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Road to Canton: Signature play of Steve McMichael's career

In Part 4 of's 5-part series on Steve McMichael ahead of his Hall of Fame induction in August, senior writer Larry Mayer looks back at how Mongo's heroics led to a miraculous Monday night overtime win against the Jets in 1991.

READ: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Trailing the New York Jets 13-6 late in a Week 4 Monday night game Sept. 23, 1991, the Bears were out of timeouts—and hope—when defensive tackle Steve McMichael produced a remarkable play.

Many disappointed fans had already exited Soldier Field when Jets running back Blair Thomas took a handoff and headed up the middle. McMichael stood his ground in the hole, shed right guard Dwayne White and not only ripped the ball away from Thomas, but also recovered the fumble with 1:54 to play.

Three decades later, former teammates still marvel about McMichael's heroics.

"There's only one guy on the planet that could have done that," Tom Waddle, a Bears receiver who caught eight passes for 102 yards in that memorable game, told "It was a Superman play."

McMichael's game-saving takeaway sparked a series of improbable developments that enabled the Bears to rally for a miraculous 19-13 overtime victory and improve to 4-0.

"There were a lot of key moments late in the game, and none of them happen without Steve," Trace Armstrong, a Bears defensive end who played in that contest, told "It was just the type of player he was. In that era, Steve was playing at an unbelievably high level; as well as any inside guy in all of football."

Things looked bleak for the Bears after an unnecessary roughness penalty on linebacker Ron Cox had given the Jets a first down with 2:00 remaining. Before taking a commercial break, ABC play-by-play announcer Al Michaels remarked: "The New York Jets, barring disaster, will have a very happy plane ride back to Gotham."

But McMichael changed that narrative on the very next play.

"It was unbelievable," Bears Hall of Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary said after the game. "We talked about it in the huddle: 'Hold 'em up, strip the ball, we've got to make the play.' And the next play it happened. [McMichael] just took the ball out. That's what we had to have."

"At that point you know you've got to get a turnover," Armstrong said. "We talked about attacking the football and trying to force a fumble. I'm pretty sure Steve stunted out of his gap. I remember him stripping the ball and he literally saved that game and gave us another chance."

After snatching the ball from Thomas, McMichael stormed off the field and slammed his helmet to the ground in celebration.

As the replay was shown, color commentator Dan Dierdorf said: "That's why some guys go to the Pro Bowl and some guys go home." When a camera cut to McMichael sitting on the bench, analyst Frank Gifford noted: "That's blood all over the thigh pad of McMichael, but I don't believe it's his."

The Bears eventually converted McMichael's takeaway into a game-tying score, but it wasn't easy. It took them 11 plays and all 1:54 that remained on the clock to advance 36 yards and knot the game 13-13.

The game-tying touchdown came on a 5-yard pass from Jim Harbaugh to running back Neal Anderson on fourth-and-goal as time expired. With the clock running after Harbaugh's short scramble on third-and-goal, the Bears quarterback calmly got the offense lined up and received the shotgun snap with :03 to play.

The drive was highlighted by Waddle's 15-yard reception on third-and-19. It appeared that Harbaugh's pass in the right flat would be intercepted by Jets cornerback James Hasty, who was in front of Waddle when the pass was thrown. But the Bears receiver deftly shouldered Hasty aside and came back to snare the ball.

"James Hasty basically had run the route for me and was undercutting it," Waddle said. "I knew Jim was going to come to me and I thought, 'if all else fails I've got to get in front of him to knock it down' because I knew when I was running the route that it wasn't the best route for the coverage they were playing. I don't think Hasty was expecting me to jump in front of him."

After the play, which was near the Jets sideline, Waddle heard New York's defensive coordinator, future NFL head coach Pete Carroll, shout at him, "Are you kidding me?"

"Pete was chirping at me—not in a bad way—all game long," Waddle said. "He was just like, 'stop, stop doing that, anytime you want to stop, it's good by us.'"

After both teams punted on their first possessions in overtime, the Jets were in position to win the game when a roughing-the-passer penalty on Singletary moved the ball to the Bears' 11. With Thomas' fumble no doubt still fresh in his mind, Jets coach Bruce Coslet sent the field-goal unit onto the field on first down.

As kicker Pat Leahy set up for a 28-yard attempt, Dierdorf said: "He better make this or Bruce Coslet has made the worst call I've ever seen."

Sure enough, Leahy hooked the kick wide left, miraculously extending the game.

The Bears followed by marching from their own 20 to the Jets' 23. With kicker Kevin Butler warming up on the sideline for a potential game-winning field goal, Harbaugh rolled to his right and hit tight end Cap Boso across the middle.

With a defender draped on his back, Boso dove across the goal line for an apparent game-winning touchdown. Landing face first on the field, he celebrated with a giant clump of grass and dirt stuck in his facemask.

After a replay review, however, it was ruled that Boso was down six inches short of the goal line. Most of the Jets had already reached their locker room and Harbaugh was being interviewed by local sportscaster Tim Weigel.

Once all the players returned to the field, Harbaugh took the next snap and dove into the end zone for the game-winning TD. Of course, it didn't become official until another replay review confirmed the call.

"This is the wildest ending I have ever seen," Dierdorf said.

Signing off the broadcast, McMichaels described what he had just witnessed as a "scintillating, improbable, nearly impossible victory" by the Bears.

Thanks to McMichael, it was all that and more.

In honor of Steve McMichael being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2024, take a look at photos of the former Bears defensive tackle over the years.

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