Rookie Matt Bahr from Penn State kicked a 41-yard field goal with five minutes, 10 seconds elapsed in overtime early this morning to give the Pittsburgh Steelers a 16-13 victory over the New England Patriots.
It was an emotion-packed game with Darryl Stingley, the mostly paralyzed former Patriot wide receiver, coming back to Schaefer Stdium for the first time since suffering a spinal injury in an exhibition game against the Oakland Raiders in 1978.
It was a unique challenge for new Patriot Coach Ron Erhardt, promoted when Chuck Fairbanks defected to the University of Colorado, Erhardt not only had to face the defending Super Bowl champions in his debut but a sudden-death period as well.
When Stingley's presence was announced to the crowd of 60,978 midway through the second quarter, it touched off a prolonged ovation that appeared to give Erhardt's team a big lift.
Stingley, sitting in the box seats of team owner William H. Sullivan, had to fight back tears as the standing ovation for him continued more than five minutes during the nationally televised game.
Named the Patriots' executive director of player personnel earlier in the day, Stingley said prior to the game that "I feel 100 percent better than last year at this time.
"I've come a long way. Physically I've gotten a little stronger and greater range of motion, particularly in my right arm."
Stingley reflected briefly on the accident.
"Initially, I was very depressed," he said. "Maybe my association with football, how to tackle problems, how to deal with problems, made me able to come to terms with myself and my situation, because I know there is always hope for some type of recovery. It's just my job to go on."
He said he decided to attend the Patriots' season opener to boost morale and assure the players about his condition.
"Some of the guys I've known for years felt the need to see me for themselves instead of hearing all sorts of reports and reading things in the news- papers," Stingley explained during an interview conducted by a pool reporter.
The Patriots played with inspiration early, taking a 13-6 lead by halftime. But they then cooled off and the contest settled into a defensive struggle.
The Steelers' defense stopped the Patriots cold in the extra period after New England received the kickoff. Then the Pittsburgh offense punched out the yards mostly on runs by Franco Harris and Sidney Thornton, starting in place of injured Rocky Bleier. Thornton ran 17 yards, Harris 11, then Terry Bradshaw flipped a swing pass to Thornton for six yards.
One most burst, two yards by Thornton, set up Bahr's field goal. The Patriots called a timeout before he kicked, trying to increase the pressure, but it didn't bother him.
Thornton tied the score, 13-13, in regulation, when he caught a 21-yard touchdown pass from Bradshaw with 4:09 remaining. Bahr, who earlier missed a conversion, kicked the PAT.
Bradshaw left the game in the second quarter with a toe injury, but returned to start the third period and played the rest of the way.
The Patriots displayed a high intensity just before the opening kickoff. After they were introduced, they clustered near midfield before the whistle and pointed and waved well wishes to Stingley.
Allan Clark accepted the first kickoff, returned it 27 yards, and quarterback Steven Grogan passed 22 yards to tight end Russ Francis. Fullback Sam Cunningham pounded to the Pittsburgh four-yard line and Grogan went to Francis again, with a high pass caught with one hand in the end zone.
The Steelers retaliated after linebacker Jack Lambert intercepted a Grogan pass. Bradshaw riddled the New England pass defense and Thornton topped off a 49-yard push with a two-yard scoring thrust for his first touchdown.
In the second quarter, when Stingley was introduced to the crowd, the Steelers seemed to cool from standing around waiting for the lengthy ovation to end.
John Smith kicked 31- and 32-yard field goals for the Patriots for a 13-6 lead and that's the way it stood until Thornton and Bahr spoiled Erhardt's debut.