A won-lost record, the cumulative sum of the efforts of 47 men, defines an NFL team. After sixteen games, all the hits, tackles, extra efforts for more yards, and dropped passes come down in two numbers.
With that said, sometimes teams simply muster their collective will-power to make plays that produce turn-key moments.
In 1989, the week eight contest against the Kansas City Chiefs produced not one, but two turnkey moments for the Pittsburgh Steelers, although in keeping with the character of that year’s squad, neither were apparent at the time.
In the days before the internet, Steelers Nation foraged for news about the team from any source to be had. In my case, that sometimes meant a watching grade “C” local TV program called “Sports Talk” broadcast out of a small, UHF TV station in Northern VA whose number and call letters, although with the names of the show’s hosts, escaped memory long ago.
During the week prior to the Chiefs game, a caller asked if Bubby Brister was going to play. The hosts’ response went something like this:
Host A: “No, Brister is definitely out this week. The Steelers aren’t going to make the playoffs anyway, so they should definitely keep him out.”
Host B: “Yeah, they might even want let him sit out next week too, just as a precaution.”
On the heels of the Steelers shutout loss to the Oilers, both assessments were conventional wisdom in the NFL. No one thought the Steelers capable of anything in 1989.
Brister Shakes of Injury, Starts Game with a Bang
Fortunately, Bubby Brister delivered the game’s first turnkey moment because saw things differently and stepped up to start.
As if to put an exclamation point on his decision, Brister began the game by leading Pittsburgh to 16 unanswered points.
Undaunted, Marty Schottenhimer’s Chiefs fought back, getting on the board with a Nick Lowery field goal before half time. Steve DeBerg struck immediately in the second half, leading a nine play 80 yard drive that ended in an 8 yard touchdown, evening the score 16-10.
A two-fold disaster struck the Steelers in the third quarter, as the Steelers lost budding inside linebacking sensation, Hardy Nickerson. Shortly thereafter, Chiefs forced and returned yet another Steelers fumble for a touchdown, making it 17-16, Kansas City. (This translated to 4 Steeler fumbles returned for TD’s in four games at Three Rivers Staidum.)
None of this phased Brister, who wasted no time in answering, throwing a 64 yard bomb to Louis Lipps for a touchdown, as the Steelers pulled ahead 23-17 to close out the third quarter, paving the way for the game’s next turnkey moment.
Jerry Olsavsky vs. the Nigerian Nightmare
Brister’s third quarter bomb set up one of the finest 4th quarter stands in Steelers defensive history.
During the game’s final 15 minutes, the Chiefs offense reached the Steelers 5, 14, and 13 yard lines. Each time, Kansas City came away empty-handed.
Rod Woodson would pick of DeBerg in the end zone once. The Steelers would stop them one fourth down another time. But the play of the game came when the Chiefs were closest to scoring.
The 1989 Chiefs were led by the 260 pound, NFL leading rusher “Nigerian Nightmare” Christian Okoye.
Okoye was a behemoth who battered defenders in much the same way that Jerome Bettis would do a decade later.
So, when it was fourth and goal at the Steelers five, everyone knew who would get the call. The Chief’s offensive line created a huge hole at the snap, and all that remained between Okoye and the go ahead touchdown was 221 pound, rookie 10th round draft pick Jerry Olsavsky, who was replacing Nickerson.
Coming into the NFL, Olsavsky wasn’t supposed to be fast enough, tall enough, or big enough.
But as Okoye discovered, Jerry O. was simply good enough.
Jerry Olsavsky took the “Nigerian Nightmare” head on and blew him off the line of scrimmage, forcing Kansas City to turn over on downs, allowing the Steelers to run out the clock for the 23-17 victory.
’89 Steelers at 4-4 after 8 Weeks
The Steelers had begun 1989 with twin losses of 51-0 and 41-10, suffered a humiliating shut out in Houston, but bucked the odds to achieve a 4-4 record at the NFL season’s mid-way mark.
A dramatic win over a perceived up-and-comer once again nurtured hopes among the faithful that the men in Black and Gold to aspire to something beyond respectability.
Was that realistic?
The following week took Pittsburgh to Denver, where John Elway’s Broncos would put those hopes through crucible that was Mile High Staidum of the 1980’s.