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Steelers O'Donnell: Bloodied but unbowed

Despite head injury, three interceptions, he emerges winner

Monday, September 25, 2000

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Neil O'Donnell was hardly sporting the look of a winner.

His lower lip was bloodied and quivering, his neck barely mobile, his head spinning. And he couldn't, for the life of him, muster the tiniest trace of a smile.

Not even after the Tennessee Titans squeezed out a 23-20 victory over his former team, the Steelers, and his most vocal nemeses, the fans of Three Rivers Stadium.

"Nope, nothing," he replied when asked the significance of his first start in Pittsburgh since leaving in 1996. "Big divisional win. We're 2-1 now, and we have to get ready for the next team."

Come on, not even after being roundly booed by 51,769 fans when he first strode onto the field?

Or after hearing that crowd cheer when he was pulverized late in the game by Steelers linebacker Jason Gildon?

"It doesn't affect me one bit. I've been playing long enough where I play the same, week in and week out, no matter where we're playing."

"He knew the situation here," said wide receiver Yancey Thigpen, who also was O'Donnell's teammate with the Steelers. "But he approached this whole week just like he was playing the Baltimore Ravens or anyone. Very professional. He's been around too long."

Thigpen laughed.

"Hey, he played in Pittsburgh. How could he let the crowd bother him?"

That's typical O'Donnell. Little emotion, little in the way of inflammatory comments.

And some might argue it was typical O'Donnell in another regard: He threw three interceptions, two of them to the same cornerback.

Chad Scott, not Larry Brown.

On the first, early in the second quarter, he threw into triple coverage for wide receiver Chris Sanders, but Scott darted in front to pick it off at the Steelers' 27.

On the second, seven minutes later, wide receiver Carl Pickens ran the wrong route and O'Donnell's pass floated into Scott's arms at the Steelers' 3.

On the third, with 11 minutes left in the game, Pickens was overpowered by Steelers cornerback Dewayne Washington, who sprinted ahead to grab the pass at midfield.

"We had some unfortunate turnovers," O'Donnell said. "That was the frustrating thing. Killed some drives. Very frustrating. But, hey, give them credit, too. They gave us a dogfight, and I knew it would be that way coming in here. That defense ... I played here, and I know the way that defense can swarm around."

"The Steelers made great plays on the interceptions, I thought," Tennessee Coach Jeff Fisher said. "Neil had a good game."

O'Donnell finished with respectable numbers, completing 13 of 27 passes for 237 yards, but he didn't get to finish the game.

Gildon saw to that.

With less than three minutes remaining, the Steelers up by four and emotions running high inside the stadium, Gildon burst around left end and leveled O'Donnell for a 5-yard loss at the Tennessee 36. O'Donnell, with blood dripping down from his helmet, was dazed as the crowd leaped and roared.

Running back Eddie George walked him to the Titans' sideline.

"He couldn't have stayed. I looked in his eyes, and he was gone," George said. "I didn't want their defense to get any more pumped up, and I wanted to get him off the field and get his head cleared up."

O'Donnell, who sustained a strained neck, lacerated mouth and slight concussion on the play, was asked if he could have returned.

"I don't know. But I would've given it a shot."

That proved unnecessary. Steve McNair, the Titans' regular starter, came in despite a bruised sternum and needed only four plays to lead his team to victory and silence the crowd.

O'Donnell didn't seem the least bit bugged that someone else got to spark Tennessee's game-ending celebration.

"I'm happy for Steve. That's how I prepare every week, too. You always have to be ready. He came in there and did what we had to do to win the game. It's a big win."

But not so big that O'Donnell was gloating about his final trip to Three Rivers Stadium. He spent six seasons with the Steelers and led them to a Super Bowl in 1996, but he didn't seem to realize this would be his last trip to the old concrete bowl until a reporter mentioned it.

"I'll start thinking about it when I pull out. Thanks for reminding me. I had a lot of great memories here. It probably will be sad when we have to come back next year and play in the new stadium because this was a special place. A lot of history was made here. It will be sad."

He then looked around the kitchen-sized area into which two dozen media types were crammed and said, "But I'll look forward to the new press room."

That prompted a round of laughter, but not from O'Donnell. He turned and walked out, never losing that poker face.

He wouldn't want anyone to get the idea he had just thoroughly enjoyed himself.

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