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Three Rivers Stadium gets a fitting finale

Posted Dec 16, 2016

On the anniversary of the final game at Three Rivers Stadium, we take a look back at the memorable day in Steelers history.

The following article ran in Steelers Digest Volume 13, No. 16 (330) on December 23, 2000 following the final game at Three Rivers Stadium. To find out how you can subscribe to Steelers Digest, click here.

For Jerome Bettis, it was Franco Harris. For Jason Gildon, it was Greg Lloyd. For Levon Kirkland, it was Jack Lambert. And they also knew Chuck Noll, Mel Blount and Jack Ham, plus about 45 others were watching, too.

The Pittsburgh Steelers consider themselves a family, and that made last Saturday afternoon a combination reunion-Irish wake that elicited some smiles, a few tears, plenty of goose bumps, and ultimately an overpowering feeling of pride. The event was a game against the Washington Redskins, but the occasion was to say goodbye to Three Rivers Stadium.

The only thing that could have spoiled the occasion would have been losing the game, but the current players didn’t let that happen, with an emotional boost from the alumni. The Redskins never had a chance, and the game that ended with a 24-3 score actually was over long before triple zeroes flashed on the scoreboard for the final time.

Throughout this final season at Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers have brought back former players to serve as honorary captains for each of their 10 home games. For the Redskins, the credential required to qualify was simple but extremely exclusive — those without a bust in Canton need not apply.

Jack Lambert, Franco Harris, Jack Ham, and Mel Blount walked out to the middle of the field for the coin toss. Maybe it began as something that was strictly ceremonial, but when the Redskins called “heads” and won the only thing they would win all afternoon, Lambert forgot he was in street clothes.

“Jack just got fired up,” said Kirkland, the current defensive captain. “He said, ‘All right, defense! Let’s kill, let’s go!’

“That was great, man. You could see how intense he was. It just made us go out there and play better.”

It wasn’t always pretty, but it was appropriately typical. Played in an occasional downpour, the game featured a 100-yard performance by Jerome Bettis, a defensive effort that kept the Redskins out of the end zone while also knocking out quarterback Jeff George, another solid performance by Kordell Stewart, and an electrifying punt return for a touchdown by Hank Poteat that dramatically turned the tide the Steelers’ way.

“What an atmosphere,” said Coach Bill Cowher. “Last night at the hotel, you see all of the former players, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was there, Hank Williams Jr. coming into town to sing the national anthem. It just had a tremendous buzz about it. When we came out of the locker room, you could see all of the black-and-gold in the stands, and it had that feel about it. It’s a special day.”

It began that way, and it ended that way with a stirring ceremony that honored the current and former Steelers and chronicled their accomplishments in a building that forever will be loved because of those. The particulars of the final game will be dwarfed by the memories and the emotion of the farewell ceremony, but maybe that’s because the particulars have become so familiar as to have their own identity.

“We knew we were going to come out and play Steelers football,” said Dewayne Washington. “We knew we had to run the ball with Jerome. We knew we had to make some plays on defense. We did that early and got up on them.”

It’s called Steelers football because it’s a mind-set that’s as much a part of the franchise’s identity as the logo on the right side of the helmet. That recipe has served the franchise well for decades, and it has them very much alive for the AFC’s final playoff spot this season.

There was no talk of playoffs last Saturday, even after the Redskins had boarded the buses for their escape to the airport, but the scenario that puts the Steelers into the post-season for the first time since 1997 is a simple one. They must beat San Diego, the Jets must lose at Baltimore and the Vikings must win at Indianapolis.

“Well, certainly our goal is to make the playoffs; our goal is to win a championship,” said Cowher. “There are some things we need to have happen, but the most important thing was to make these last two weeks (of the regular season) our playoffs. Whatever happens, the most important thing is to leave this, not with a bitter taste but with a feeling that we can build on for next year.”

Even if there are playoffs for the Steelers, those games will be on the road. Three Rivers Stadium is forever dark, but there are many positives from the final season there that the team can take into the opening of the new Steelers Stadium in 2001. The maturation of Stewart, the improvement of the offensive line, the development of Jason Gildon and Joey Porter as an outside linebacker tandem.

But maybe even more important was recapturing their identity, the intangibles that made this franchise a dynasty at one time and helped it play in three conference championship games and a Super Bowl in the 1990s.

“To be here for that part of history is great,” said Kirkland. “I’m just glad I got an opportunity to play for a very special team, a very special owner. When I woke up (Saturday) morning, I realized that I was going to be part of history. I wanted to make it good history.”

Said Bettis, “The atmosphere was incredible. It makes you realize when you put on this jersey, you’re not just representing yourself but every guy who played here and gave it up on that field.”

And that’s what Steelers football always has been all about.