Chargers at Steelers: The Game Once Meant Something and the Bolts Played Like It
As I awoke in my hotel room in Pittsburgh, Pa., on January 15, I was fully aware of the significance of this particular Sunday. One step from the Super Bowl.
Of course, that's not how the rest of the world viewed it. Every paper I read, every sports show I saw, told me that the Chargers had no chance against the vaunted Steelers defense. All throughout the week, I read how there was no way that we would go into Three Rivers Stadium and prevent the Steelers from returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1979.
Historically, the Chargers were 1-9 in Pittsburgh. The one victory, however, was a come-from-behind 31-28 win in the 1982 AFC Playoffs. Although this meant very little to the '94 team, I watched the highlight film from that game about 10 times before I boarded the plane for Pittsburgh.
In case you haven't noticed, I am one of those people who actually feel that their mindset and their actions will affect their team's performance. Milli Vanilli lip-synched? Professional wrestling isn't real? Michael Jackson a child molester? There's got to be something to believe in.
On Thursday, the Steelers began planning their Super Bowl rap video, "The Blitzburgh." Steeler scrub Ray Seals assured the press that the Chargers would not score a touchdown. This prompted Bill Cowher to finally tell his team to cool it. He told them that they had the opportunity to do something special, and to save the celebrating for afterward.
In retrospect, maybe Cowher should have let them celebrate then, because we all know that there would be no time for celebrating afterward.
After I sobered up after the Miami win, I realized how tough it would be to upset Pittsburgh. After its impressive win against Cleveland, the team and the city could once again smell the Big Show. But as the week progressed, I realized: "They're not really that good."
Yes, their defense was playing exceedingly well and, yes, they blew the Browns right off the line of scrimmage, but these were not the '85 Bears we were talking about. Even actor Jeff Daniels, while plugging his "Saturday Night Live" appearance the night before the game, told the American public to "bet it all on the Steelers."
This was ridiculous. I told all my friends that the Steelers were much too confident and had themselves fully believing that no one could play with them at home with so much on the line. If we could stick with them, they would mentally fold.
Exhibit A: Tim McKyer being scooped off the field like a pancake by stadium security. Of course, no one believed my pleas that the Steelers were extremely ripe for an upset. Maybe that's because I likened the scenario to that of the Dolph Lundgren character in Rocky IV.
I actually read in the New York Post that the Steelers would win because the city of Pittsburgh wanted it so badly. In every shop window, on every street corner, they said, there were signs cheering their beloved Steelers on. In San Diego, the article said, you couldn't even tell that there was a game about to be played. Maybe that's because the game wasn't being played in San Diego, moron.
The article was right about one thing; you couldn't walk two feet in Pittsburgh without seeing something Steelers-related. The second I walked off the plane, I was greeted by a huge "Welcome to Blitzburgh" banner. I suggested to my friend Fred that the city should be forced to rename itself Blitzburgh and I wondered how much they would like the name if they lost the game.
Everywhere there were signs like "The Terrible Paper Towel," "Cowher Power," "Zap The Chargers," "Nuts To The Bolts," "Charge This," etc. The immense creativity of these signs gave the city a pregame atmosphere I likened to that of a high school game.
But, man, were they fired up. The only analogy that I can draw is to my four years spent in western New York during the Bills' AFC reign.
Every bar was packed with Steelers fans. Every person, male or female, was wearing something black and gold with "Steelers" on it. In one bar, the electronic, pseudo-Times Square, newsboard flashed: "Steelers 21, Chargers 6."
There were two guys in crew cuts, wearing those horrible bumble-bee throwback jerseys, standing in the street waving Terrible Towels until dawn; Literally until dawn. Everywhere I walked in Pittsburgh, people blatantly stared at me since I was wearing a Charger hat. Or else they just threatened to kick my ass.
Just like their team, these people couldn't believe that someone would come into Pittsburgh and oppose the Steelers' rightful place beside their great teams of the 70s in the Super Bowl. Believe it.
The headline in the Pittsburgh newspaper that fateful Sunday morning read: "Judgement Day." I couldn't have said it better myself. My hotel was actually within walking distance to the stadium. Over the bridge and through the streets to Bill Cowher's house we go.
When we I got over the bridge, I couldn't believe what I saw. The stadium parking lot was a literal war zone. There were tents propped up everywhere. There were black and gold Bradley fighting vehicles which only seemed to have the appearance of '78 Bonnevilles.
Upon entrance to the lot, an extremely large man wearing a Greg Lloyd jersey, upon notice of my Chargers No. 12 jersey, said: "I'll break Stan Humphries neck my damn self." I'm sure if given the opportunity, he would have.
I saw a fan with "Rod Is God" shaved into the back of his head, a subtle tribute to Rod Woodson. I saw many fans with black and gold T-shirts with "1/29/95," the date of the Super Bowl, written on the chest. Geez, I hope these people didn't buy non-refundable plane tickets.
