Thursday, October 8, 2015

Dennis Gibson Lives! Remembering the San Diego Chargers' Epic Upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers in AFC Championship

Chargers QB Stan Humphries leads team to memorable win over Steelers
Pittsburgh Steeler fans with their stinky black and gold "Terrible Towels" will undoubtedly show up at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego in nauseating abundance on Monday night to watch their team play the San Diego Chargers on ESPN's "Monday Night Football." 

So before y'all arrive, Pittsburgh's finest, let me rub it in a bit: As a devoted San Diego Chargers fan, I will never forget the day the Bolts pulled off one of the biggest playoff upsets in the National Football League's modern era by beating a vaunted but arrogant and destructively overconfident Steelers team in the AFC Championship Game in January, 1995.

Some longtime Steeler fans are still bitter about that loss more than 20 years later. But they best not hold their breath waiting for any sympathy from me. Because right now I'm all about remembering the best moments in my team's history. The good times. Why? Because of what may soon happen to this San Diego team. While I've written about the possibility of the Chargers leaving America's Finest City for years, that possibility is more real and imminent than ever.

So let me briefly take you back to one of the team's best moments. 

It was January, 1995, an eventful month in American sports, entertainment and politics. The Los Angeles Rams announced they were leaving for St. Louis. A win by "Forrest Gump" at the Golden Globes would foreshadow its Oscar win for Best Picture a few months later. The O.J. Simpson murder trial began in Los Angeles. Newt Gingrich was named Speaker of the House. President Bill Clinton authorized a $20 billion loan to Mexico to stabilize its economy. And Andre Agassi beat Pete Sampras in the Australian Open. 

For me, life was good in January, 1995. I'd just bought my first home, a condo in Crown Point overlooking Mission Bay. And I was a happy Charger fan with season tickets on the 40-yard line on the Chargers side. I'd only been working for Newsweek for a couple of years at that point, so I really wasn't in a position to ask my editors at either publication if I could cover the game, as much as I wanted to. So I watched it at home with friends. 

San Diego had played its first playoff game that season a week earlier at home against Dan Marino's Miami Dolphins. It was a thriller, and Jack Murphy Stadium (now Qualcomm) was rocking like I've not heard it rocking since. 

Marino was great that day, as usual, with three touchdown passes. But unheralded San Diego quarterback Stan Humphries and his Chargers were just a little better. The Chargers' likable, blue-collar quarterback engineered a masterful fourth-quarter drive and found wide receiver Mark Seay in the northern corner of the western end zone with less than 40 seconds to play to move the Bolts ahead. 

Miami's kicker Pete Stoyanovich then mercifully missed a 48-yard field goal with one second remaining and San Diego held on 22-21. 
That win remains my favorite of all home Charger games I have attended.

But They Can't Beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh in January.... Can They?

Tony Martin's touchdown against Steelers in 1995
The stage was now set for the AFC Championship game at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. This was the first conference title game for the Chargers since the infamous Freezer Bowl in Cincinnati in 1982, which was a disaster. 

That was the coldest playoff game in league history, and San Diego, which had just played in balmy Miami a week before, was crushed by the Bengals like ice in a blender. 

Even the rough and ready Merlin Olsen, in this clip of NBC's game coverage, is visibly freezing as he talks about the matchups

The Cincy loss was a sad moment for Charger fans because that Dan Fouts-led team had just earned a miraculous 41-38 overtime win on the road over the Don Shula-coached Dolphins in what was easily the greatest game in NFL history. It was a game in which the indomitable Kellen Winslow just refused to lose. 

But back to January 15, 1995. On this gloomy, overcast day in Pittsburgh, virtually no one thought San Diego could hang with the Steelers and their stellar defense. But I had a gut feeling about this team. I really did.

I believed in that Chargers group of over-achievers, especially Humphries and of course the All-Everything middle linebacker Junior Seau, may he rest in peace. Junior courageously played that game, and that entire season, with a painful pinched nerve.

But here's what made that game so deeply satisfying: Throughout the week leading up to to it, the Steeler players and their fans acted like the outcome was a foregone conclusion. It was almost laughable how disrespectful they were to a good Charger football team.

