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Steelers Throwback Thursday: A Cinderella Story to end the 80s

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BTSC flashes back to New Years Eve of 89, when the underdog Steelers traveled to "The House of Pain".

Bubby Brister

Another week in the offseason, another trip in my mind's Delorean to the days of yesteryear for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers started out the 1980s in a huge way by winning their fourth Super Bowl to close out the 1979 season. The following years saw the Steel Curtain age as legend after legend said goodbye to Three Rivers Stadium, and the fans of Steeler Nation. Yes, there were a few more division tiles, but no legitimate shot for that elusive “One For The Thumb”. But as the 1980s came to a close, a cast of black-and-gold Cinderellas inexplicably found glass cleats and made their way to Houston to confront their evil step-sisters and get to the ball or, in this case, the Bowl.

So let’s set the time circuits to December 31, 1989. The hit song on the radio was Phil Collins’ Another Day In Paradise, movie theatre goers were still enjoying the exploits of the Griswolds in Christmas Vacation, the yen was getting destroyed in Japan and Poland had just eliminated socialism.

It was also the day of an improbable Wild Card game between a very strong Houston Oiler team and an unlikely participant, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers began the season with a disastrous 51-0 loss to Cleveland at home and a 42-10 stinker in Cincy. Refusing to fold, Chuck Noll’s team won nine of their next 14. Because of losses by Oakland, Cincinnati and Indianapolis on Christmas Eve, the Steelers snuck into the playoffs to face a team that swept them by the tune of a combined 50-16.

That Houston team was led by controversial Head Coach Jerry Glanville complete with his “Red Gun” offense and a stifling defense that led the league in penalties. Glanville and Noll despised each other and it trickled down to their respective teams. The ever-quotable Steeler QB Bubby Brister quipped, “It’s gonna be a war.” While Alonzo Highsmith declared, “Modern-Day Barbarism is a required attitude for the playoffs.” Fitting because they were playing in the Houston Astrodome, nicknamed “The House of Pain”.

Quarterbacking that gang of renegades was future HOFer Warren Moon. At his disposal was a foursome of dangerous receivers like Drew Hill, Ernest Givens, Curtis Duncan and Haywood Jeffries. Also on that potent office were RBs Highsmith, Lorenzo White, Allen Pinkett and Mike Rozier. All were capable of dominating a defense. Pittsburgh had their work sorely cut out for them.

The game started off with the Oilers receiving the opening kick. They started out with a potent mix of run and pass. It was looking early like Moon and his men would thoroughly dominate. But the ten-play drive stalled and Glanville shockingly sent out Tony Zendejas (25/37) for the 56-yarder. It failed miserably. It set the Steelers up with good field position, but that ended in a punt.

The Oilers were forced to punt on the next drive, but (the Steelers current ILB coach) rookie Jerry Olsavsky burst through and blocked the Jeff Montgomery offering. The Steelers set up shop at the Houston 32. With a fourth and inches and 2:53 remaining in the first, Pittsburgh gambled and it paid off when rookie Tim Worley rumbled nine yards for a 7-0 Steeler lead.

In the second quarter, Moon led his team on a drive of 18 plays and nearly nine minutes. But it stalled at the nine and ended with a field goal. The first play of the ensuing drive, Worley caught a pass in the flat and promptly fumbled (recovered by Bubba McDowell) after being stripped by Steve Brown. It was Worley’s sixth lost fumble of the year, but it only netted a chip shot from Zendejas. 7-6.

Towards the end of the half, RB Merril Hoge tore off a 49-yard run. But the drive stalled at the eight, capped off by a Gary Anderson field goal. The Steelers led at the half 10-6.

There was very little scoring in the third, but there was still plenty of action. That action included McDowell blocking a Harry Newsome punt that only earned them a field goal, a FG from 38-out from Anderson and a Dwight Stone strip on a punt muff that yielded a 48-yarder from Anderson to start the fourth. It was 16-9 in favor of the underdogs with a quarter to go.

In the fourth, Houston went to the Moon (29/48, 315 yards and 2TDs) and back. 5’9” WR Givens had a superstar game by nabbing 11 balls for 136 yards and those two scores. Just like that, the seven-point faves were up 23-16.

Brister, who was only 15/33 for the day passing, relied on a mix of passes and runs on the ensuing drive. Most of the rushing yards were gained by Hoge (126 total yards on the day), who with :46 seconds remaining...plunged in from two yards out and the tie. Glanville, who called both the offensive and defensive plays, wasted a majority of the clock with runs. He went to passes with :14 left. On regulation’s final play, Moon was stripped by Greg Lloyd. Lloyd raced towards the end zone and was forced out at the one. It didn’t matter, because the Steelers had 12 men on the field. The game went to OT and Marv Albert announced the NBC's TV lineup featuring Vanna White in the TV movie Goddess of Love to start immediately following the game.

The Steelers went three-and-out to start OT. Harry Newsome’s punt traveled a mere 26 yards. Zendejas started warming up and it looked like Houston would prevail. However, Lorenzo White got rocked by Rod Woodson, who recovered the fumble he forced. Three plays later, a stunned-silent Houston crown watched Gary Anderson nail a fifty-yarder. My barely 18-year old self was watching the game with my dad and we jumped with absolute glee.

The game got Glanville canned and the clock struck midnight a week later on Cinderella in Denver, but this game remains a favorite of Steeler Nation for so many reasons. After my celebration with Dad ended, I went off to a house party to celebrate the end of a great decade. I got hammered, blown off by what I thought was a sure thing and the party got busted by the Richland Township Police in Johnstown. But I still reveled in the fact that my Steelers were moving on after a great win.

Still...I probably should of stayed home and watched Goddess of Love.