Five minutes earlier, Gary Anderson's size 6½ 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 3½ 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.
January 8, 1990
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?
Then again, who was more ready to be shocked than the Oilers, who two weeks before had been 9-5, only to be suddenly blown out by Cincinnati 61-7 and then kicked out of their sure-thing AFC Central title by Cleveland? They also found themselves being coached by—and, perhaps, soon not to be coached by—Jerry (There's Trouble In) Glanville.
Rumors washed over Glanville all last week. NBC's NFL Live said he was out if he didn't make the Super Bowl, to be replaced by Jack Pardee. CNN's Danny Sheridan said Glanville was out no matter what, to be replaced by Lou Holtz or Jackie Sherrill. Oiler owner Bud Adams wasn't saying much of anything, even to Glanville, who wasn't surprised. Glanville said that they had talked only "twice the whole year."
So where was the smoke coming from? In recent weeks, three of Glanville's assistants have had college job interviews. Asked defensive end Sean Jones, "What would you think?" Last Friday nickelback Richard Johnson was suspended for denying he spit pumpkin seeds at a coach's head during a team meeting. "We're trying to win a damn playoff game," said another Oiler, "and guys are getting kicked off for spitting seeds."
And so it was that these NFL escalators passed each other, one going up and the other going down. Pittsburgh led 16-9 in the fourth quarter, nine of its points having come from the foot of Anderson and seven on Noll's first-quarter fourth-and-one call from the Houston nine that tailback Tim Worley bull-rushed into a touchdown. But Oiler quarterback Warren Moon started to click. He hit Ernest Givins with an impeccable 18-yard touchdown pass on a crossing pattern, to tie the score at 16. Then Moon hit Givins for the 11th time in the game, with a nine-yard beauty that gave Houston a 23-16 lead with 6:02 left.
Well, Bubby? No problem. All Brister did was go 82 yards in 11 plays, the last a handoff to the unknown soldier, Merril Hoge, who scored from one yard out to tie the game with 46 tiny ticks left. In the stands Brister's mom, Frances, couldn't decide whether she was happier about the touchdown or the new black-and-gold Cadillac Bubby had given her for Christmas.
Hello, overtime. Hello, last great game of the 1980s. Pittsburgh wins the toss, goes nowhere, punts badly, and Houston takes over at the Steeler 45. Oh, geez. The Steeler 45? Moon, who had been going through Pittsburgh like a USAir connection, needed only, what, 15 yards for a field goal? He could get that with a cup of decaf in his right hand. Jerry, call your accountant. Tell him everything will be all right.
On the first play, Moon handed the ball to Lorenzo White, who took it wide, got run over by a speeding train known as cornerback Rod Woodson, coughed up the ball and watched Woodson pounce on it. "This is a sell-out game," Woodson said later. "If you don't sell out your body now and go flying in at somebody, you'll never do it."
Anderson's moment had arrived.
"Lots of money riding on that kick," Anderson said afterward. "Lots of pressure." And none of it meant nearly as much to him as did that one silent TV viewer in San Diego.
Anderson is the third most accurate kicker in NFL history. He has kicked for eight years. He has been to two Pro Bowls. But still, you never know....
Houston called a timeout to let Anderson squirm, and Ilkin wandered over to him and said, "If there's one guy in the world I'd like to have kicking this kick for us, it's you." Anderson smiled.
"I had all kinds of confidence he was going to make it," said Brister. "Then I looked up at the scoreboard and it said, 'Gary Anderson has not attempted a kick from 50 yards or more this year.' And I thought, Oh, god."
When the kick went up, all Noll could think was, Thank goodness for the dome. Everybody kicks a little longer indoors, and this boot was plenty long. And plenty good. "That thing would've gone from 60," said Brister.
For the Oilers, Anderson's kick gave them one more rumor to deny. "If Mr. Adams doesn't want me to be the coach anymore," said Glanville afterward, "then I don't want to be the coach anymore. Not for one hour." Glanville has one factor working in his favor: Adams's reputation as a skinflint. Bottom Line Bud would have to pick up the last year of Glanville's contract.
For the Steelers, the kick gave them their fourth straight win. Now the only thing in the NFL more fun than wondering what Brister will say before games is what he will do to win them.
For the Anderson family, the kick gave them a moment as bittersweet as any could be. "We were all crying," says Sean. "Even my dad."
And so, five minutes after his field goal, with players whooping it up all around him and his own tears not helping much, Gary called his old coach.
"Dad?" said Gary. "Dad, I did it for you."