Over the PA/car stereos, I heard the voice of Steelers radio broadcaster Myron Cope. After reading his biography, which was featured on the back of my Iron City Beer can, I discovered that he was not only the most beloved man in Pittsburgh, except for Franco Harris, but the creator of the Terrible Towel. True genius.
I thought that being a veteran of the Steelers' Super Bowl years, that Cope's objectivity would temper the arrogance of this new generation of Steeler fans. Of course I immediately heard this man's raspy voice proclaim that Stan "Humpty-Dumpty" and his Chargers would have a great fall.
And yes, I am embarrassed to say that he wrote an accompanying poem as well. Just as I was contemplating what rhyme scheme he employed, the Chargers' team bus entered the lot. I couldn't see it, but I could hear it. To this day, I am pretty sure that the fans tried to tip it over. Talk about seeing a game behind enemy lines.
Underneath all of my sarcasm, though, I can't take anything away from all the die-hard Steelers' fans, just the ignorant, bandwagon ones. If you've got dedication and conviction, you've got my support, no matter who you root for.
After purchasing a Terrible Towel, so that I could keep the soles of my shoes dry, I sat down with my friend Fred and my bud Jim Beam. Next to us was a man who worked in the steel mills and had held season tickets for more than 25 years.
He noticed my newly purchased Terrible Towel and asked me if he could trade his for it. He tried to sell me t that his was an "original issue" towel with Myron Cope's name on it. I told him that for what I was going to use it, it didn't matter and that he could definitely have it.
I offered him a shot of Jaegermeister to close the deal. He said that he'd never heard of it, but that it couldn't be too potent. Four shots later, I think he said he saw Telly Savalas in the crowd.
There were a few Chargers fans around. Upon speaking to them, I realized that I was the only one not from San Diego. I had met many Steelers fans who'd made the trip. The other Charger fans and I agreed that this was the day.
That the weather was so much warmer than it should have been wasn't an aberration, it was an omen. Like Natrone Means had said, just because Jack Lambert and Joe Greene had played in this stadium, didn't mean we were turning back now.
Upon entrance to the stadium, I felt that I was attending a game behind the Iron Curtain, not the Steel Curtain. I couldn't find a game program anywhere. You know how at an NFL game, the concession stands usually sell that token pennant and hat of the visiting team? Uh-Uh.
I guess the Minister of Propaganda wouldn't allow it. All the souvenir stands had signs that the Steeler AFC Champions merchandise would be available immediately after the game. In fact, I had seen empty stores in the city already lined up to hawk the stuff.
The PA announced that if the Steelers won, the Lamar Hunt Trophy would be awarded on the field to team President Rooney. If the Steelers won? I'm sure the city already had the parade route mapped out. In all honesty, I have never seen or heard of a more hostile home crowd than the one I saw that day.
The second the Chargers hit the field, I knew they weren't afraid. They didn't have that overconfident swagger players have when they're just trying to cover up their own lack of confidence. They looked just right.
Unfortunately, as had been par for the course in the playoffs, they didn't play just right in the first half. The Steelers scored on their first drive. When a pass interference penalty got us down inside the 5-yard line, we were again unable to punch it in.
However, we were playing just good enough to stay in the game. We went into the locker room down 13-3. The "One More Half" signs sprung out of the crowd. Considering how bad we had played, (Humphries had 15 yards passing) I felt fortunate. Still, we weren't at home this time. In fact, we were at the "Anti-Murph."
Many friends of mine have asked me: "How did you not get beaten to a pulp that day?" I almost did. In New York, the visiting fans get harassed. In Pittsburgh, people actually touched you. But, like everything else facing the San Diego Chargers on this Sunday of Sundays, once the fear was confronted, it went away.
I think the turning point occurred in the bathroom, when some Steeler fan shoved me and said: "What are you doing here, Humphries?" I responded with: "The same thing you wouldn't be doing if this game was in San Diego." That shut him up.
People that "want it" generally respect each other. I wish I could freeze the second half, and the way I felt during it, in a time capsule so that when the Chargers are 4-12 some year, I can open it up and relive it.
The thing that most people didn't know about the Bolts' miraculous second-half comeback was that it wasn't so miraculous. Like the Miami game, the Chargers were merely implementing the game plan that they had intended to use all along.
The third quarter, 43-yard touchdown pass, which propelled Alfred Pupunu into national stardom, was the identical play the Chargers ran for a TD in their opening win at Denver. Even though no one on the planet, my roommate Brad especially, could understand how Pupunu got that wide open, it was the play-action fake to Natrone Means which froze the Pittsburgh defensive backfield and left the tight end all alone.
I swear, when I got home to New York that night, my rooommate Brad watched that play in amazement 10 times in a row.
The Chargers; other touchdown, a third-and-14, 43-yard touchdown strike to Tony Martin, was just as clearly scripted. Bobby Ross, who watches game film like it was shot by Abraham Zapruder, realized that the Steelers' secondary continually counted on their fierce pass rush and consequently covered only 15 yards deep in that situation.
