One Player, One Play: An Act of Joy, Friendship


Aussie Guys Adrian Janson didn’t want to be the player he loves. Instead, he chose to be the player who gave his football hero the moment of a lifetime. 

By Adrian Jansen, @aussieguysnfl podcast (Twitter:@aussieguysAJ)


Dennis Gibson is far from a household name nowadays. Unless of course, you’re a fellow resident of Johnstone, Iowa and dine at his restaurant Encore Pizza. Otherwise, you’re most likely to remember him for the play I’m about to share.

Gibson played in the NFL for nine years. An 8th round pick of the Lions, the Iowa State linebacker played in Detroit for seven seasons before signing with the Chargers prior to the 1994 season as a free agent. It was the year that the Chargers played the part of the true underdog, rising from media anonymity to a Super Bowl appearance.

It is the first and last time that I will mention the 1994 Super Bowl. Making it to the “big dance” is an accomplishment but the 1994 San Francisco 49ers were an unstoppable force and the Chargers played the “Bad News Bears” to the Niners’ “Yankees”.

Frankly, the Bears played it closer.

But forget about the Super Bowl. The AFC Championship became one of the most important games in Chargers history and Gibson was as big of as reason as any.

The game matched the No.2-seed Chargers in Pittsburgh to face the top-seeded Steelers. Three Rivers Stadium was an iconic place. When 59,000 fans filled the venue, waving it’s Terrible Towels, the sea of yellow and black was a formidable setting.for anyone emerging from the visitor’s locker room.

Steelers defensive end Ray Seal said the Chargers wouldn’t score a single point. Vegas set the line for the Chargers at +11. It was rumored that the Steelers already made a Super Bowl rap video. When a local radio announcer said that if it had been Dan Marino and the Dolphins–whom the Chargers upset the week prior–instead of the “Beach Boys,” the Steelers would have reason to worry.

It was fuel to an already blazing fire.

When Matt invited me to contribute to the RSP Writers Project, my first thought was to pick a Junior Seau moment. A picture of intensity, passion, and sheer will, Seau was all over the field that day. Flying from sideline-to-sideline, Seau racked up 16 tackles and a forced fumble despite playing through an injured shoulder and a pinched nerve in his neck.

It was a game that defined Seau and among the many reasons he’s my all-time favorite player. A man that I once had the honor of shaking his hand, he was a larger than life presence both on and off the field. A huge Fathead of Seau adorns the all of our podcast studio.

With an opportunity to experience one play in the NFL, it’s a no-brainer that I’m picking one of Seau’s, right? But Dennis Gibson is my player of choice.

The reason I didn’t choose Seau is simple. Rather than play in the shoes of the great man, the real prize would be to play alongside him so I could experience what it felt like to give Seau the single greatest moment of his career.

The Setup

With just over five minutes remaining, the Steelers were up 13-10. The hometown defense punished quarterback Stan Humphries all day and things looked grim for the Bolts at the Pittsburgh 43 yard-line as it faced a 3rd and 14.

Humphries dropped back and, with a rapidly collapsing pocket, found his favorite target Tony Martin in stride. As the Chargers’ quarterback lay flat on his back from hit that would incur a roughing penalty, the speedy receiver outpaced cornerback Tim McKyer for the go-ahead touchdown.

Now holding an improbable 17-13 lead, the Steelers were trailing for the first time during the `94 playoffs. Neil O’Donnell and the Pittsburgh offense didn’t flinch, moving the ball straight down the field on seven consecutive passes. By the two-minute warning, O’Donnell had Pittsburgh once again eyeing box seats for friends and family at the Super Bowl with a first and goal inside the 10.

The Three Rivers faithful were uproarious and even Bill Cowher looked relaxed on the sideline. Punching the ball in seemed a formality.

But the Chargers defense didn’t play it that way. The unit limited Foster to a yard on first down. Then Gibson had a chance to seal the game on second down but kept the Steelers’ hopes alive. It began with O’Donnell dropping back and spotting his tight end Eric Green over the middle near the goal line.

Gibson sniffed out the play and cut off the big tight end, lunging across Green’s path and getting his mitts on the ball. But the possibility of fate’s reversal of fortune was only a flicker of a hope dashed as the veteran linebacker let the ball hit the ground.

There was little time to reflect on what could have been for the Chargers. The Steelers offense reset for third down and O’Donnell fired a quick pass to the three, calling a timeout with 1:08 left. It would come down to one play–my player’s moment.

This painting of the play adorns the Chargers team facility. 

It was fourth down. Chargers players knelt at the sideline holding hands as the Steeler’s offense made its way back to the field after the timeout. Everything slowed to a crawl in this moment for Gibson and his teammates.

The Charger’s defense spread across the field to account for the Steeler’s passing game. O’Donnell dropped back and Barry Foster slipped effortlessly through the middle straight for the end zone, waiting for O’Donnell to hit him on the numbers. Just like the play two downs prior, the Steelers decided to put the weight of the pressure on Gibson to see if he’d crack.

Gibson watched the ball leave O’Donnell’s hand, a hard, tight throw for Foster on a line. With the field so spread out, it was a little shocking for Gibson to see the ball arriving in his direction once again. Thoughts of that missed opportunity to seal the game on second down flashed through his mind but that didn’t matter anymore. Nothing mattered, but lunging over Foster’s left shoulder and reaching with every fiber of his being for the ball.

Gibson knew he did it when he saw his teammates emptying the sideline and flooding the field with more than a minute left on the clock. Three Rivers fell silent. His friend and teammate Seau played a great game–one of his greatest –but it was Gibson who made the magic.

Revisiting this game brought back wonderful memories. There was Bobby Ross, the stern disciplinarian and military man who had given the Chargers players a real belief in themselves. Safety Rodney Harrison, who was a fresh-faced fifth-round rookie. Natrone Means, Stan Humphries and Tony Martin were big plays waiting to happen.

The greatest joy was watching Seau in his career-defining game. The league hasn’t had many like him. With the evolution of the game, his physical style of play will become less common.

Seau’s untimely passing was a tragedy. It’s why, rather than living a moment as Seau, I would rather experience the thrill of being the teammate and friend who brought Seau one of his life’s most joyful moments.

To read more from the RSP Writers Project, bookmark this page or follow the RSP blog to receive emails of the latest posts from this site.


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