By Michael K Reynolds
So much is made of the great battles between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens and for good reason. After all it’s the evolution of the decades old rivalry between the Steelers and Browns. And over the past thirteen years the matches between these multiple Super Bowl winners have produced some of the NFL’s most tightly and brutally competed games.
But most of us who followed the Black and Gold during the glory years of the 70’s would argue that today’s confrontations with the Ravens are no match in intensity and intrigue when compared to the old Steelers and Raiders clashes.
Although the Ravens offer characters for Steelers fans to loathe in the likes of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs, the classic Oakland Raiders boasted an entire team of colorful villains.
For those were the days where parity was something that sat perched in a cage and asked for crackers. With today’s rules of free agency, for better or worse, you would never be able to keep together a team like the 70’s Steelers with a starting line-up full of Hall of Famers. And, though it’s hard to admit for a Steelers fan, the Raiders role call wasn’t far off in terms of excellence.
Those Raiders were cast for a Hollywood movie. The bad boys of football. They had hard drinking, late nighting Ken Stabler as their quarterback, who could float the most beautiful left-handed spirals you’d ever see. Chasing them down would be world-class sprinter Cliff Branch or the plodding, but elusive and incredibly sure handed Freddie Biletnikoff. And if this wasn’t sufficient, you had the combination of grace and power in giant tight end Dave Casper, “The Ghost”, whose over-the-shoulder catches still dominant highlight reels.
Running the ball would be Mark Van Eeghan, a powerful back who primarily churned his yards behind probably the best left side of an offensive line ever with Hall of Famers Art Shell and Gene Upshaw at tackle and guard.
Defensively they were frightening, in particularly in the backfield with head hunting safety Gene Atkinson who Chuck Noll famously referred to as “the criminal element” and Jack Tatum, who rightfully earned his nickname as “the Assassin”. And Lester Hayes at cornerback not only shut down receivers but helped speed up the outlawing of stick-um, his secret to so many interceptions.
Then there was “The Mad Stork”, the outside linebacker Ted Hendricks who used an exceptionally tall frame to swat down seemingly ever pass thrown in his direction. He was joined by Phil Villapiano, a four-time Pro Bowler. They were anchored by a defensive line including Otis Sistrunk and John Matuszak who were mean, tough and dirty as it gets. We can’t neglect to mention the greatest punter of all time, Ray Guy, who could switch the field and produce hang time like none other.
This band of merry hoodlums was aptly lead by John Madden, who long before he was giving out turkey leg awards at Thanksgiving, was a coach of champions, as big in personality as in body. Then, of course, there was owner Al Davis, the maverick of the league who didn’t care how his players acted on or off the field as long as they “just win baby”.
So it was natural that two great fan bases grew to preeminence as Steelers Nation and Raiders Nation in the 70′s and the mutual hatred and respect was spawned with the “Immaculate Reception” which still raises bile in the throat of Madden to this day. This intensity was only fueled with perennial clashes between these powerful teams as the AFC road to the Super Bowl went through either Oakland or Pittsburgh.
But, what about today. Who rules? Steelers Nation or Raiders Nation?
This would be a difficult question thirty years ago. Although the Steelers dominated the 70′s, the Raiders were still going strong in the early 80′s while the Black and Gold was in decline. But the question of what nation is greater is not so difficult to discern today.
Al Davis had a lot going for him before betraying his fans in the mid-80′s. He moved the Raiders to Los Angeles (after suing the NFL to do so). He retreated back to Oakland with his tail between his legs in 1995, but the relationship would never be the same. Not only did the Raiders gain a “street gang mentality” in Los Angeles, but when he moved back to Oakland, the fans loved the Raiders, but never again trusted Al.
The story is entirely different with Steelers fans. The Rooneys always aim for excellence but never at the cost of their love of the city of Pittsburgh and their commitment to their players and fans as family.
The natural outgrowth of this mentality can be easily witnessed with a visit to either team’s stadiums on game day.
Even back in the late 90’s where I covered the Steelers game as a local photo journalist in Oakland on the sideline. I was thrilled to be on the field alongside Greg Lloyd, Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake, but wary that at any moment I could take a beer bottle to the back of my head. Stabbings or beatings of opposing fans is not an uncommon occurrence at Oakland’s home field and you certainly wouldn’t take one of your daughters into the Black Hole wearing a Lynn Swann jersey.
Quite in contrast is the hospitality offered at Steelers Nation. I remember visiting Three Rivers Stadium with my soon-to-be wife for a game in the 90′s and again just a few years ago. Not only was I amazed how the entire city partook in the game on street corners, businesses and food establishments, but with our Steelers jerseys on, we were openly welcomed as “family” at nearly every tailgate party in the stadium.
Most surprising was how well visiting fans were treated. Although opposing supporters are sure to get their fair share of playful ribbing, they are also treated with civility and respect.
For those of us blessed with a long tradition of Steelers fandom, an Oakland Raiders game will always carry a high level of nostalgia and import regardless of team records.
But it’s also a succinct reminder of how good we have it thanks to the Rooneys. I’m proud my family are members of Steelers Nation.
How about you? Who do you think rules? Raiders Nation or Steelers Nation? Do you have any memories regarding the old Raiders and Steelers rivalry?