So, not only were the Steelers shocked that Humphries went deep on a third-and-14 play with, as Charger radio voice Lee Hamilton put it, "the season on the line," but they were surprised that he even had enough time to get the pass off.
With the whole world watching, Steelers safety Tim McKyer became the team's scapegoat and joined the ranks of Bill Buckner, Mitch Williams and Scott Norwood. I can't say I feel sorry for him. He and his big mouth had it coming.
Just like everything else in the 1994 season, the Chargers could only win in the end by confronting the same weakness that had been plaguing them all game.
You just knew when the Chargers played the Chiefs that Joe Montana would have a chance to pull it out in the end. The same goes for the Miami game. And against the Steelers, our Achilles heel was the passing of Neil O'Donnell.
I know it seems ridiculous. He had been killing us all day. Although I can't say I was disappointed that he was in the process of setting an AFC Championship record for attempts, yards and completions, since it was our neutralization of the Pittsburgh running game that caused this.
Of course, after the Martin touchdown, O'Donnell methodically guided the Steelers downfield, finishing with an Eric Green reception which brought them inside the Charger 10-yard line. At this point, there was no one in the stadium who thought the Steelers wouldn't score.
Then Dennis Gibson, whom the viewing audience was about to become pretty well acquainted with, nearly picked off a pass. Then John L. Williams went up the middle and it seemed to take the entire Charger linebacking core to keep him out of the end zone.
That brought up fourth down. During the ensuing timeout, I tried not to think about it: "The San Diego Chargers are one play from the Super Bowl." The highlight film of the game, which shows Cowher's "chortle" on the sideline, proved to me that he was pretty damn sure that the Steelers would punch it in.
Barry Foster went over the middle. The pass went in. Gibson knocked it down. The rush of adrenaline and bourbon that shot to my head was the greatest feeling I have ever received from something that I did not physically do. I came pretty close, though.
Defensive end Chris Mims spiked a Terrible Towel into the turf. Sorry, Myron. The team sprung from the sideline. Yo, Adrian. We did it.
The walk back from the stadium was like the Bataan Death March. I saw a few people crying, but no one spoke, generally. Of course, I couldn't buy a Chargers AFC Champs shirt.
Every so often I would have to duck into an alley to show my jubilation. I couldn't believe it. After all those years of being ridiculed, we had pulled of what Chris Berman would later call "the greatest upset in the history of the championship game."
The walk back to the hotel felt more like a victory march over the bodies of beaten opponents. After calling my friends back in New York and making arrangements for that night's celebration, I prepared for my flight back to New York.
Upon arrival at the airport, I realized that all the Steelers paraphernalia had already been taken down. These were the fans who deserved a Super Bowl team so badly? With the exception of Cowher and O'Donnell, the Steelers players did not take the loss well.
Kevin Greene told reporters that he would "cold clock" them if they continued to ask him about the game. Classy. Take a look, America. These were the men you wanted as AFC champions.
As I boarded my flight, I felt that this was a superfluous act since I was already 10 feet high and rising. Finally. All of that crappy Super Bowl hype that I so loathed every other year would finally be about my team.
I would think about the 49ers tomorrow. The game would certainly be tough. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw an image on the television at the airport bar. It was of Joe Namath running off the field after Super Bowl III with his finger pointed toward the Miami night. Justice, Part III?...
February 15, 1995: Epilogue
Little was I to know that that whole '68 Jets analogy, like most everything that precedes the Super Bowl, would become overused and stale. That's OK. How does this story end?
Just like Al Pacino in "Scarface," our rags-to-riches rise to power came to a bloody end in Miami. Ironically, that was the in-flight movie for the team on its way down. But as was the case with Tony Montana, our ascent to the top, full of extraordinary risks and last-second victories, outweighed its disastrous end.
Did I go to the Super Bowl? Of course. Did I think we could actually win? Definitely. Was I disappointed with the outcome of the game? Obviously.
Nonetheless, I am still very satisfied with the season, to say the least. All through my childhood, I always said that all I wanted was for the Chargers to make the Big Dance once in my lifetime.
Of course, when I first started rooting for the Bolts, they made the AFC title game two years in a row. By watching their descent through the '80s and their return to the playoffs in the early '90s, I appreciate their Super Bowl berth all the more.
The trip to Miami was like being led into ancient Canaan. I finally was surrounded by hoards of Charger fans, all of whom also "believed."
What shocked me was despite the fact that America loves an underdog, no one seemed to want the Chargers to win. Whatever. That's the way it was all year. I guess it's appropriate.
My most vivid memory of the Super Bowl found me talking to the god of Chargerdom, Bobby Beathard, on the eve of the game. I reminded him that I had bumped into him a month earlier outside Giants Stadium. He smiled and said: "Thanks, Ross."
I felt like Forrest Gump meeting JFK. That moment, coupled with all that had led me to it, made all these years of suffering worthwhile. That, and one perfect rainy Sunday in Pittsburgh when the football gods lifted the curse, threw away the voodoo dolls and let the lightning bolt come to the Big Show.
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