Read an Excerpt
January 15, 2006
AFC Divisional Playoff
Pittsburgh Steelers v. Indianapolis Colts
Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt sat nervously in the visiting team coaches booth of the RCA Dome. A once ear–splitting sellout crowd of 57,449 was now strangely subdued, as if their mouths had been duct–taped shut. Only eighty seconds stood between the Steelers and a second consecutive trip to the AFC Championship game. Pittsburgh led, 21–18, and had the ball on the Colts’ 2–yard line.
The reality of the situation had become depressingly clear to the hometown fans. Not only did the Steelers have four downs to cover just 2 yards for the game–clinching score, but the mass transit system known as Jerome “The Bus” Bettis was jogging toward the Pittsburgh huddle. It was over. The Colts, favored by as many as ten points by the Las Vegas wise guys, were going to lose. It would take the Colts the football equivalent of Pittsburgh’s fabled 1972 Immaculate Reception, to save them.
Whisenhunt discussed the Steelers’ options with head coach Bill Cowher. There were two choices:
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger could take three snaps and then take a knee three consecutive times, forcing the Colts to use each of their remaining timeouts. Then the Steelers could kick a chip-shot field goal on fourth down, meaning Colts quarterback Peyton Manning would have about a minute, maybe less, to attempt a touchdown drive with no timeouts remaining against the AFC’s No. 1 defense.
Or they could do what they had done for years: Give the ball to Bettis.
Whisenhunt knew if the Steelers scored to move ahead by ten the Colts couldn’t possibly recover. Whisenhunt recommended the Steelers board the Bus.
“You give the ball to Jerome because Jerome doesn’t fumble,” he told Cowher and the other offensive assistants. “We’re OK because Jerome doesn’t fumble.”
Whisenhunt called for a goal–line formation. The play was a no–brainer: Counter 38 Power. Bettis could run it with his eyes squeezed shut. Nobody in Steelers history has run that play better than Bettis. Of his 10,000–plus yards gained in a Pittsburgh uniform, it would be fair to say that at least a third of those yards had come on Counter 38 Power.
The Steelers offense took the field. The safest rushing play in the team's Old Testament–thick playbook had been called.
In a nearby broadcast booth, the team of WBGG-AM radio play-by-play announcer Bill Hillgrove, who had spent twelve years as “The Voice of the Steelers,” and analyst Tunch Ilkin, a former Pittsburgh All–Pro offensive tackle, told their listeners on the forty–seven–station, three–state–wide Steelers network that the game was done. The last eighty seconds? A formality, nothing more.
As the Steelers broke the huddle, Hillgrove described the action.
Hillgrove: Now the ball’s at the 2–yard line. It’s gone over on downs to Pittsburgh. They have a first and goal and they’ve got Jerome Bettis in that lineup.
Ilkin: For all you fantasy football players out there that have Jerome you’ve got to be very excited right now.
Hillgrove: Wouldn’t it be nice for him to get his second touchdown of the game? Here’s the give to Jerome. He has it and—
Ilkin: Oh! Fumble! Fumble! He picked it up–oh, no!
Hillgrove: The ball is fumbled… and the Colts pick it up! Look out!
Ilkin: Oh, no! My gosh! Oh, my gosh!
Hillgrove: Nick Harper has it—
Ilkin: Oh, my gosh! Somebody’s got to tackle him!
Hillgrove: Big Ben tackles him. He tackles him at the 42–yard line.
Ilkin: Oh, my gosh!
Hillgrove: Jerome Bettis, who rarely fumbles, fumbles at the goal line. Nick Harper picks it up and the Colts are still alive with 1:01 to go!
Ilkin: Oh, my gosh! Oh, my gosh! All you got to do is fall on the ball! What a turn of events! OK, now you got 1:01 left, right? The Colts got the ball on the 42–yard line. The game is not over. Cancel the reservations to Denver. We got to finish this one out here. Unbelievable! I just can’t believe what I just saw. The Steelers hand the ball off to Jerome with 1:20. All you gotta do is take three in a row quarterback sneaks…The Steelers are lucky that that ball isn’t run in for a touchdown by Harper. If it wasn’t for Ben Roethlisberger making a shoestring tackle the game’s over the other way.
