"It's one of those things you swallow and go on. . . I learned a long time ago -- cry a little, but not in public." -- Oiler Coach Bum Phillips
Most of the Houston Oilers were crying out loud today, howling that there was no question Mike Renfro had caught a touchdown pass late in the third quarter ruled incomplete in the great hem-haw controversy of the AFC championship game.
"I knew it was obviously a close call, but when I looked up (at the official), his eyes were kinda' starry," Renfro said when it was over and the Steelers had a 27-13 victory and another trip to the Super Bowl.
"But he was looking for another ref to make the call.And when I saw that, I knew I was in trouble. I know football, and I'm positive I had both feet in bounds.
"The official was real close to me, but obviously he was confused, didn't see it, or wanted someone else to make the call. I said to him, 'What are you doin', ref? I was shakin for a touchdown. He said to me he couldn't call nothin'. It was pitiful."
The official was side judge Don Orr, a machine company executive from Nashville, in his ninth year as an NFL striped shirt. The play came on first and goal from the Pittsburgh six, with Renfro running to the right corner of the end zone and Dan Pastorini lofting a high pass in his direction.
Renfro was closely covered by Steeler cornerback Ron Johnson. Both men went up in the air, and Renfro came down with the football. Then came the great hem-haw.
Orr was three yards from the play, but he hestitated making a call for several seconds. Then he looked over toward the goal posts at field judge Bill O'Brien, who offered no help. Orr then waved his arms several times before all officials gathered in a huddle to make the final decision. A few minutes later, referee Jim Tunney ruled the pass incompete and the Oilers howled again.
They were forced to settle for a 23-yard field goal to cut the lead to 17-13, but as Renfro said later, "It might well have been the turning point. After that, the Steelers started burying us slowly but surely."
The official explanation of the call given after the officials had returned to their dressing room was that Renfro did not have possession of the football. But few of the Oilers were buying that.
"They fired a guy once in Houston for making a bad call and they ought to fire that sucker, too," bellowed tight end Mike Barber, as he stomped out of the dressing room.
"I think the guy (Orr) froze," said center Carl Mauck. "He didn't want to call it. I told them they didn't have the guts to make the right call. And when he had to confer with everbody else, I knew what the call would be
"I thought it was a touchdown, and I thought it was a bad call," Pastorini said. "They wouldn't give me any explanation of it. I asked and there was no answer. Mike had posession, his feet were in bounds and they just flat out took it away from us."
"If you're in Pittsburgh, it's a great call, if you're on the outside, it hurts like hell."
The Oilers had other hurts today mostly inflicted by a Pittsburgh defense that often stacked eight men up at the line to hold Earl Campbell to 15 yards rushing in 17 carries and hit hard enough downfield to force two critical fumbles that led to Steeler scores.
Pastorini also second-guessed himself for spending too much time trying to establish his running game in a first half that saw Campbell gain two yards in 11 attempts.
"Earl is our running attack and I guess they just wanted to see if I could throw," Pastrini said. "Actually, I probably waited too long to throw. I should have put it up earlier than I did, but that's easy to say now.
"No, my injury (a groin pull) didn't affect my performance. The Pittsburgh Steelers did that."
Campbell, who also had been nursing a groin pull, offered no excuses for his worst performance as a professional. He also drew a laugh when he said "a couple of times I asked Joe Greene for a Coke."
"I was 100 percent all the time," Campbell insisted. "Every time I've played against them, they've put that many people up on the line. It wasn't anything different. Then one thing they do better than anybody is pursue the ball. They're always around the football."
Did he agree with Pastorini's analysis that he stayed with the run too long?
"What Pastorini calls, I run," Campbell said. "I don't question that."
No, most of the Oilers spent their time questioning Don Orr, and cursing him, too.
"It's funny," Renfro said, "but after the next play (after the nullified catch) I said to the referee, 'You really hurt us today, you shouldn't even be out here today.' The man was still starry-eyed."