Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1998, I, along with other Pittsburgh Steelers fans experienced the ecstasy and agony of watching a potential win turn into a loss based on a horrendous referee call. The Thanksgiving Day food menu at my house was expected to be matched by the football action on the field between the Steelers and Detroit Lions.
The game menu included two Hall of Fame players, Barry Sanders, the Lions perennial 1000 yard running back, and the hulk-sized fleet of foot Jerome (the Bus) Bettis for the Steelers. The Pro Bowl quarterback for the Steelers, Kordell Stewart, and the dependable Lions quarterback, Charlie Batch could also be counted on for an exciting aerial display. But things did not go as expected.
The first quarter was scoreless; the second quarter saw a total of three field goals scored, two for the Steelers and one for the Lions. A Stewart to Will Blackwell touchdown and a Jason Hanson field goal for the Lions kept the game close in the third quarter, with the Steelers taking a 7 point lead into the fourth quarter.
The Lions tied the game in the fourth quarter with a Batch to Herman Moore touchdown. Late in the fourth the Lions took the lead for the first time when Hanson kicked another field goal, but with one tick left on the clock in regulation time, Steelers kicker Norm Johnson kicked a field goal to tie the score at 16 all, sending the game into overtime. My moment of ecstasy was to be short-lived.
Steelers team captains, Jerome Bettis and Karnell Lake, and Lions captains Robert Porcher and Ray Roberts met at mid-field for the coin toss. As the visiting team the Steelers were given the right to make the call. Bettis made the ‘tails’ call while the coin was in the air, the coin landed ‘tails,’ but referee Phil Luckett indicated the Lions had won the coin toss.
Bettis immediately began protesting that he had called ‘tails,’ but Luckett denied the claim saying Bettis had called’heads-tails,’ and that he went with the first thing he heard. The Lions elected to receive the kick off, and won the game in overtime on a 42 yard field goal, resulting in a19-16 final score.
The 1998 Thanksgiving Day had ended in agony for all Steelers fans. The anticipated battle of the running backs never materialized, and the aerial passing game flew out the window. The furor over the blown call did result in a change in the coin-toss rule. The visiting team calls the toss before the coin is flipped, which when looking back is poor consolation for a game I had looked forward to with such excitement and high expectations.