Pittsburgh's players were already asking about purchasing extra Super Bowl tickets for family and friends. And they had the audacity to make a Super Bowl rap video on Friday, two days before stepping onto the field against San Diego. 

Steeler defensive end Ray Seals reportedly even suggested that the Chargers would not score in the game.

But the Chargers had other plans. San Diego's coach, Bobby Ross, who with all respect to the great Don Coryell is my favorite of all Charger head coaches, was in his third season. And he was not intimidated in the least. Not much was expected of his team, which boasted only two Pro Bowlers, Seau and defensive end Leslie O'Neal. This group had nothing to lose.

That team was a working-class but classy assemblage of unknowns, except to diehard Charger fans, who can name just about every player on that roster, from bruising running back Natrone Means to the brilliant and flashy all-purpose offensive threat Ronnie Harmon, who had played his college ball at Iowa.

Things Weren't Looking Good 

The game, which was hard fought -- both defenses had their moments -- was called on NBC by the great Dick Enberg, who broadcasted  a lot of Charger games that year with NBC having the rights to the AFC. Who knew that many years later Enberg would become the TV voice of the San Diego Padres?

When San Diego fell behind the Steelers 13-3 in the second half, even I was beginning to have doubts. But in the third quarter Humphries' found a wide-open Alfred Pupunu, the so-called "H Back," for an easy touchdown to make it 13-10.

Now we had ourselves a football game. The natives were beginning to get a bit restless, but they were still clutching those nasty towels. 

The Chargers' defense stepped up in the second half, and Stan's perfect 43-yard touchdown strike to a streaking wide receiver Tony Martin on a deep post pattern late in the fourth quarter remains the greatest touchdown in franchise history.

Stan was an enormously underrated passer and leader. He was accurate and had a strong arm and a big heart. The guy could play, and this was arguably his greatest moment as a football player. As great as Fouts was and Philip Rivers is, Stan, it should be noted, is the only Charger QB to lead his team to a Super Bowl.

It didn't look like that was going to happen, though, when Pittsburgh drove deep into San Diego territory with two minutes to play. But on fourth down, San Diego 'backer Dennis Gibson, who is from Ankeny, Iowa, just outside my hometown Des Moines, read the play with perfection and batted down a Neil O'Donnell pass in the end zone that was intended for running back Barry Foster. 

"Good night Steeler fans, drive safe..."
And the rest is history. The Chargers had pulled out and pulled off what most said was impossible. But you never heard me say it was impossible. This team was just special. 

After Gibson's heroics, the Charger bench went wild, especially Humphries, who had a lot of little kid in him. 

"The Chargers are going to the Super Bowl. The lightning bolt is going to the big show," announced Lee "Hacksaw" Hamilton in the Chargers' radio broadcast of the game. Some people didn't care for Lee's play-by-play style, but I'm not some people. 

I loved "Hacksaw," he was the voice and the spirit of that Super Bowl Chargers team. He could barely contain himself after Gibson's play won it.

Steeler Players' Reactions to the Shocking Loss

The reaction by the Steeler players afterward was classic. It still makes me smile. According to a Los Angeles Times report that ran the day after the game, Steeler linebacker Kevin Greene was so upset with the loss that he met reporters in the locker room still dressed in full uniform from a crawl position and tearfully shouted at them: "You . . . get out of my face."

Times reporter Lonnie White noted that Steeler linebacker Greg Lloyd was so shocked that he sat alone on a bench in the Steelers' weight room looking down at the ground without talking for 20 minutes before joining his teammates in the locker room.

It was a great victory for a Charger team that just kept its head down and focused on the game. The Steeler cockiness surely played a role in the outcome. The Super Bowl rap tune was a colossal blunder.

Now a Distant But Permanent Memory

That game seems so very long ago now. But if you've read this far, you know that it is indelibly etched in my brain and my heart. And as any real sports fan knows, memories of our favorite team's greatest victories are happily and inextricably intertwined with memories of our real life. 

