory over visiting Pittsburgh in Week 3.
The Steelers of 1997 were in the mold of past Pittsburgh teams with a dominant running game featuring a huge rusher (Jerome Bettis), a relentless defense and possibly their best two receivers at the time sporting No. 82 (Yancey Thigpen) and No. 88 (Courtney Hawkins) leading the way.
The glaring difference was Kordell Stewart starting at QB in his third season. No. 10 was inconsistent in games. He would start the games terribly that year, but then come alive with one of the best quarterback ratings in the league in the fourth quarter. Kordell was also the most dynamic running quarterback with his legs in team lore.
The game started off typically of the Steelers 1997 season in which they would start off turtle slow, only to come alive late. In the first, Stewart’s first pass was intercepted by Jeff Kopp. That was basically all of the action. In the second quarter, Jacksonville broke the scoreless tie with ten points, courtesy of the running prowess of James Stewart (5 TDs a week earlier) against the league’s top rushing defense and pinpoint accuracy from lefty QB Mark Brunell. Only 52 seconds into the second quarter, Brunell found Willie Jackson on an eight-yard strike, despite near-perfect coverage from rookie Chad Scott.
Minutes later, Brunell found Jackson again for 46 to put the Jags in scoring position again. Carnell Lake was brutally burned on the play in which he didn’t get expected safety help. But with First-and-goal at the eight, the Steelers defense tightened up and held them to a Mike Hollis field goal.
In the second quarter, Kordell Stewart lost a fumble and nearly surrendered another. The Steelers were driving as the quarter ended, inexplicably not going for a field goal at the end of the half. It was 10-0 at intermission.
The crowd of 57,011 was mostly sporting black and gold, with the exception of a few teal stragglers. Two of them specifically were drunk, shirtless and gloating. I remember meeting them outside of the restroom on the fifth level. They were elated with the halftime score in their team’s favor. I remember actually hitting it off with them, but warning them that if the Steelers lose...the crowd may not enjoy their act so much in the concourse and the parking lot, But in my head, something told me those two guys would not die that night.
The Steelers came out of the locker room as a team rejuvenated, and possibly possessed. With Bettis ripping off long chunks of yardage and an accurate Stewart completing passes to Hawkins and Thigpen, the Steelers were moving the chains. With 8:09 remaining in the third, Stewart hooked-up with Hawkins on a 28-yard score. No. 88 beat a former Steeler first-rounder, CB Deon Figures, on the behind the shoulder grab.
However, Jacksonville followed the score with a tremendous drive to get them down to the Steeler two. But Earl Holmes and Levon Kirkland stuffed the hard-charging James Stewart on Third and One. On the next play, Coughlin eschewed a chip shot field goal and went for it against a team that was only one-of-six on fourth-downs at that point. With 6:14 left in the third, Greg Lloyd came from the outside and stuffed Stewart for the turnover on downs.
The Steelers, using the same formula as they did in the previous drive, rode “The Bus”, Thigpen, Hawkins and Stewart for a 98-yard drive that stretched to the four-yard line and ended with a Stewart touchdown from the one, and a 14-10 lead.
Jacksonville was far from done though. With the Steelers starting from their own two, fans were looking for a repeat from earlier, but disaster struck a few plays later. Jerome Bettis fumbled after being stripped by Tony Brackens and Travis Davis recovered at the Steeler 17.
Jacksonville cashed-in with a Brunell pass to Pete Mitchell (not Tom Cruise’s Maverick from Top Gun) from three yards out. 17-14 Jacksonville.
With six minutes remaining, Stewart put another impressive drive together with the help of Bettis, Thigpen and Hawkins. They got all the way down to the two, but settled for a 19-yarder from Norm Johnson.
After a stalled Jaguars’ drive, Pittsburgh stalled out as well. With 1:10 remaining, Punter Josh Miller stood inside his own five and drilled a 72-yard punt that pinned Jacksonville down at their own ten. There was still enough time for Brunell to get the Jags in FG range. But he injured his thumb after pressure from Carnell Lake and had to be replaced by Rob Johnson. With no time left, Johnson heaved one that Chad Scott (who had a great game) intercepted. The game was going to overtime.
As a fan, this was the first OT game I ever witnessed in person. With it being sudden-death back then, I was sweating the coin toss. Those long car rides aren’t fun after a loss. But Tony Boselli called it wrong for Jacksonville as Levon Kirkland joyfully barked the Steelers intention to receive. In OT, Pittsburgh drove down the field with an efficient mix of pass and run. Then with 5:47 gone in the fifth quarter, Stewart executed a perfect shovel pass to Bettis who rumbled 17 yards for the win.
The Steelers win was huge and helped them win the division against a team that stayed close all season. While they succumbed to Denver in the AFC Championship Game, this will always be a memorable win that probably saved two drunk Jacksonvillians their lives.