Excerpt from: Red, White, and Columbia Blue: Chasing the Dream with the 1979 Houston Oilers by Jackson Michael.
The 1979 AFC Championship Game approached the end of the third quarter, as the Houston Oilers and Pittsburgh Steelers relentlessly pushed their limits in separate quests for the ultimate treasure – a trip to sunny Pasadena, California and top billing in the NFL’s championship bout — Super Bowl 14.
The Steelers’ grip on a 17-10 lead
precariously slipped as Houston pulled its way inside the Pittsburgh 10 yard
line. Oiler quarterback Dan Pastorini called a play, broke the huddle, and
sauntered to the line of scrimmage. He surveyed the landscape of the Steelers’
Steel Curtain defense. He changed the play call though an audible. He took the
snap, took two quick steps back, and fired a pass into history.
Houston receiver Mike Renfro leapt
over Pittsburgh defensive back Ron Johnson. Renfro snatched the ball from the
air, planted one foot in bounds and dragged the other across a slim green patch
of end zone. He rolled and slid on his back. He extended his left arm into the
air, and his index finger waved the #1 sign. His right arm cradled the football
against his chest. Millions of NFL fans watching the game on television assumed
they had just witnessed a game-tying touchdown, completed within the blink of
The game’s officials, however,
weren’t so sure. In fact, the officials seemed so uncertain about what happened
that nobody signaled touchdown, incomplete, or even time for a coffee break.
Renfro stood up, waved his arms, and screamed at the officials to make a call.
The officials called a meeting
instead. That prompted Steelers’ owner Art Rooney to reportedly scowl, “When in
doubt, call a meeting, just like the United Nations.”
The zebra-striped group herded
themselves near the goal post. At first, players from both teams expressed
their opinions, but teammates shoved those players away to avoid penalties.
The time the officials took to
discuss what call to make gave broadcasting network NBC a platform to show
viewers two replay angles that confirmed in many fans’ minds that the Oilers
scored a touchdown.
Moreover, it gave announcers Dick
Enberg and Merlin Olsen plenty of time to also conclude that Renfro scored.
They theorized that the officials might not have seen the play. Enberg noted
that situations like this might be resolved by officials viewing a replay. The
NFL, however, had yet to adopt instant replay for reviewing calls.
Referee Jim Tunney finally broke
the official’s huddle, and called the pass incomplete.
No touchdown. No tie going into the
fourth quarter between arguably the two best teams in football. The Oilers
settled on a field goal and the Steelers kept their lead, 17-13. Pittsburgh
went on to win the game and Super Bowl 14.
“The Mike Renfro Play” and the officials’ indecision intensified both the fans’ and the television networks’ pleas for instant replay to confirm or reverse close calls. The result left clouds of question marks floating though NFL history.
What if Dan Pastorini’s pass to
Mike Renfro was ruled a touchdown? What if the Oilers and Steelers were tied
going into the fourth quarter? Would the Oilers have ridden their newfound
momentum to victory or would the Steelers still have outscored Houston by
double-digits in the fourth quarter?
Definitive answers escape us like
Jerry Rice escaped defensive backs. Reality always lands on the pass ruled
incomplete, an Oiler field goal, and the Steelers winning both the 1979 AFC
Championship and Super Bowl 14.