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Looking back on Steelers' Super Bowl XXX loss -- one that got away

The one is always there.

You will see it referenced 1,000 times in the remaining days before Super Bowl XLV. The details are insignificant. The highs and lows matter not. The players have long since moved on.

Yet it is, indeed, there. Hanging. Lingering. Existing.

When commentators speak of the Pittsburgh Steelers' long and storied history, they inevitably evoke the franchise's 6-1 record in Super Bowls. Which means, for all the glorious highs of Bradshaw and Lambert, Roethlisberger and Farrior, there will always be a singular pothole marring Perfection Lane; a day that can never be erased or expunged.

The one.

On Jan. 28, 1996, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys met in Arizona for Super Bowl XXX. As opposed to the current NFL landscape, the Steelers were far from a football juggernaut. Their last appearance in the big game came 16 years earlier, and though they had recently won their second consecutive AFC Central title, few so-called experts thought coach Bill Cowher's group could match up with America's Team. In fact, nary a single big-name newspaper columnist picked Pittsburgh to win.

"You got tired of hearing how great Dallas was," Levon Kirkland, the Steelers' standout linebacker, told me. "Everyone thought Dallas would run us over."

This was hardly without reason. Making their third Super Bowl appearance in four years, the 12-4 Cowboys were cocky, successful -- and loaded. Their quarterback, Troy Aikman, was the NFL's best, as was halfback Emmitt Smith, cornerback Deion Sanders and, arguably, wide receiver Michael Irvin. The Dallas offensive line was impenetrable, and the defense -- featuring Sanders, safety Darren Woodson and defensive end Charles Haley -- was fast and intimidating. The Cowboys had twice demolished the Bills in recent Super Bowls, and most experts agreed Pittsburgh wasn't nearly as good as Buffalo. Which, talent-wise, was inarguable. The Steelers weren't as good. Not even close.

What prognosticators missed, especially when they installed the Steelers as 13½-point underdogs, was that the Cowboys were complacent and, to a certain degree, lazy. Their coach, the affable-yet-overmatched Barry Switzer, treated the week's lead up as a vacation, and he and his players spent long nights on the town, the team practiced with staggering indifference and assumed their talent would naturally rule the moment. A couple of days before the game, the Cowboys' famed cheerleaders announced that they were working on a video, 1996 Dallas Cowboy Super Bowl Shuffle, and nobody within the organization offered a single, "Maybe we should wait until, ahem, after this thing ends."

Though Cowher didn't pull a Forrest Gregg (the Bengals coach kept his men on an 11 p.m. curfew in the leadup to Super Bowl XVI in Pontiac, Mich., then watched as they played stiffly in a loss to the 49ers), he made sure his players weren't out until all hours. He also repeated a powerful mantra: Dallas doesn't respect you. Nobody respects you. Go out there and shock the world.

They almost did.

As expected, the Cowboys jumped out to a 13-0 lead, but Cowher -- at the time 38 -- kept up the intensity. He implored his defensive linemen to relentlessly hit Aikman. He pointed to the Dallas sideline and insisted the Steelers were being belittled and dismissed. Late in the second quarterback, Pittsburgh faced a third-and-20 from its own 36. Quarterback Neil O'Donnell hit Andre Hastings for 19 yards, and on fourth-and-one Kordell Stewart, at the time a multi-positional rookie phenom, ran for three yards. Nine plays later, O'Donnell found Yancey Thigpen in the end zone, and the Steelers trailed 13-7 at the half.

In the Dallas locker room, Switzer tried his best to rally his team. The Cowboys entered the game casually, and played up to the part. In the Pittsburgh locker room, Cowher went off. A man known for fiery pep talks might have given the best of his life. "Those sons of bitches thought you were nothing!" he screamed. "They thought they were going to run all over you! They thought you were a joke. Well, they're not laughing anymore! We took their best shots! Now it's our turn! Let's go take what's ours ..."

As the Steelers stormed through the tunnel, a sea of swirling Terrible Towels greeted their arrival. In four previous Super Bowls, the Steelers had never been a genuine underdog. Now, however, Pittsburgh was -- and the players fed off the status. The Cowboys were pretty, the Steelers were nasty. The Cowboys were prima donnas, the Steelers were rugged. "Those guys didn't lack for confidence," said Kendall Gammon, the Steelers' long snapper. "But neither did we. We were too good to lie down and get our butts kicked."

Pittsburgh controlled much of the second half. When running back Bam Morris barreled one yard into the end zone in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys' lead was 20-17. Momentum belonged to Pittsburgh.

With one problem. While the Steelers played with swagger and confidence, O'Donnell didn't. In his fifth year out of Maryland, the quarterback was a solid, middle-of-the-road NFL veteran. His arm was sound, his accuracy above average, his leadership skills, well, not great. Though no Bradshaw or Roethlisberger, O'Donnell was also a significant upgrade from, say, Mark Malone and Bubby Brister. "Was Neil a good quarterback?" Hastings said. "Well, he was pretty OK, I guess. But I would never say he was a Hall of Fame or Pro Bowl type of guy. He did his job."

O'Donnell had made his first costly mistake in the third quarter, when he missed receiver Ernie Mills and threw a pass into the chest of Dallas' Larry Brown. That blunder, however, was long forgotten when, with 4:15 remaining, the Steelers received the ball on their own 32, momentum clearly on their side. On first down, O'Donnell threw a perfect pass to Hastings, who dropped the ball. On second down, O'Donnell dropped back, expecting Hastings to slant across the field in front of the Cowboys' linebackers. Yet when the receiver botched the route, O'Donnell failed to adjust. He threw to a spot occupied, once again, by the fortuitous Brown, who caught the floater and returned it 33 yards.

Shortly thereafter, Smith ran for a touchdown.

Cowboys 27, Steelers 17.

Game over.

"We gave away the Super Bowl," Erric Pegram, a Pittsburgh halfback, said afterward. "We gave the darn thing away."

Fifteen years later, the pain of the loss has faded. Most of the former Steelers have moved on with life. Hobbies. Jobs. Family. It was a day, a near-glorious day long-ago obscured by the gridiron success of a marvelous franchise.

It was the one.

The one that got away.

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