Whisenhunt and the other assistants were in shock. Bettis fumble? How was that possible? Bettis hadn’t fumbled once in the entire 2005 season. He’d only fumbled ten times in his last six seasons, only forty–one times in 3,479 regular season carries.
A disturbing thought flashed through Whisenhunt’s mind: What if that was the last carry of Bettis’s career? Imagine that: The final carry in the glorious thirteen–year career of Jerome Bettis would cost the Steelers a chance to reach the AFC Championship and—if they were to beat the Denver Broncos—to play Super Bowl XL in Bettis’s hometown of Detroit.
Whisenhunt wasn’t the only one thinking Bettis’s career might have come to an inglorious end. In Miami Lakes, Florida, Bettis’s former NFL teammate Tim Lester had watched the ball pop free and bounce into Harper’s hands.
“No, my boy can’t go out like that,” thought Lester, who was Bettis’s fullback in Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh. “It can’t end this way.”
In El Paso, Texas, Bettis’s former high school coach Bob Dozier also stared at the television screen in disbelief. “Wow, this can’t be,” he thought. “This kid’s done too much to deserve this.”
And at Cupha’s bar on Pittsburgh’s South Side, Steelers fan Terry O’Neill, forty–nine, saw the play and immediately went into cardiac arrest. Two firemen from Company No. 22, who just happened to be in the bar watching the game, rushed to O’Neill’s aid and revived him.
The RCA Dome crowd was so loud that the players’ eardrums begged for mercy. Manning had sixty–one seconds, three timeouts, and the conference’s highest–scoring offense at his disposal. He needed 25 to 30 yards to move into feasible field goal range, 58 yards to win the game outright.
Ilkin, in need of a hug, later asked sideline reporter Craig Wolfley for an update.
“Well, guys, I’m just standing here, just watching Jerome Bettis,” said Wolfley. “I’ve been watching him the last minute or two, and for such an unbelievable career, for such a great leader for the Steelers, this has got to be one of those moments that you just can’t believe. It’s like a nightmarish moment. He was on his knee, and just the look on his face just said everything about what he was feeling at this time.”
No, it didn’t. It couldn’t.
For thirteen years I had left bits and pieces of myself on NFL football fields from Pittsburgh to San Francisco, all for the chance—just the chance—to play in a Super Bowl. That’s 13,662 yards, and who knows how many punishing hits, just for the opportunity to reach the pinnacle of my profession. And this one, Super Bowl XL, was going to be in the city where I was born and raised, the city where I carried my first football, where I played my high school ball, where my parents still lived, where I still had deep, strong roots.
Now, in only a few seconds’ time, my last chance at realizing my ultimate football dream was in serious jeopardy. And it was my fault. All my fault.
All playoff games are special, but this one meant more to us because about six weeks earlier we had gotten our asses beat by the Colts. And I mean beat—26–7 at the RCA Dome. Now we had a rematch.
Before the game, everybody was talking trash. While we were going through our pregame warm–ups in the end zone, some of the Colts fans started yapping at us. I let them yap, but then I told them, “I’ll be back to see you soon, real soon.”
I don’t usually mouth off to fans, but I felt so good I couldn’t contain myself. I wanted them to know I’d be in the end zone again, but I'd have a football in my hands and a touchdown on the scoreboard.
From the opening snap we unleashed everything we had and led, 14–0, at the end of the first quarter. The Colts fans behind our bench were jawing at me, and I was jawing back.
“Aw, you wasn’t expecting this, were you?” I said. “Uh–huh. What a difference a day makes.”
I was playing with them, but there wasn’t much they could say back. They were frustrated with their team, and we were the ones responsible for the frustration.
Then, late in the third quarter, I dove into the end zone on a 1–yard touchdown run to put us ahead, 21–3. I’d warned those Colts fans I’d visit them again.
I let out a huge scream. You could see the dejection in the fans’ faces. They didn’t expect us to come in there and dominate the game.
Oh, I was going crazy. It was so sweet. Then the Colts scored early in the fourth quarter, but we were still up, 21–10. No problem.
Back and forth it went until Troy Polamalu intercepted a Manning pass near midfield with 5:33 left in the game. I was thinking to myself, “OK, we can seal the deal. This is my time now. Time to pound the ball, get the tough yards, squeeze the life out of the clock and the Colts.”
I started to run onto the field, but then the officials told us that Colts coach Tony Dungy was challenging the call. Huh? What was there to challenge? Manning threw it. Troy intercepted it. Our ball.
