His teammates told him it sounded like a pad-on-pad collision. Immediately, Don Beebe's leg went numb. Dolphins LB John Offerdahl dove to tackle Thurman Thomas; Instead, Offerdahl broke Beebe's leg in two. "I rolled from my stomach to my back and lifted my leg," recalls Beebe. "My knee was up high and my foot was on the ground. (The break) was completely a 90-degree angle."
Lying on the cold December turf in Rich Stadium, Beebe began to fear the worst. Could his career be over? Chris Berman hinted at as much on ESPN's broadcast that evening.
The injury forced the receiver to miss all of the Bills' 1990-91 playoff run, including the franchise's first-ever appearance in the Super Bowl. All Beebe could do was watch and work. "That's the hardest I ever had to train for an upcoming season," he says.
Fittingly, at the start of the 1991 season, Buffalo hosted Miami in the opener — a 35-31 victory in which Beebe set a career-best with five receptions.
In Week Two, he'd set a career best in another category.
Throughout the 1990 NFL season, no team defended the pass as well as Pittsburgh. Opposing quarterbacks completed just 51.3 percent of their passes, and the Steelers gave up a league-low nine passing scores on the season. Guided by the wisdom of secondary guru Dick LeBeau, little got by a unit which included standouts Carnell Lake and Rod Woodson.
On the other side of the field, the Bills were considered the most dangerous offense in pro football. All of the key components from their Super Bowl XXV run were in place, and QB Jim Kelly was still perfecting his rapid-fire K-Gun offense.
Something had to give.
In a blink it became evident it would be Pittsburgh's defense on a warm early September day in Orchard Park, N.Y. Kelly threw a long score to James Lofton to give Buffalo the game's first points. In the second quarter, Kelly struck two more times — both to Beebe. Kelly's fourth touchdown pass, early in the second half, extended Buffalo's lead to 31-10.
"That offense could explode at any given time, and that was just one of the games where we really got on a roll. Matter of fact, we weren't really shut down that whole season," says Beebe.
"The key to that offense was that we just wore defenses down. By the end of the game, (opposing) linemen were barely getting off the line of scrimmage. They were just wore out. Rusty Jones, our strength-and-conditioning coach, had prepared us to run a play every 15 to 17 seconds. It was definitely an advantage to us."
But the Steelers refused to let the door shut on them that afternoon. Pittsburgh's running game, led by Barry Foster's 121 yards on nine carries, began to push back. Warren Williams plunged in for a score, and a little while later Pittsburgh LB Bryan Hinkle snatched a Kelly pass (one of two Pittsburgh interceptions in the quarter) and returned it 57 yards for a touchdown. A Gary Anderson field goal near the end of the third quarter narrowed the Bills' lead to 31-27.
According to Beebe, Buffalo didn't panic. That team never panicked. "That Bills team had such high resolve and character, that if it was a close game, or if we were down, we always thought we could score anytime, anywhere. We never thought we were out of a game. We'd just keep putting up points if we had to."
At the start of the fourth quarter, Kelly guided the offense down the field and capped the drive with an 11-yard strike to Beebe. The two connected again later in the quarter, this time from four yards out. Nate Odomes' interception return for a touchdown put the game away for good — a 52-34 Buffalo victory that proved to be the highest-scoring game of 1991.
"Three of the four touchdowns I caught were ad-libbed plays at the line of scrimmage. There would be a play called and Jim would look over and see a certain coverage, or how the corner was guarding me and he would throw out a number that would tell me to run a different route than I was supposed to. That was the beauty of having a quarterback like Jim."
On more than one occasion that afternoon, Beebe burned All-Pro CB Rod Woodson.
Late into the contest, Beebe was seated between Lofton and Andre Reed. "Jim comes over and goes, 'Hey Beebs, lookit, these two right next to you, they ain't got nothing on you.' It was a big accomplishment to be able to do something that two Hall of Fame guys hadn't done." [Note: Lofton is in the Hall of Fame; Beebe, like most, believes Reed is soon to follow.]
After the game, Beebe tuned in to ESPN. "Boomer had this saying, 'NOT.' And I remember that night, showing all these touchdowns, he said, 'For all you that thought Beebe's career was over … NOT.'
"It brought everything full circle."
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mbeac