Just three months after that impossible win in Pittsburgh, I met my dream girl and future bride, Gabriela. Of course, she had to agree to attend all Charger home games with me before I could agree to marry her. Yes, yes, I'm kidding. Sorta.

It's bittersweet now to recall that time in my life and that game, which is easily the sweetest win in Charger franchise history -- at least after the team joined the NFL from the old American Football League.

Small-town hero

Iowa boy and Charger hero Dennis Gibson
When I think about this game now, I think mostly about Gibson. A solid player, an Iowa kid like me, he was never destined for stardom. But he was responsible for the biggest play in the Charger franchise's 50-plus year history.

That defensive stop was the ultimate moment of redemption for Gibson, who missed a tackle earlier in the game to give up a touchdown and dropped a sure interception on the Steelers' final drive. With that defensive stop, Gibson instantly became a Charger immortal.

The most satisfying thing about Gibson's play was the way in which it silenced the 61,000-plus Steeler fans. There was a "Fourth River" at Three Rivers Stadium that day as so many Steeler faithful wept openly.

In the end, it was the Charger players who were picking up the discarded Terrible Towels and waving them with defiant joy before a stunned and teary crowd. 

And some Steeler fans can't let it go. Matt Loede wrote a piece for some 13 years after the game was played in which he said that the Chargers win was the "toughest loss I have ever endured as a Steelers follower. That 12-4 [Steelers] team was one of, if not the best Steelers team that I had ever seen. While there offense was nothing special (what else is new?), the defense was simply awesome."

Loede, who ignorantly called Stan Humphries "the worst starting QB ever in a Super Bowl," said that it "physically hurt to live through that [Chargers-Steelers] game. All that emotion, all that effort as a fan, it was hard to watch that Steelers team fail on that rainy Sunday in early 1995. They should have won that game, and they should have made it to the Super Bowl... I will never put totally away the pain of that loss."

Well, Matt, guess what? I will never put totally away the joy of that win. 

Loede's description of that game is so typical of the Pittsburgh faithful. Matt, give us all a break. Your team is one of the most successful franchises in all of professional sports. Your team has made the playoffs 25 times, won its division 20 times, played in 15 AFC Championship Games, and won six of eight Super Bowls. Just shut up and let us have this one, please.

And if it's any consolation for you spoiled-rotten Steeler fans, San Diego went on to lose to the San Francisco 49ers the following week in Super Bowl XXIX.

Meanwhile, Back in 2015

So who will be the difference maker for the Chargers on Monday night against the Steelers? Odds are it will be Rivers, who's the best Charger player and leader of all time. If he doesn't make it to the NFL Hall of Fame, it will be a travesty. 

I love Fouts, but Philip is even better, by any and every measure. (For the record, I do think Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger belongs in the Hall, too). 

If the hero on Monday night isn't Rivers, it will probably be Antonio Gates, a future hall-of-fame tight end and class act who is just returning after an unfair four-game suspension.

Or, it could be some no-namer who, like Dennis Gibson, comes out of the shadows of anonymity and makes a play that shocks and humbles the Steelers and their arrogant, terminally annoying Terrible Towel-waving fans. 

I should add that Gibson is happily still very much alive. Nonetheless, may the Ghost of Gibson haunt the Steeler faithful on Monday night, and forever!


  1. Rivers is great and all, but Fouts was a game changer...literally. In Coryell's scheme, Fouts rewrote the book on the passing game. Rivers is a great QB among other great QBs. Fouts played at a time when the rules were not stacked in favor of the offense, when defenders could me much more physical. Rivers may get there someday, but I as much as I love him, it is premature to consider him worthy of Canton.

