As was their custom prior to any game, Joe Kelly and his Cincinnati Bengals teammates met the night before Super Bowl XXIII.
In a Miami hotel conference room.
At 7 p.m.
Everyone was so upbeat and jovial as they filed in, getting ready to play the San Francisco 49ers the following day.
The Bengals possessed the most prolific offense in the NFL. They relied on a scrappy defense that featured Kelly at middle linebacker. At 12-4, they tied the Buffalo Bills and Chicago Bears for the best regular-season record in the league, and went on and eliminated the Seattle Seahawks and the Bills in the playoffs.
These guys were poised to win it all.
"There was no doubt we had the best team in '88," said Kelly, who was three seasons removed from the University of Washington entering that Super Bowl.
Since a TV special about the Bengals was airing at that moment, coach Sam Wyche told his players to go watch it and reconvene the meeting at 8.
That was a fateful mistake on so many counts.
Back in the meeting room, the players saw someone run past the doorway in a blur.
It was running back Stanley Wilson.
Something wasn't right.
Wyche walked into the room in tears.
He informed his stunned players that Wilson had experienced a cocaine relapse and was out of the Super Bowl.
"Sam was acting like somebody died," Kelly said. "That killed the whole vibe and the whole mood."
Wilson, a Los Angeles product similar to Kelly who was suspended by the NFL for drug offenses in 1985 and 1987, had returned to his hotel room and got high.
The rough and tumble neighborhood Overtown was located nearby, where it was easy to obtain a cocaine boost.
A Bengals coach found him totally out of it in his room.
With this his third drug misstep, Wilson was banned from the league for life.
Players tried to console the former Oklahoma Sooners player that night. He had brought his family to Florida, including his mother and a new baby, so there was disappointment all around.
Wilson even had agreed to be shadowed by a team of journalists bent on writing about his drug recovery.
He had played well in the postseason, rushing for 45 yards and two touchdowns in Cincinnati's first playoff game against Seattle.
Now he was done — and, for all intents, so were the Bengals.
"It was really an unfortunate situation," Kelly said.
The following day, the Bengals and 49ers locked into a defensive struggle at Joe Robbie Stadium. They tied 3-3 at halftime, in the second-lowest scoring first half in the game's history. After three quarters, Kelly's team led 13-6.
With 3:36 remaining, Cincinnati pushed ahead 16-13 on Jim Breech's 40-yard field goal.
Everyone back in Ohio prepared to celebrate.
It didn't happen.
In a hurry, the always resourceful quarterback Joe Montana guided the 49ers down field on a gutsy 92-yard drive for the game-winning score. With 36 seconds left, he found John Taylor for a 10-yard touchdown pass to secure a 20-16 victory for San Francisco.
The Bengals came into the game running behind the greatest offensive tackle in the history of the game, Anthony Munoz. They had precocious rookie Ickey Woods at tailback and the wily Boomer Esiason at quarterback. They heavily relied on the swift and hard-hitting Joe Kelly at linebacker.
But they didn't have Stanley Wilson, their tough, short-yardage runner.
He was momentarily buzzed and permanently banished.
"I know 1,000 percent that he would have changed the outcome for our offense," Kelly said.
That Cincinnati team remains one of the five best to play in the Super Bowl and not win it all.
Kelly and his teammates went ring-less.
This didn't seem possible, but life got worse for Stanley Wilson.
Ten years later, he was arrested for burglary in Beverly Hills, for stealing $130,000 to support his drug habit.
Today, he sits in a California prison.
These days, Joe Kelly owns and operates homes for at-risk and drug-abusing kids in Cincinnati.
He looks back at Super Bowl XXIII and shakes his head.
He still can't believe what happened.
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