Remembering better days: 1994 AFC Championship Game, San Diego Chargers unite an entire city

SAN DIEGO - DECEMBER 11: Running back Natrone Means #20 of the San Diego Chargers finds room to run against the San Francisco 49ers defense during a game at Jack Murphy Stadium on December 11, 1994 in San Diego, California. The 49ers won 38-15. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO - DECEMBER 11: Running back Natrone Means #20 of the San Diego Chargers finds room to run against the San Francisco 49ers defense during a game at Jack Murphy Stadium on December 11, 1994 in San Diego, California. The 49ers won 38-15. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images) /

After an ugly loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, why not look back on better days?

What good will come from yet another article written about the Los Angeles Chargers offensive woes? What good would it do to criticize Ken Whisenhunt for insisting to stick with Melvin Gordon III? Why bother criticizing the offensive line? That is and will be, covered in depth over the coming days.

Look for reasons for optimism and lay them out in a concise argument that would make the most doubting fan jump up on their couches cheering? That would require a sense of optimism that I can just not muster right now.

Instead, let’s journey back to 1995. The San Diego Chargers were coming off of an 11-5 season and were in Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship game. (All player and game stats are from Pro Football Reference.)

I was living in a two-bedroom apartment in Poway, CA. (Part of the greater San Diego County, just north of Naval Air Station Miramar and south of Escondido. Things were different back then, I know, but for this article, I will present things as they were.)

The Steelers were favored by four points for the game. Chargers fans were optimistic, but I do not think many of us actually thought that the Chargers had a chance to go into Pittsburgh and win.

The Chargers were led by head coach Bobby Ross. A fiery, run-first coach, molded in the way of a Vince Lombardi. Hard-nosed and unforgiving. Players did not want to be in Ross’ ‘dog house’, as it were. Ross made his bones in the college ranks. He won the Citrus Bowl in 1990 and the Aloha Bowl in 1991 as head coach of Georgia Tech before being hired by the San Diego Chargers in 1992. He would coach the Chargers for five seasons (1992-1996) and collect a record of 47-33, a .588 winning percent while with the team.

On the field, the Chargers were led on offense by (William) Stan Humphries No.12. Humphries had been a backup in Washington before being traded to San Diego. He was in his third year with the Chargers. He was not very impressive statistically, completing 58.3 percent of his passes in 1994, 17 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. He did throw the longest pass in Chargers history that year, a 99-yard touchdown pass to Tony Martin vs. the Seattle Seahawks.

The Chargers’ emotional leader on offense was No.20, Natrone Means. During the 1994 season, Means rushed for 1,350 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was averaging 84.4 yards per game on the ground in a time when running backs plowed through defensive lines to get first downs. A running back who caught passes was referred to as a third-down specialist. Means was a three-down back, and if need be, he was a four-down back. He did not come off of the field unless he was injured. It was a different time.

On defense, the Chargers had a mix of scrappy talent. They boasted names like Leslie O’Neal, Chris Mims, Dennis Gibson and a young Junior Seau at linebacker. Most of you reading this may not know these names, but do not be fooled. Mims and O’Neal were the Bosa and Ingram of their day.

Both players came into San Diego with fans excited for big things, but the two players rarely put it together at the same time in the same game. Although, one major advantage to the older guys was that they were typically available. Just a thought for those of you making comparisons.

The Steelers were led by a young Bill Cowher in his third year as head coach. Few would guess the career that he would go on to have.

Offensively, the Steelers were led on the field  by No.14, Neil O’Donnell, a fourth-year veteran who fit the mold of the Steel City to a tee. O’Donnell threw for 2,443 yards, a 57.3 percent completion rate, 13 touchdowns, and nine interceptions through 14 games played in 1994. Not the prettiest numbers even for the day, but do not be misled – O’Donnell was effective leading the 16th ranked Steelers offense.

Defensively, Pittsburgh was ‘stacked’ as we used to say. Most have heard of Kevin GreeneRod Woodson, Levon KirklandGreg Lloyd, and Darren Perry. A pretty loaded bunch to be sure. I think it is safe to say that defense, ranked No.2 on the year, was the strength of the 1994 Steelers.

For their part, the Chargers defense was ranked No.9 on the year and their offense was ranked 11th for the 1994 season. (According to Pro Football Reference.) This team was not supposed to be in this game. San Diego knocked off a favored Miami Dolphins team the week before to advance to the AFC Championship. Most at the time had already penciled Pittsburgh in as the team representing the AFC in Super Bowl XXIX.

Three Rivers Stadium opened in 1970 and was the scene for this matchup of AFC titans. Kickoff was at 12:30 p.m.

Back in Poway, I settled in front of the television with my roommate and a few friends. Nerves were on edge to be sure. We all wanted to see the Chargers dominate from the beginning. That was not the case, however, after the 1st quarter of play the game was all Pittsburgh, 7-0.

The second quarter saw a lot of defensive stands and an exchange of field goals to leave the game San Diego 3, Pittsburgh 10 at halftime. The Chargers were on the board, but things did not look good. My friends and I tried to get excited for the second half, but tension was ruling the air.

Gary Anderson would kick a field goal for the first points of the second half to make the score 13-3, Pittsburgh. They would be the Steelers’ final points of the game.

I will never know what coach Ross said to the team at halftime on this day. Other than the above-mentioned field goal, the Chargers took control of this game in the second half. It was glorious.

Humphries connected with tight end Alfred Pupunu for a 43-yard strike to make the score San Diego 10, Pittsburgh 13 at the end of the third quarter.

With 9:57 remaining on the clock in the fourth quarter, down by three points, Humphries hands off to Means for one yard. Then two straight passes to Pupunu for 23 and eight yards respectively.  Means to the left side for one yard, to the right side for eight yards.

Now at the Pittsburgh 43-yard line, Stan “The Man” launches a 44-yard bomb into the end zone.  Martin with the grab and John Carney kicks the extra point to make it 17-13, San Diego.

My entire apartment building was shaking. This was just a tiny glimpse of what was to come.

Pittsburgh got the ball back with 5:13 remaining on the clock in the fourth quarter. It would not matter. On this day there would be no miracle comeback for the Steelers, no last-minute field goal.

This day belonged to the Chargers. Unaware of this at the time, the ensuing 4:04 were among the longest of my life.

The Chargers got the ball back with 1:04 remaining. Despite a futile effort by coach Cowher to stop the clock with a time out, this game was over. The Chargers held on and would be advancing to Super Bowl XXIX!

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For one single millisecond, you could hear a pin drop. I could hear my friends’ heartbeats. And then the sounds that I will never forget. Have you ever heard one million people cheer and cry in unison?

That is exactly what every San Diegan heard on that day. Excited cheers and yells filled the entire city. Horns blasted long into the night. I stepped out onto our balcony which faced Poway Road and I heard San Diego celebrate. I heard my hometown all agree on one thing for the first time, ever. For one moment, every San Diegan was a Chargers fan.

That was a beautiful memory. No matter where the Chargers call home, no one can take that memory away from any of us who were there. It unites us. For you newer fans, learn this teams’ history. It is a sad and storied history. It is our history (video) as fans of this franchise.

Learn to love it, or games like last Sunday – and the feelings that they leave you with – will eat you alive. We lost. It is alright. On January 15, 1995, the Steelers lost at home, too.