Heroes and Goats

Remember Chuck Hinton? Or Yancy Thigpen? Or Ben McGee? Or Neil O'Donnell? Or Jeff Bergman? Or Don Horn? Or Kevin Mack? Or Bill Austin? Or ... oh well.<p>

    These various gentlemen all figured in some rather crazy last-game or playoff shenanigans involving the Packers, like:

    It's Christmas Eve in 1995 and 60,649 fans in Lambeau Field are looking for some kind of a Christmas gift from Santa (Holmgren) Claus and his 53 reindeer.

    Reminds me a tad of the Pack's visit to New York to end the 2001 season – a victory puts a playoff in Lambeau and a loss sends our lads all the way to a commercially-named field in San Francisco.

    Same thing in '95. The Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and they get the first playoff game in Lambeau. If they lose, they go to some foreign field.

    The Packers seemed to have the game pretty well in hand 24-13 even though quarterback Neil O'Donnell moves his team 67 yards in seven plays to close the score 24-19 after missing the two-point try. Along the way, a rookie receiver named Kordell Stewart, now Pitt's star QB, caught two passes.

    The Packers had to punt after a couple of first downs and the Steelers took over on their own 20 with 5:27 left. Unbelievably, the Steelers kept the ball for 19 plays and made seven first downs, including two on fourth down.

    It came down to the final 16 seconds and it's fourth down on the Packer six-yard line when O'Donnell fires a pass to a wide-open Yancey Thigpen in the west corner of the north end zone. Thigpen kindly dropped the perfect pass and the Packers got a scary victory and a great Christmas present.

    "I'm very thankful," Holmgren laughed after the game but he didn't say anything about going to church, or bending a knee like Mike Sherman did after Martin Gramatica missed an easy Tampa Bay winning field goal at Lambeau last year.

    There was another time the Steelers helped the Packers end the season in Lambeau but they weren't so nice. In fact, the Packers weren't so nice either, especially since it was Vince Lombardi's last league game.

    That 9-3-1 Packer team already had the Central Division wrapped up and were to open the playoffs the following Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams. But first they had to exercise against the 4-8-1 Steelers.

    Bill Austin, former offensive line coach under Lombardi, coached the Steelers and he often said "I just had to win that game against Vince." He did 24-17 and it left a rather sour taste for many of the season ticket holders.

    Practice? Lombardi started Don Horn at quarterback and then followed with Bart Starr and Zeke Bratkowski. The Packers had five turnovers, including one interception off each QB, with Horn's pass being returned 21 yards for a touchdown by Ben McGee. Pittsburgh recovered two fumbles and Chuck Hinton returned one by Donny Anderson 27 yards for a touchdown.

    It was really quite a shambles considering that the Packers were defending Super Bowl champs. The Steelers held a 24-10 lead until rookie Travis Williams rushed 25 yards for a TD in the fourth quarter.

    Anyway, the whole fiasco was soon forgotten since the Packers then beat the Rams 28-7 for the Western Conference title, Dallas in the Ice Bowl 21-17, and Oakland 33-14 in Super Bowl II.

    Holmgren, the Pack's third title-winning coach behind Curly Lambeau and Lombardi, worked his last regular season game in 1998 and won it 16-13 over the Chicago Bears. That team finished 11-5 and hoped to reach a third straight Super Bowl. The first playoff was in San Francisco Jan. 3, 1999.

    Then came a yucky loss! The Packers were official losers, 30-27, on a 25-yard pass from Steve Young to Terrell Owens in the last three seconds. The Packers had just taken a 27-23 lead when Brett Favre drove the Pack 89 yards in nine  plays, ending with a 15-yard TD pass to Antonio Freeman.

    I've always felt the Packers had a victory snatched out of their hands by the guys in black and white on a fumble call on the great Jerry Rice at the Packer 41 with 46 seconds left. Instant replay with a challenge would have saved the Pack but it wasn't in force then – not until the next season.

    A sportswriter colleague, Ira Miller of the San Francisco chronicle, didn't mince any words for his "49ers" readers that there really was a fumble and should have been the Pack's ball. Ira wrote:

    "Line judge Jeff Bergman, a seven-year NFL official, came up from the side, almost behind Rice and immediately pointed to the ground, giving the signal there was no fumble. But Rice's knees were both almost a foot off the ground when he lost the ball, as TV replays showed.

    "Field judge Kevin Mack, a second-year NFL official, was in perfect position to correct the call. He was right in front of Rice, looking at the play head-on from close range. Mack froze. He made no call. Niners ball."

    Safety Scott McGarrahan and linebacker Bernardo Harris tackled Rice and McGarrahan knocked the ball loose. Harris recovered.


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