Yancey Thigpen remembers being told to lie facedown on his
driveway when he felt the cold, heavy barrel of the thief's gun
push into the back of his head. As he retells the story, the
Steeler wideout forms a pistol with his thumb and forefinger and
raises it slowly over his head. "How close was I to the gun?" he
asks, dropping his finger onto his skull with a thud. "Bam. It
was practically sticking in my head." Thigpen had just returned
from his off-season home in Rocky Mountain, N.C., to his house
in Pittsburgh late one May evening when two men sneaked out of
the bushes and approached his car, one of them waving him to the
ground with a gun. "Whatever you want, just take it!" Thigpen
yelled as the robbers stole his jewelry, wallet, luggage and his
twin-turbo Nissan 300ZX.
"Later I thought about how close I came to getting killed," says
Thigpen. "Let me tell you, that's a reality check and a
motivator at the same time. To think I might not even be here
right now makes this season mean even more."
In his first year as a full-time starter Thigpen could become
the first Steeler in history to lead the AFC in both receiving
yardage and receptions. Through 11 games, he ranks second in the
conference with 875 yards and is tied for third with 59 catches.
Thigpen is also within striking distance of breaking John
Stallworth's single-season team records for receiving yardage
(1,395) and receptions (80).
Thigpen's childhood hero, Pittsburgh great Lynn Swann, never
came close to putting up these kinds of numbers. "Whenever we
played sandlot ball, I always had to be Lynn Swann," says
Thigpen, 26. "I loved his acrobatic catches. And now, to be
wearing the same uniform and having some success, it's amazing."
Thigpen was drafted by San Diego in the fourth round out of
Winston-Salem State in 1991. But the 6'1", 206-pound wideout
developed a reputation for making impossible catches but
dropping five-yard hitches, and he was cut by the Chargers
before the '92 season. The Steelers honed Thigpen's mental
toughness on special teams. "I've been paying my dues since high
school," he says. "Every team I've been on started out as a
running team that only passed when it had to. And each one
changed into a passing team that only ran when it had to."
Thigpen has helped to transform the run-and-sleep Steelers into
an explosive, dare we say, exciting team that is alone atop the
AFC Central standings with a 7-4 record. Forced to air the ball
out in desperation after falling behind in more than half its
games, Pittsburgh stumbled onto an attack that is now poised to
break club records for passing attempts, completions and yardage
in a season.
On the strength of 377 yards passing, the Steelers scored five
unanswered touchdowns in their 49-31 come-from-behind win at
Cincinnati on Sunday. "It was the best offensive performance
since I've been here," said Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher.
Thigpen had a team-high six catches for 86 yards, and nine other
Pittsburgh players caught passes. Rookie Kordell Stewart buried
the Bengals with a 71-yard touchdown reception in the fourth
quarter, six days after he threw for a two-yard touchdown
against Cleveland. "Let's see, maybe next week I'll try some
guard," says Stewart, the former Colorado quarterback who was
the Steelers' second-round pick in '95. "Or maybe some tackle or
tight end. Yeah, a little tight end sounds good to me."
As Thigpen closes in on the record books, he doesn't mind having
a rookie grab center stage. He has already learned the hard way
that the spotlight can burn. "It really shocked me when that guy
with the gun knew me by name," says Thigpen. "That makes you
look at being famous in a totally different way."
WAR OF THE WORDS
First there was Bugs and Elmer. Then came Tom and Jerry. After
that, Ren and Stimpy. And to this list of cartoonish feuds we
add Buddy and Benny.
Arizona coach Buddy Ryan and offensive lineman Ben Coleman have
been jabbering at each other in the papers since Coleman was
waived by the Cardinals on Sept. 24. Ryan benched and then cut
Coleman, claiming that the Wake Forest product was not playing
up to his potential. Coleman, the 32nd player drafted in '93,
was immediately signed by Jacksonville and has had a ball
trading barbs with Buddy. A sampling:
Buddy: "All of these guys think they can play. But
realistically, you've got to look at the film and say, 'Hell,
you know, I stink.'"
Benny: "Buddy will be the one on the waiver wire at the end of
this year, not me."
Buddy: "We tried for two months to trade him and couldn't do it.
For what we were paying the guy [$337,500], we've got to get
more out of him. I mean, if you're making good money, you've got
to produce and you can't be the third guy in."
Benny: "I'm still on his mind. If I wasn't, why does he still
have to say something? If you're not in his plans, you are not
going to play no matter how good you are. I'm not concerned with
him. I'm going on with my career in Jacksonville."
The 6'6", 335-pound Coleman has started the last two games at
right guard for the Jags, who now have the second-largest line
in the NFL--at 312 pounds it averages seven pounds less than that
of the Cowboys.
Meanwhile, Ryan is down to one spare tackle after Ernest Dye
suffered a season-ending injury to his right Achilles tendon
last month. Considering that the Cards have the league's
third-worst offense, it's clear that Ryan was trying to cover up
yet another poor personnel move by trashing Coleman. "I'm a
helluva player, I know that," says Coleman. "A lot of other
teams know that. I don't know what Buddy can possibly continue
to rave on about."
Don't worry, Ben--your bosom Buddy will think of something.
UNDER A CLOUD
It was just a few months ago when Cincinnati defensive lineman
Dan (Big Daddy) Wilkinson was full of talk about his upcoming
Pro Bowl season, which, he predicted, would lead to a Hall of
Fame career and a handful of trips to the Super Bowl for the
Bengals. Now, however, after Cincinnati's defense allowed the
most points at home in team history in a 49-31 loss to the
Steelers on Sunday, the only thing Wilkinson is willing to
predict is the weather. "There's a cloud over Cincinnati," says
the 6'4", 313-pound lineman, who had two tackles and zero sacks
against Pittsburgh. "There's a very dark cloud over Cincinnati."
