Wednesday, January 14, 2009

STEELERS-RAVENS: PUTTING A RIVALRY IN THE PROPER PERSPECTIVE




2009 "Blackened Gold" award winning story



Steeler fans are understandably whipped into a frenzy over this weekend's upcoming contest against the Baltimore Ravens; a divisional foe and the Steelers biggest current rival. At stake? Only a trip to the SuperBowl and the Steelers securing the very first "Six Pack Trophy". Emotions will run high as both teams try to lay claim to a piece of the SuperBowl action in Tampa.

But how big of a rivalry game is this? In terms of the present day NFL, there's none bigger. The entire football world is probably looking forward to this game more than the eventual SuperBowl in a couple weeks! That's how hard both teams get after each other. There's genuine dislike, hatred, even contempt between them, but there's grudging respect too. For example, several Ravens players stated this weekend that they were openly "rooting" for the Steelers and that they didn't want to play in San Diego. Said Bart Scott:"We wanted to beat the best, not San Diego". Ouch for the Chargers.
Above: Like Hines Ward and Rashard Mendenhall, Han Solo had a bounty placed on him by former Raven nose tackle, Jabba the Hut. Solo was eventually frozen in carbonite.

This season alone, Hines Ward and Rashard Mendenhall had "bounties" on their heads with Mendenhall being lost to the team via shoulder injury inflicted by linebacker "Cousin Ray Ray". Steeler kicker Jeff Reed and punter Mitch Berger also had a nasty run-in with Raven's defensive back Frank Walker who eventually spit in Berger's mouth, a sickening thought indeed. Walker had tried to take out Reed's knee on an extra point attempt and Berger took exception to it. Even the kickers get involved in the hatred on these teams. Those were just a couple of the lowlights from this year, so it's pretty easy to see why everyone is captivated by this cataclysmic third round matchup coming up on Sunday night.

Okay, so we've established that the Steelers-Ravens rivalry is big. But just how big? If you want to go beyond hatred, beyond contempt, beyond bounties, there's only one place you can go. Oakland, California. Younger Steeler fans may have "heard about" the Steelers-Raiders rivalry in the 70s, but in researching this piece, it was startling to me who lived through it, to revisit the depth and breadth of this rivalry. It was truly amazing.

PART I: The Villains

When you spoke about the Oakland Raiders back in the '70s, you always seemed to get this sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach. You simply despised them. I still do today. It all started at the top, as it normally does, with their mentally unbalanced owner, Al Davis. From there it was their big-mouthed, ranting coach, John Madden who took the brunt of the hatred on a week-to-week basis during this era. But if you really wanted to start identifying villains among the players, you had to only look as far as the Raider's defensive secondary, if you can believe that.
To this day, I've never seen a bigger collection of hooligans who reveled in doing bodily harm to opponents like these guys did. Winning? Yeah, that's nice, but winning while paralyzing or concussing your opponent? Priceless! This group of thugs was led by George "The Hit Man" Atkinson. Atkinson's play was so heinous that he twice sent Lynn Swann to the hospital with concussions. The first time, in an AFC Championship Game in 1975, saw Swann knocked unconscious and hospitalized for two days. Amazingly, two weeks later in SuperBowl X, Swann would recover sufficiently to become the first wide receiver ever to be named MVP.



Above: One of Lynn Swann's dazzling, acrobatic, catches in SuperBowl X.

If the Steelers weren't already furious about the first hit, in the opening game the following year, the champs opened the season against...you guessed it, the hated Raiders. In that marquis matchup, Swann was leveled again by Atkinson, suffering a concussion on a broken play where he was hit away from the ball (it had been passed to Franco Harris). This blow was from behind and to his neck and back. In fact, it was so far from the action that it didn't even draw a penalty flag from the zebras!

All hell broke loose the following Tuesday at Chuck Noll's weekly press conference. He referred to Atkinson as, "A member of the criminal element of the National Football League who should be kicked out." Dan Rooney was incensed as well and he fired off an angry letter to Commissioner Pete Rozelle. Because the game was such a high profile contest, the league was flooded with letters complaining about the ruthlessness of it.


