Getting noticed as a potential NFL wide receiver at Winston-Salem State University can potentially be an uphill battle, or at least as daunting as going over the middle of a defense to make a reception. Fortunately, Yancey Thigpen was talented in both instances.
The 1991 NFL Draft saw the San Diego Chargers draft Thigpen out of WSSU as a fourth-round pick, but his first year with the team turned out to be his only on the west coast. In four games, Thigpen did not record a reception. By 1992, he was on his way to the Steel City to play for new Pittsburgh coach, Bill Cowher.
Not only was Cowher beginning his first year as coach, but Neil O'Donnell had ascended to the starting quarterback role, and Barry Foster had been named the team's starting running back. The impact was felt immediately. The Steelers went 11-5 and made it to the divisional round of the playoffs behind O'Donnell's 2,283 yards and 13 touchdowns along with Foster's 1,690 yards on the ground. But Thigpen's contribution was minimal with only one reception for the season and two kick returns.
Fast forward another season and Thigpen posted nine catches for 154 yards and recorded three touchdowns in 1993. The Steelers were only beginning to realize the talent they had in Thigpen.
The 1994 season saw Pittsburgh make a run to the AFC Championship game where, despite being favored to upend the Chargers, they fell to San Diego 17-13. Although the running game was in flux with Foster's lingering injuries and Bam Morris' breakout year that season, the passing game was on the verge of a breakout year the following year in 1995, and Thigpen would become O'Donnell's primary target. He finished '94 with 36 receptions, 546 yards and four touchdowns.
Thigpen's success in 1995 was not only a pivotal part of the Steelers' Super Bowl XXX appearance but also led to his first Pro Bowl selection as he recorded 85 receptions, 1,307 yards and five touchdowns. It was fitting that he was competing in the same Super Bowl as Michael Irvin because Thigpen began to develop himself not only into a bona fide downfield threat, but as a fearless go-to receiver over the middle, much like "the Playmaker" himself. Thigpen had Pittsburgh's only receiving touchdown in the title game as the Steelers fell to the Cowboys, 27-17.
After the success of the 1995 season on an individual level, 1996 proved to be the opposite as Thigpen missed most of the season due to leg injuries. But he would again return to Pro Bowl form in 1997, catching 79 passes and accumulating 1,398 yards.
The offseason leading into 1998 saw Thigpen become a free agent, and with two Pro Bowl seasons in three years ,along with breaking the Steelers' season records for receptions and yards, Thigpen was being actively courted by other teams, mainly the Tennessee Oilers (pre-Titans) who Thigpen signed a five-year contract with to become a veteran deep threat for Steve McNair.
The remainder of Thigpen's career would play out with Tennessee, and in 1999 he would again reach the Super Bowl but again it would be in a losing effort as the Titans fell to the Rams, 23-16. He would retire after the 2000 season.
Despite the final three years of his career being played in Tennessee, Thigpen's NFL legacy resides in Pittsburgh, where he seemed to become a standout overnight at wide receiver. With a franchise filled with as much history as the Steelers, Thigpen's integral seasons are an interesting way-point when navigating between the golden era success of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth to the modern era of Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, and Mike Wallace.
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