Senior writer John Oehser’s “oral history” of 25 memorable games in Jaguars history continues with this look at a 30-21 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in September of 1997 in the first Monday Night Football game in franchise history
Date: September 22, 1997.
Site: Alltel Stadium; Jacksonville.
Records: Jaguars 2-0, Steelers 1-1.
What happened: In the first Monday Night Football game in Jacksonville, the Jaguars beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 30-21 – winning one of the most dramatic, memorable games in franchise history in heart-stopping fashion. The major pregame storyline involved Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell, who missed the first two games of the season with a knee injury sustained in preseason and whose status was uncertain leading to the game. With backup Rob Johnson out with a high-ankle sprain sustained in a victory at Baltimore two weeks earlier, third-team quarterback Steve Matthews had thrown for 251 yards in a Week 2 victory over the New York Giants. But Brunell returned to play against the Steelers with a bulky brace on his knee. Brunell, wide receiver Jimmy Smith and the Jaguars’ offense started hot – taking leads of 7-0 and 17-7 and 20-14, before the defending AFC Central champion Steelers took a 21-20 lead on a 1-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Kordell Stewart to tight end Mark Bruener on the fourth quarter’s first play. Jaguars kicker Mike Hollis’ 27-yard field goal with 4:14 remaining gave the Jaguars a 23-21 lead. The Steelers then drove to the Jaguars 22, but defensive end Clyde Simmons blocked Steelers kicker Norm Johnson’s 40-yard field goal attempt on the game’s last play. Jaguars second-year safety Chris Hudson returned the block 58 yards for a touchdown, with Steelers Head Coach Bill Cowher famously motioning as if to punch Hudson before turning away on the final play.
Jaguars leading passer: Brunell (24-42, 306 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions).
Jaguars leading rusher: Natrone Means (24 carries, 40 yards, one touchdown).
Jaguars leading receiver: Smith (10 receptions, 164 yards, one touchdown).
Steelers leading passer: Stewart (11-16, 155 yards, two touchdowns, one interception).
Steelers leading rusher: Jerome Bettis (21 carries, 114 yards, one touchdown).
Steelers leading receivers: Charles Johnson (four receptions, 88 yards), Yancey Thigpen (five receptions, 53 yards, one touchdown).
This was the first home Monday Night Football game in franchise history, and this was an era when MNF was the biggest game of the week. With Brunell returning, the energy at what was now known as Alltel Stadium was real.
McCardell: “It was a boost to have him back. It was Monday Night here, chaotic. It was abuzz. It was fun. It was really fun, and it showed you how much the city of Jacksonville loved their football.”
Jaguars left tackle Tony Boselli: “That was our first Monday Night game, so we came out and it was like, ‘This is awesome.’ It was the first game back after Mark hurt his knee. We were pretty good. We thought we were going to beat the Steelers. We had just beaten the Giants with Steve Matthews, so we thought we were pretty danged good, and we were going to beat the Steelers. It was way closer.”
Smith: “It was electric. [Head] Coach [Tom] Coughlin had us programmed. We were pretty much like robots. We just went out and played the game without thinking, which didn’t allow us to have as many mistakes. It all came through hard work. Everybody used to complain about how tough our practices were, but that was what Coach Coughlin was instilling in us – so everything would come second nature without us having to think about it on the football field. If you have to think you’re dead.”
Boselli: “The Chris Hudson game …”
Adding to the energy was the opponent. The Steelers were a focal point for the Jaguars from the time of their 1995 inception, and the game was developing into a rivalry.
Hudson: “People still bring it up. That was fun, that night. That whole game in general was fun. The whole night was exciting, knowing that everything counted. Pittsburgh was a big deal.”
Searcy: “That was special, because it was Monday Night and it was the Steelers.”
Jaguars defensive end Jeff Lageman: “We were kind of past the point that we had a point to prove. In ’97, we were good, and we knew it. We were going to kick their ass and we didn’t care. They thought maybe ’96 was a fluke. But in ’97, we were, ‘We’re here to play now. We’re not here just to show up. We’re not feeling fortunate about the year before; we’re going to kick some people’s ass. And when the Steelers come to town, we’re going to kick their ass as good as anybody.’”
Hardy: “That was our first Monday Night game. Those were some of the best moments – when you played against the Steelers – because of who they were and the toughness they brought to the division. When I came in, Coughlin made it clear that was our goal – to beat the Steelers – because at that time they were on top of the AFC Central.”
Searcy had signed with the Jaguars from the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent following the 1995 season. He had played against his former team twice in 1996, but any game against Pittsburgh mattered to Searcy.
