It came and went without any public notice, and that is a real shame.
Yesterday was AFC-NFC championship weekend, the Seahawks stunning win, the Patriots methodical victory, the tough luck for the Packers, and Colts overwhelmed, and thoughts abut the Super Bowl. In San Diego, everyone was watching Tom Brady-Russell Wilson-Marshawn Lynch-Andrew Luck too. Odd on such a big weekend, San Diego seems to have forgotten.
It was 20-years ago this past weekend too, the Chargers won their biggest game ever, in Pittsburgh, against the Steelers, in the AFC Championship game, earning their right to go where they had never gone, and never been since, the Super Bowl. An amazing win in Blitzburgh, an amazing party of 70,000 that Sunday night in the Rain at the Stadium to welcome the team home.
Sadly, no one mentioned it. The Union Tribune, great for doing features on stories in their Sunday edition, didn’t have a line anywhere in the paper. The TV stations, none of them, saw fit to mention it till I brought it to there attention. Two longtime Chargers employees I exchanged Emails with, completely forgot the date and the event, as if it never happened. The city and its fans deserve to be reminded of that special time.
On AFC-championship day, twenty years ago, the Chargers were underdogs. All week long, all anyone in Pittsburgh talked about was their Blitzburgh defense, Greg Lloyd, Levon Kirkland, Rod Woodson and friends. In that city it was running back Barry Foster and fiery coach Bill Cowher.
The papers were full of stories of Steelers players getting ready to make a ‘rap song’ about going to the Super Bowl; the team planning a postgame party to celebrate the upcoming trip to Miami. Banners and Terrible Towels were everywhere.
The Steelers scored on their very first possession, with Neil O’Donnell throwing passes to John L. Williams and Barry Foster, and marching right down the field, as if it was their given right to score at 3-Rivers Stadium, anytime, any place, any possession.
It was a game of field position, as San Diego got stronger on both sides of the ball, as the game went on. But it was a (13-3) Steelers lead early into the 4th quarter.
The Chargers had Stan Humphries, and Natrone Means, but Pittsburgh had its run defense, and its pass rush. It would be hard to put points on the board, but San Diego kept banging away. Offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen kept calling counter traps with Natrone Means, the young bull of a running back, who fought for everyone of those tough 69-yards rushing. He kept calling it to see how the Steelers would react.
Then they play actioned out of the formation that they had run so many times. The Steelers crashed down to stop the run, but Humphries rolled right off the play action, hit tight end Alf Pupunu out in the flat, and he went 43-yards on a catch and run to put San Diego back in the game.
The defense stifled the Black and Gold again, and then Humphries, he of mad-bomber mentality, went play-action off an audible, and hit wide receiver Tony Martin on a 43-yard streak pattern down the sidelines, putting air underneath it as Martin blew by cornerback Tim McKyer for another 43-yard scoring strike. And just like that, 2-TDs in under 3-minutes and San Diego had the lead.
Pittsburgh would do on the final drive, what they did on the opening drive, march down the field, with O’Donnell passes to tight end Eric Green, the running backs, and get down inside the ten. But the Bolts stiffened, and San Diego bolted the door shut on a 4th down play. Dennis Gibson’s deflected pass of a crossing pattern pass to Foster at the goaline.
San Diego won. The Stadium went silent. The Chargers rejoiced, jumped for joy. The forever picture of Dean and Alex Spanos in a group hug with Bobby Beathard, the GM-architect of this once in a lifetime roster. The Terrible Towels became Crying Towels. Three Rivers Stadium became a sinkhole of despair.
The joy of the moment continued that night after the cross-country flight, a party that filled the Stadium starting at 8pm till the teams arrival at 9:06, walking thru the tunnel to a thunderous ovation. A party that went on the field till nearly 11pm.
Games can make a franchise’s history, games like that. But journeys make memories too. The Chargers opening Sunday night win in Denver that year, with Thunder and Lightning dancing thru the sky, Humphries TD passes, and Junior Seau’s interception of John Elway ending what looked like a typical Broncos comeback win.
There was the emotional outpouring in Kansas City, where a personal-foul plagued game, turned into a near brawl, as Stan Brock, the massive right tackle, shoved Marty Schottenheimer, the Chiefs coach, after his pass rushers Neil Smith and Derrick Thomas took cheapshots at Humphries. That moment galvanized the team, led them to victory at Arrowhead, and saw a fiery Ross run up the tunnel shaking his fist at the Chiefs coach and fans, a win that pushed them into playoff mode.
There was the 99-yard TD pass to Tony Martin in Seattle that rallied the team from a near upset. San Diego came from a 21-8 deficit to beat Miami in the mud in the playoff matchup that put them on a plane to Pittsburgh.
The season will be remembered, not by Steve Young’s 6-TD superman performance for the 49ers in the Super Bowl, but by the events on the road travelled the entire season. The (6-0) start, the 4-game winning streak at the end; the big plays all year long; the impassioned Bobby Ross speeches captured on NFL Films “you deserve to be here-you earned it”; the Super Chargers theme song; lights left on in buildings downtown outlining the teams logo ‘a lightning bolt’; the party in the rain; and the beautiful Lightning Bolt diamond on blue stone AFC-Championship rings the players got..
Lives and careers changed after that. The team lost badly in the shootout in the Super Bowl. The sad Beathard-Ross feud and the firing of the coaching staff. Gone but not forgotten the tragic deaths of 8-players off that team, from Junior Seau’s suicide, to plane crashes, car crashes, drug overdoses and illness. It was a one year window of greatness. Injuries took out the offensive line the next year. Humphries career ended on one play and one concussion two years after the great run.
But that day, that night, that weekend, will forever be burned into the fabric of the community. 20-years ago this weekend, the greatest moment in Chargers football history, the win in Blitzburgh, and the Voice of the team shouting, “The Lightning Bolt” is going to the Big Show.”