Except that referee Pete Morelli looked at the replay and said—and I still can’t believe this—that Troy didn’t have possession of the ball. Incomplete pass. Whoa, what was going on here?
The NFL would later say Morelli made a mistake, that the interception shouldn’t have been overturned. But that didn’t help us then.
I went back to the sideline and watched nervously as Manning hit a 9–yard pass, a 20–yard pass, a 24–yard pass. Bam, bam, bam. Then Edgerrin James scored on a 3–yard run. Then Manning hit Reggie Wayne for the two–point conversion. It was, 21–18, and here we go.
Later, with 1:27 left and the ball at the Colts’ 12, Joey Porter sacked Manning for a 10–yard loss on fourth down. I watched the whole thing from the sideline and it was such a perfect moment. Time for me to go to work.
But first I had to do some bragging. Like I said, I hardly ever popped off during a game, but I couldn’t help myself this time. I ran out on the field and when I saw Colts defensive tackle Corey Simon, I just went off on him.
“We shocked the world!” I said. “Yeah, I knew you wasn’t ready for this. Y’all didn’t think we had anything coming in.”
I saw Colts linebacker Cato June and I started lipping off to him too.
“Yeah, y’all came in talking all that talk…thought it was going to be that same old stuff. Uh–uh.”
This was totally not me. I was rubbing it in their faces.
So we got in the huddle and I knew I was getting the ball. I told myself, “OK, Bus, it’s on now.” I was ready to punch it in. Ben called the play: Counter 38 Power.
This was our money play. We called it, the bread and butter play. In fact, we ran that play so much over the years that our offensive line coach, Russ Grimm, would look at me from the sidelines and start moving his right hand over his left palm, like he was buttering a slice of bread. Time for Counter 38 Power.
Ben took the snap. I took the handoff.
The way the play was supposed to work was like this: I take a jab step to the left, then go to the right and get the ball from Ben. My right guard blocks down, the right tackle blocks down. My left guard, Alan Faneca, pulls around and kicks out the defender, and I run inside his block.
But on that play, Faneca decided to turn up a little bit early. He thought he saw a hole inside and decided to turn up that way. Faneca had been to five Pro Bowls and was one of the best in the business. If he thought he saw a hole, then that was fine by me.
The problem was, with him turning upfield early, I got no kick–out block on the linebacker, and that linebacker, Gary Brackett, was just sitting there waiting for me. So I decided to try to squeeze inside him. I knew I could still score, but I had to cut back inside. I’d made the same move thousands of times in my career.
So I sort of turned my body sideways and Brackett shot over and delivered a perfect hit. I’ve got gigantic hands and it just about takes a sledgehammer to get the ball out of my hold. But Brackett’s helmet hit the ball flush. An absolutely perfect hit. In fact, if you look at the replay, it’s not like I was being careless with it. I still had my hand cupped over where the ball used to be.
I felt the ball pop out, but I couldn’t see it. Brackett had me by the knees and I was falling backward toward the goal line. I was trying to find the ball on the turf. I figured it was somewhere near my feet. It’s weird: In that split second that I was falling I thought, “Well, at the very worst they’ll recover the fumble on the 3–yard line and they’ll still have to drive 97 yards for the win.”
Just as I was about to hit the ground I saw the ball. It wasn’t on the turf—it was still floating in the air! Then I saw Nick Harper, who played cornerback, grab it after the ball bounced off the turf at the 7 and I’m thinking, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I don’t believe I just fumbled the football. I cannot believe I just fumbled the football.”
At first, everything was in slow motion. It was like that movie The Untouchables, when the baby carriage is rolling down the train station steps and a gunfight breaks out. When I finally saw the ball in the air my mind was screaming, “No–oooooooo!” But I couldn’t stop what was happening. I was completely helpless.
Then I saw Harper break free, and suddenly the only things in slow motion were the guys chasing him. We had our goal–line unit—a lot of 300–pounders—in the game, so the chances of somebody catching him from behind weren’t good. I saw Kendall Simmons, our 315–pound guard, chasing after him. I saw our fullback, Dan Kreider, doing the same thing. And I saw Ben in the distance. And me? I was on my butt, and by myself (most of the Colts defenders had sprinted off to try to block for Harper). I was a lonely, lonely soul.