Searcy: “The Steeler games were always special, because I knew my coming to Jacksonville weakened them. They knew it, too. They couldn’t believe I left. I was Cowher’s first pick ever. When he got the job in 1992, I was his first pick and the 11th pick overall. The one thing about Coughlin, every time we went into a season, the season was about eclipsing the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were the standard and they were in our division. Anytime we played them, I played my best game. And after 1996, it came to the point where I started disliking them because they were in the way. I was on this team; I was trying to get this team over the top. I knew the only way to get over the top was by beating them, so I developed a hatred toward them because I had to. In order for us to be where we needed to be, we had to beat the Steelers. The only way we could sincerely say we climbed the mountain top was you had to beat Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh. You had to sweep the Steelers.”
The Jaguars used the crowd’s early energy, and a hot start by Brunell and Smith, to lead throughout much of the game. The always-resilient Steelers pushed into the lead on Stewart’s one-yard pass to Bruener before Hollis’ go-ahead field goal with just over four minutes remaining.
McCardell: “We were in such a groove. Mark came back and gave us a boost. Our defense played extremely well in that game until right at the end.”
The Steelers drove after Hollis’ field goal. Starting at their 40, they moved methodically. Hudson had a chance at a tackle on Steelers running back Jerome Bettis in the backfield early in the drive and missed.
Hudson: “I had the running back in the backfield and missed the play. I was like, ‘I could have had this guy. I had him in my arms.’ They called a draw a couple of plays before the field goal. I read it and attacked. When I attacked, I had him in my hands and he just came out of it. I was like, ‘Golly.’ I just remember him being so strong. I had hit him the whole game. I was trying to figure out how he got out of it. I really felt bad, like ‘Damn, I messed up. Damn.’ I felt like I let my teammates down.”
The Steelers reached the Jaguars 22 in the final seconds. Steelers kicker Norm Johnson lined up for a field goal. Coughlin called timeout. Finally, the snap came …
Hardy: “They were lining up for a field goal to beat us. I can’t remember how it happened, but the next thing I know … Clyde blocked it and the next think I know I’m seeing Chris Hudson running down the sidelines.”
Simmons indeed blocked Johnson’s kick and Hudson – moments after what he thought was a critical missed tackle – picked up the bouncing ball.
Hudson: “When they blocked the kick, I was so happy. I was like, ‘Thank God.’ I knew I was headed to the end zone. When I looked to my left, I knew the kicker didn’t have a chance. I could see in his eyes he was really trying. I was hurrying to get there and start celebrating with my teammates, a ‘man-we-did-it’ type of deal. I do remember that part. It was always about my teammates. That’s how I was raised. That was my get up, being accountable to them.”
What Hudson didn’t realize until later was he became part of a bigger, stranger story.
Searcy: “You’re talking about the punch? Ahhh.”
As Hudson raced past the Steelers sideline, Cowher raised his hands as if to hit Hudson before pulling away.
Hardy: “Cowher … I remember that … He’s such an emotional guy. (Laughing) He had that fist balled up and you’re thinking, ‘Dang, is this guy about to hit this kid?’ It was just amazing.”
McCardell: “I looked up at the screen. I remember Cowher is so mad, because he felt like they should have won the game.”
Lageman: “It clearly showed the frustration of us with the Steelers. We were more physical than they were, and they were supposed to be the more physical football team. And we were more physical than them every game here at Alltel.”
As for Hudson, he didn’t know what happened until after the game.
Hudson: “I never saw him (Cowher). I didn’t know what people were talking about when it happened because I was looking at the kicker the whole time. I just remember running, then running fast and running slow and looking at the kicker like, ‘Is he trying to catch me?’ I was looking left instead of right, so I never saw him (Cowher). Players didn’t even say anything to me. I think the media said something to me about it. I said, ‘I never saw it.’ I was just happy to win: Monday Night. My mom was at that game, so I was just happy to get to her.”
Cowher apologized to Hudson before the teams’ meeting in Pittsburgh later that season.
Hudson: “I saw it afterward, but I didn’t see it as a big deal – not as big a deal that everybody was making it. I didn’t look at it like that. I just looked at it as frustration. I did think, ‘If he had hit me, I would have landed off my feet.’ I did think about it like that. If he would have hit me, I probably would have been in the air and I would have been laying like a bed in the air.”
Searcy: “I don’t know if Cowher would admit it or not, but he hated Jacksonville. Because they were trying to be a mirror image of what the Steelers were. When we won that Monday Night game, when we blocked the field goal, and he saw Chris Hudson … [laughing] I laugh at it now, because to see Cowher go like that (clenches fist) … it bothered him. I’m glad it bothered him. I love the man, but they were in the way, so we had to get them.”