Pittsburgh Steelers guard
"That play was the turning point. ...
I told myself, 'We're going to the Super Bowl."
The way former Pittsburgh Steelers guard Kendall Simmons remembers it, time literally stopped. One moment, his offense was about to score the clinching touchdown against the heavily favored Indianapolis Colts in an AFC divisional playoff game on Jan. 15, 2006. The next thing Simmons knew, the football was in the air, bodies were flying all around and the Steelers were on the verge of an epic collapse. The Super Bowl dreams of a veteran team fluttered in the balance as the fumble bounced around the RCA Dome turf.
It was the last image Simmons expected when he jogged to the Steelers' huddle with 80 seconds left in the game. Pittsburgh led 21-18, and a Joey Porter sack of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning on fourth down had given the Steelers the ball at the Indianapolis 2-yard line. "I felt pretty good at that moment," Simmons said. "We had a strong running game, and we were known for closing out teams when we had them down."
Simmons felt even more encouraged when the Steelers called a counter play for their burly running back, Jerome Bettis. Simmons' first responsibility on the play was to double-team the nose guard with center Jeff Hartings, then attack linebacker Gary Brackett on the second level. It seemed like a routine play until Simmons saw Brackett charging through an opening on the right side of the Steelers' line. It was the worst possible scenario for a team hoping to choke the last bit of hope from a defeated opponent.
Simmons fell to the ground just as he saw Brackett crash into Bettis and force the fumble. "It felt like everything paused for two or three seconds when that ball went into the air," Simmons said. "Once it hit the ground, my first impulse was to get up and run as fast as I could."
Hartings was the first Steelers player whom Simmons saw running toward the football. By the time he got close to it, Colts cornerback Nick Harper had scooped it up in stride and raced upfield. Simmons didn't even see Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger until Roethlisberger stumbled backward and somehow tripped up Harper. Whatever encouragement the Steelers took away from that unlikely tackle was overshadowed by something more ominous: Manning's return to the field with a great opportunity to win the game.
Simmons stewed on the sideline as the Colts' offense moved into field goal range. He squirmed as their kicker, Mike Vanderjagt, prepared for a game-tying, 46-yard attempt. It wasn't until Vanderjagt sailed that kick wide right that Simmons realized how fortunate his team had been. And to this day, he still believes that fumble and tackle were the most significant moments of Pittsburgh's eventual championship run that season.
"That play was the turning point," Simmons said. "When Ben made that tackle and Vanderjagt missed that kick, I told myself, 'We're going to the Super Bowl. Nothing can stop us now.'"
Gary Brackett, Cato June, Ben Roethlisberger, Nick Harper, Kendall Simmons, Jerome Bettis
"I thought it was over.
I was going crazy."
"The next day,
we still couldn't believe."
"I remember thinking,
'Jerome can't go
out like this.'"
"There was a
chance of him
making that tackle."
"Our game plan
was to seal the deal
and get out of there."
Ben Roethlisberger's tackle of Nick Harper didn't just save a game.
It ultimately saved a championship.
Photo by Steve C. Mitchell