The foundation at Heinz Field shook late in the fourth quarter as fans danced and screamed and delighted in the Steelers’ impending victory.
Everyone who wore black and gold was thinking about another Steelers appearance in the Super Bowl, at least until Ravens running back Willis McGahee caught a pass from Joe Flacco and turned upfield.
Safety Ryan Clark stepped in to make the tackle, his helmet colliding squarely with McGahee’s helmet. The impact was forceful and powerful and instant.
And the stadium that seconds earlier had been so filled with celebration went silent.
“It was a freak hit,” said Baltimore’s Ray Rice, another running back. “It was tough to watch. He’s like a brother to me.”
Rice said McGahee played through myriad injuries this season. By the time he lay on the field Sunday, with 3 minutes 9 seconds remaining in the game, he had carried 20 times for 60 yards.
After the collision, McGahee had movement in his arms and legs. He was talking to team doctors, but said that he felt significant pain in his neck. After several minutes, he was carted off the field.
Even in the Ravens’ sad and silent locker room, teammates expressed relief that McGahee was moving and could talk.
“He’s a battler,” Rice said. “He’s a guy who has been through a lot this year. I know what he went through, what he battled through. Not a lot of guys in this league could go through what he went through and still endure. I’m sure he will make a full recovery.”
Clark was also woozy from the hit. He walked off the field, with the help of Steelers employees, and immediately sat on the bench.
For McGahee, the collision marked another injury on another big stage. In 2003, while playing in the Fiesta Bowl for the Miami Hurricanes, McGahee had gained 67 yards and scored a touchdown. He caught a screen pass in the fourth quarter and was hit immediately by a defender. The hit tore the three ligaments in McGahee’s left knee. He overcame concerns about the injury to secure his place in the N.F.L.
This season, he shared time in the backfield with Le’Ron McClain and Rice, but McGahee still gained 671 yards and scored 7 touchdowns during the regular season.
The offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said the Ravens knew McClain would be limited against the Steelers because of injury. McGahee saw an increased workload as a result.