The Football floated down seductively into the end zone, about to determine the fate of two proud teams, and Pittsburgh Steeler coach Bill Cowher's mind began spiraling out of control. He saw the ball disappear and considered everything that hung in the balance: a season, a stigma, a legacy. Either Cowher would be celebrating his newfound status as the youngest coach to take a team to the Super Bowl or he would be haunted by another horrific climax in the south end zone at Three Rivers Stadium. Cowher felt queasy. There were 61,062 fans gasping in unison, but Cowher heard nothing. A tangle of Indianapolis Colt receivers and Steeler defenders hit the ground where the ball came down, but Cowher watched none of that. As he stepped onto the playing field, his eyes locked 30 yards downfield on the arms of back judge Tim Millis. The clock expired, time stood still, and what Cowher saw next seemed to happen in slow motion.
"All I could look at was the arms," he said later, after the Steelers had advanced to the Super Bowl for the first time in 16 years with a 20-16 victory over the Colts on Sunday. "Would he wave them horizontally, or would they go vertically? That was my life: horizontal or vertical? Then I saw him make that motion—incomplete pass—and I knew we were there."
At 38, in his fourth season at the helm of his hometown team, Cowher had achieved the objective of his dreams. Nearly two hours after the Steelers had won the AFC championship to earn a Super Bowl XXX date with the Dallas Cowboys, Cowher was still marveling at the way it had all gone down. The Steelers had been tested as sternly as they had in last year's AFC title game against the San Diego Chargers—one that ended in a 17-13 defeat after Charger linebacker Dennis Gibson deflected a pass by Steeler quarterback Neil O'Donnell in that same south end zone.
In the 364 days since, Cowher and his team had overcome obstacles, including the loss of several key players, and survived that Hail Mary thrown by Indianapolis quarterback Jim Harbaugh on the final play of Sunday's game. When Harbaugh's pass fell incomplete—after rolling off the body and hands of Colt receiver Aaron Bailey as Bailey was pulled to the turf—Cowher closed his eyes, raised his face toward the heavens, then broke into tears. Later, as he relaxed in his office with his wife, Kaye, and other family members, Cowher was smiling more broadly than he ever had after a football game. "The emotions are just overwhelming," he said. "This game typified our season. We got into a tense situation, it looked bleak for a while, but we kept fighting. This team has a confidence that never existed the three prior years, and that's what carried us. We've been like a championship fighter: We've taken a punch and gotten knocked down, but then we get up and fight you for 60 minutes."
Though the Steelers entered the game as 11-point favorites, it took every ounce of fight they could muster to subdue Indianapolis, a team that became one of the most stunning success stories in recent playoff history. After a 9-7 regular season the Colts upset the Chargers in San Diego and the Chiefs in Kansas City to get to Pittsburgh, where they matched the physical Steelers blow-for-blow. Forget that trite Cinderella tag; these guys were more like Godzilla. Harbaugh preferred a boxing analogy: "A lot of people expected Peter McNeeley, but Mike Tyson came roaring out of our locker room."
Unlike the Steelers, who were burdened all week with memories of last season's failure, the Colts spent the days before the game feeling downright giddy about their shot at glory. They maintained that altitude despite the pregame jitters of their coaches, who by Saturday's walk-through at Three Rivers had taken on some of the same shifty mannerisms that actor Anthony Hopkins used in his cinematic portrayal of Richard Nixon. "The coaches are driving us crazy," cornerback Ray Buchanan said last Saturday as he lay on his hotel bed watching his alma mater, Louisville, lose to St. John's in basketball. "They were snapping at us all through practice, and it's getting on our nerves. But we're still loose; we know we have nothing to lose."
Indianapolis got gutty performances from defensive tackle Tony Siragusa; from receiver Sean Dawkins (seven catches, 96 yards), who played despite a chipped vertebra in his upper back that no one bothered to include on the pregame injury report; and from Harbaugh. Captain Comeback became Captain Play-Action, suckering the aggressive Steelers into overplaying the run on numerous occasions en route to a 21-for-33, 267-yard passing day. Harbaugh threw no interceptions and one humongous touchdown, a 47-yarder to Floyd Turner that gave the Colts a 16-13 lead with 8:46 remaining. The play was so hauntingly similar to the Stan Humphries pass to Tony Martin that gave the Chargers their winning points in last year's title game that you could almost see the Pittsburgh players shrivel up on the sidelines.
With nearly 3½ quarters in the book, the Steelers had this to show for themselves: two Norm Johnson field goals and a bogus Kordell Stewart touchdown catch. (Stewart caught a five-yard pass from O'Donnell 13 seconds before halftime after three times stepping out of the back of the end zone, but game officials missed the call.) The season was slipping away. "There was so much tension on the sidelines, it was scary," said Pittsburgh reserve tackle James Parrish, who has spent time with seven NFL teams, including Dallas, the San Francisco 49ers and the Colts. "These guys are haunted by the past, and after that touchdown pass, it was like the nightmare was being revisited."
The 1994 Steelers had been a fun-loving bunch, as evidenced by two events that took place the week leading up to last year's AFC title game—the filming of a Super Bowl rap video and the throwing of a party that John Belushi and his Animal House buddies would have loved. The party was hosted by tight end Eric Green, who after the season signed a free-agent contract with the Miami Dolphins. Asked last Friday to recall the bash, which was held at a Pittsburgh nightspot, tackle Leon Searcy offered a guilty smile. "Unfortunately, I was in the midst of all that sin, and so were a lot of guys," he said. "I love Eric Green, but I promise you this: If he threw a party before this game, no Steeler would be anywhere around it."
This is not surprising, considering that earlier this year the Steelers became what is believed to be the first professional sports team to ban pagers and cellular phones from their practice facility. The move was initiated by two veterans, star linebacker Greg Lloyd and fullback John L. Williams, in an effort to save the season: The Steelers were 3-4 and, as Williams says, "were in danger of getting used to losing." So out went the cell phones.