    1. I typically don't respond to "anonymous" comment on my news blog. They're usually deleted. Tell us who you are or don't come here. But I'll make an exception because, with all respect, you don't know what you're talking about. Fouts was great, no question. That is not in dispute. But Rivers is just a little bit better. By any and every measure. Rivers is a more accurate passer, a smarter football player, and just as tough and just as much a game-changer and leader as Dan, who threw far too many interceptions. Rivers has led 25 game-winning drives. Fouts had 26. But of the top 9 comeback wins in franchise history, Rivers has five of them, Fouts has only one. Dan wasn't even great until his eighth season, he was only great for five years. In 181 games Fouts had 254 touchdowns and an astounding 242 interceptions. Rivers has been great or nearly great every season since he became the starter in 2006. in 147 games, Rivers has 260 TDs and just 124 interceptions. He has already passed Fouts in TD passes and will never even come close to throwing as many pics as Dan even if he plays another SIX years. Fouts was a great player, tough as nails, but often threw into double coverage and was the beneficiary of an amazing offensive line and some of the greatest offensive players in NFL history in Joyner, Chandler, Jefferson and Winslow. Obviously, so many weapons, and yet he never made it to the super bowl, either. Other than the epic Miami win in OT, Dan was pretty awful in the playoffs. Rivers still has several great years left in him. it's close but Rivers wins in the head-to-head competition no matter how you slice it. And Philip even shines when he plays behind a truly bad O line, which he was often. There are few QBs who've ever played the game that have more competitive fire and a higher football IQ than Philip. The UT's Nick Cenepa agrees with me, and Nick knows more about fotball than you or me. You can not point to a single Chargers playoff loss in which Rivers has started and say Rivers was the reason the Chargers lost. But Dan caused several playoff losses. If Philip, LT and Gates weren't all hurt in the AFC Championship game after the 2007 season, for example, the Chargers would have likely beaten the Patriots and played in the Super Bowl. It also wasn't Rivers fault that the Bolts lost to the Patriots in the playoffs after the 2006 season. Blame that on Marlon Macree for fumbling after his pic and blame the Chargers D for not being able to stop the Pats late. Tom Brady had three interceptions in that game, Philip only one! Rivers has never thrown more than two pics in a playoff game. In 9 playoff games Rivers has 11 TD passes and 9 pics. By comparison, in 7 playoff games, Fouts had 12 TDs and a whopping 16 pics. Rivers also had a great game against the Steelers in the Chargers' playoff game after the 2008 season, with three TD passes and more than 300 yards passing. But LT didn't play in that game, and the Charger defense couldn't stop the Steelers' running game. Rivers showed his stuff again in the playoff game against Denver back in January, rallying the team from a 17-0 deficit. Talk about a game changer. But the charger D once again could not not stop Denver on a crucial third down late. Rivers threw two TD passes and ZERO pics in that game, Peyton Manning threw one pic, but San Diego's defense let the team down late, again. It has never been Rivers who's kept San Diego from getting to the Super Bowl. These are facts. Facts are stubborn things. Rivers is an elite QB who is as good as any of the other QBs who have more Super Bowl rings. Don;t get me started. I have seen both of these guys with my own eyes. But the mythology of Fouts isn't necessarily the truth of Fouts. He is a legend for good reason, he was tough. Rivers is tougher. And smarter. And more accurate. He makes fewer mistakes. He's just a little bit better in almost every facet of the QB game. Capiche?

    2. Sorry Anonymous, but without Coach Coryell (And OC Al Saunders) on the sidelines Dan Fouts career was more in line with that of Billy Joe Tolliver, look it up! Fouts himself will tell you that, in fact he said it in his Hall Of Fame acceptance speech, in different words of course. To me, here is the difference between the 2- Fouts was great because of his coaches, Rivers is great IN SPITE of his!

    3. Thanks Larry. I agree that the coaching and the talent around him made Fouts a much better player. And I agree that Rivers plays well even when he had bad coaches and bad offensive lines. But in defense of Fouts, he is no Tolliver. Dan was a great QB, a great fotball player. He was tough, he was a leader, and he was a winner. But yes, he played for a great coach and he played on one of the most talent-blessed offensive football teams in nfl history.

  2. Stan Humphries is still my favorite Charger QB ever. Wasn't the best or most talented, but damn was he tough as hell physically and mentally, was a great leader and when it came down to it, did his job. LOVED his passion too!

    1. Well said, thanks for sharing this. But please identify yourself, or dont post. We generally don't do "anonymous" here. :)