The Bengals thought they had found a ray of sunshine when they
selected Wilkinson with the No. 1 pick in the 1994 draft. Big
Daddy has decent enough stats this year--33 tackles and six
sacks--but is a long way from dominating the line. Wilkinson has
four one-tackle games in 1995, and in the opener, against
Indianapolis, he was shut out. Against the Steelers he was
pushed so far off the ball that he was left watching most plays
go by with his hands on his hips. Has the six-year, $14.4
million contract he signed as a rookie extinguished his drive?
Well, Wilkinson's ho-hum revision of his preseason predictions
says a lot. "If I do make the Pro Bowl or the Hall of Fame,
great," he says. "If not, I won't feel like I let myself down."
Really, though, it's the Bengals who have let Big Daddy down.
They drafted a young, raw player who would just now be
completing his senior season at Ohio State and have stunted his
development with poor coaching. As a rookie, Wilkinson toiled
under defensive line coach Joe Wessel, who had no prior NFL
experience of any kind and was switched to special teams coach
after the season. This year Wilkinson's position coach is
31-year-old Bobby DePaul, who has shuffled Big Daddy aimlessly
between tackle and end. "Last year I thought, Why not bring a
top professional, a guy with 10, 15, 20 years of NFL experience,
in here to teach us?" says Wilkinson. "It seemed like a
no-brainer to me."
Cincinnati added 12-year veteran Tim Krumrie as an assistant to
its staff after the defensive tackle retired last year. On
occasion the gung ho Krumrie has been able to inspire Big Daddy
on the field. But there appears to be tension between DePaul and
Krumrie, and sometimes the two coaches don't see eye-to-eye on
how to handle Wilkinson.
It's a confusing situation and one that continues to cloud Big
ARTIST ON THE FIELD
As a child growing up in Camden, N.J., Oiler running back Todd
McNair was such a prolific doodler that his mother, Carole,
banned him from drawing the cartoon character Speed Racer inside
the house. "Even to this day I can't resist drawing Speed
Racer's Mach 5 race car," says McNair. "Mom forced me to find
another outlet for my artistic energy after I started using her
walls, tabletops and curtains to draw on."
That release was football. At Pennsauken (N.J.) High, McNair
earned all-state honors as a tailback. At Temple University,
McNair led the Owls in rushing during his junior and senior
years. While playing for the Chiefs from 1989 to '93, though,
McNair often turned his playbook into a sketch pad, drawing wild
caricatures of his Kansas City teammates for the locker-room
bulletin board. Now, in Houston, McNair's canvas has changed
slightly. Give him a blank space on the field and, sure enough,
McNair will create a work of art.
The elusive 6'1", 202-pound back ranks eighth in the AFC with 50
catches for 416 yards. Although McNair's fumble with 15 seconds
remaining directly led to the Chiefs' 20-13 win over the Oilers
on Sunday night, he beefed up his 8.3-yard rushing average with
four carries for 44 yards. McNair has also developed into a
quality lead blocker for rookie tailback Rodney Thomas. "It's
not where Todd fits into our offense, it's where doesn't he fit
in," says Houston offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome.
McNair was an eighth-round draft choice in 1989, but he
surprised the Chiefs with his explosive play. In his five
seasons with Kansas City he totaled nearly 3,000 all-purpose
yards. McNair signed with the Oilers as a free agent in August
1994 and has continued to flourish on the field, even though he
is not the most-watched McNair on the team (he and first-round
draft choice Steve are not related). The back has yet to unveil
his artistic skills to his Houston teammates. "There wasn't
anything funny about going 2-14 last year, so I had to wait,"
says McNair. "But I'm about ready to start drawing my teammates
here. I just have to find somebody with a big nose or a fat gut
and get to work."
Jaguar trainer Michael Ryan has studied pain and fatigue
firsthand. Ryan, 32, ran with the bulls in Pamplona in 1992,
competed in the 1994 Race Up the Empire State Building and also
finished the 1994 Ironman Triathlon, 140.6 miles of swimming,
biking and running. Midway through the triathlon, which he
completed in just under 12 hours, Ryan waited 45 minutes in the
middle of a lava field in 100-plus-degree heat for a support
vehicle to repair his bicycle. "I was well prepared for the heat
of a lava field because I had trained at noon in the middle of
the summer on tar roads in Jacksonville," says Ryan....
Cleveland's Tommy Vardell was recently the victim of a rather
elaborate hoax. When the fullback, who missed the first six
games of the season while he recovered from off-season knee
surgery, showed up for a recent practice, he was greeted with
hardy congratulations on his impending nuptials. Someone had
sent out 50 fake wedding invitations to media, coaches, players
and team officials announcing Vardell's marriage to one Lupe
Conchita Rosa. "I have a funny feeling this came from high up,"
laughed Vardell, who is single and a known prankster. "Will
there be a payback? Oh, man, you better believe it."
COLOR PHOTO: TOM LYNN In the last two games, Stewart has both thrown and caught a TD pass for the Steelers' new aerial attack. [Kordell Stewart]COLOR PHOTO: TOM LYNN The career of Wilkinson (99), the No. 1 overall pick in the 1994 draft, seems to be in a holding pattern. [Pittsburgh Steeler pulling Dan (Big Daddy) Wilkinson's jersey]