SI Vault
Rick Reilly
January 08, 1990
Pittsburgh, the unlikeliest playoff team, again showed its guts, beating Houston with a doubly dramatic 50-yard field goal
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January 08, 1990

Steelers Of Tough Mettle

Pittsburgh, the unlikeliest playoff team, again showed its guts, beating Houston with a doubly dramatic 50-yard field goal

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Five minutes earlier, Gary Anderson's size 6� right shoe had left 250-pound men sprawled face first on the Houston Astrodome carpet, some in anguish, some in joy. Now, Anderson was on the phone, feeling equal parts anguish and joy himself.

Doug Anderson, 59, Gary's soccer coach, rugby coach, field goal instructor, agent, counselor and father, lay dying in San Diego, and both the son and the father knew it. Last fall Doug became ill with a rare lung disease, known as Wegener's granulomatosis, and has not beaten it. He was home from the hospital, no better, propped up in front of the television, unable to speak more than a word or so at a time.

Around him were his two daughters, Beverley and Lauren, his other two sons, Sean and Terence, his wife, Pat, and her parents, all hoping Gary might make his day. "These last few days have been the roughest of all," said Sean. "But we haven't given up hope."

Nearly 3� minutes into overtime of the Pittsburgh Steelers' AFC wild-card game with the Houston Oilers, it was so far, so good for Gary: His 3-for-3 day in field goals had kept the Steelers in the game, and now, with the score tied 23-23, he was staring at one of the most monstrous chances in his life, a 50-yarder that would send the ugliest girl at the NFL's playoff dance, Pittsburgh, on to meet the Broncos at next Sunday's exclusive mixer in Denver's Mile High Stadium.

Pittsburgh, which hadn't been anywhere but on the couch at this time of the year since 1984, came in dead last in the NFL this season in offense and 19th in defense. The Steelers made it to Houston thanks to four teams' losses in the last week of regular-season play and their own 31-22 win over the Tampa Bay Bucs. This was a team that started the year by setting a new record for turf ingested: It lost its first two games by a total of 92-10. "All our fans wanted to know was who would be the Number 1 pick in the draft," says Pittsburgh tackle Tunch Ilkin.

Those fans also wanted to know when the Steeler management would fill out the big pink slip for the Human Ice Sculpture, Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll. In 1988, hadn't he gone 5-11, the Steelers' worst record in 19 years? And wasn't this season's start just the first 15 minutes of a bad rerun? And weren't the '90s a time for a fresh start? Things got so bad that Pittsburgh president Dan Rooney gave Noll the dreaded "pep" talk. "I didn't think we needed it," says Noll, who, had he been standing on the deck of the Titanic, would have wondered what was the big deal with all the dinghies.

In fact, Noll just plain refused to acknowledge that the Steeler ship was sinking, and so it never did. He stayed the course, kept teaching his young team, never changed expression, won five out of his last six games, pinned on a few MIRACLES HAPPEN buttons he got from the Church of the Annunciation in Pittsburgh, and suddenly found himself in the playoffs coaching one of the hottest teams in the league.

Noll's quarterback, Bayou Bubby Brister, never gave up either. Last spring, during minicamp, Brister scrawled PLAYOFFS 89 on a team chalkboard. He issued a guarantee that the Steelers would win that crucial game at Tampa Bay and came to Houston promising to "shock the world," which is not such an easy thing to do these days.

Romanian No. 1: Well, Nicolae, we've slain our despotic dictator, we've overhauled our government, and we've liberated our country.

Romanian No. 2: Sure, but how did the Steelers do?

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