Rozelle, for his part, said that he, "Had never seen a more flagrant foul in his 16 year tenure as commissioner." He eventually fined Atkinson $1,500 for the hit and then fined Chuck Noll $1,000 for speaking out against another team's player which is also against NFL rules.







Left: Jack Tatum, above right, Commissioner Pete Rozelle.

Jack "The Assassin" Tatum is the second notorious member of this secondary and he is almost universally regarded as being among the hardest-hitters of his era. Tatum's trademark was the "forearm shiver" a move where he and the rest of his teammates would fly into a receiver and smash them across the helmet with their forearm. A famous piece of folklore has it that the Raiders would set up tackling dummies in camp so that they could practice this deadly technique. Tatum, as you may recall, is the man who rendered New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley a quadriplegic with just such a hit. Tatum, who never apologized to Stingley, even wrote a book, "They Call Me Assassin", to further capitalize on his infamy. Nice guy. In fact, they were all just that nice. In actuality, they were more like a bunch of prison rejects.



Above: Darryl Stingley lies motionless after a Tatum hit. He would die years later as a quadriplegic. Tatum, for his part, always remained unrepentant.


Another teammate with a colorful moniker was Alonzo "Skip" Thomas. During the week he went by the relatively harmless nickname, "Skip" But on Sundays he dropped "Skip" donned the persona of "Dr. Death". These guys were as serious as a heart attack about inflicting bodily harm.

The only semi-normal member of the whole bunch was Hall of Famer Willie Brown who amazingly, went only as Willie Brown. Brown had a mean side too, but he was athletically gifted and more of a pure cover man than the others who relied on fear, intimidation, and their elbows to do their dirty work for them.


Other noteworthy members of this team were quarterback Ken "The Snake" Stabler (what else) and "The Mad Stork", defensive end Ted Hendricks. This loaded team also had wide receivers Cliff Branch and Fred Biletnikoff as well as so called "all-world" tight end, Dave Casper. Their running backs were pedestrian but punishing; Pete Banaszak, Marv Hubbard and Mark Van Eeghen. They also had the oldest man ever to play in the NFL, grizzled veteran kicker George Blanda, as well as outstanding punter, Ray Guy. This team was nasty, deep and extremely talented as well. They were every bit a match for the Steelers and they knew it.

PART II: Let's "Kick It Up A Notch"


As we all know, that's the saying that Emeril uses when he's spicing up a dish. However, when it came to the Steelers and Raiders, they'd already done just about everything they could do to each other both on and off the football field. So it was time to "kick it up a notch". Enter the thorn in everyone's side at the time, owner Al "just win baby" Davis.

Months after it happened, Atkinson was still stinging over the "criminal element" tag that Noll had given him and with the help of his mercurial owner, Davis, they hatched a plan where Atkinson would file a $3 million lawsuit against Noll for "defamation of character". As you can imagine, the case took on a life of its' own. Not only was it Atkinson against Noll, it was also Davis against Rooney and ultimately Davis against Rozelle and the entire NFL. No expense was spared for attorneys either. For their part, the Steelers employed one James McInnis, the same man who had successfully defended Hearst Publishing heiress and Symbionese Liberation Army member Patty Hearst.

Atkinson, using the "plate of spaghetti against a wall" theory that maintains that, "If you throw a plate of spaghetti against a wall, some of it is bound to stick"; also sued the Oakland Tribune and sportswriter Ed Levitt. Levitt had written that, "Atkinson could have killed Swann, not given him a concussion. He could be facing a murder rap."

In the July 1977 trial that became a media circus, some of the notable people testifying were: John Madden, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Dan Rooney, Al Davis, Pete Rozelle, Lynn Swann and George Atkinson. During the course of his testimony, Noll was backed into a corner and forced to admit that three of his own players, Glen Edwards, Mean Joe Greene and Mel Blount could be considered as having styles of play similar to Atkinson's. The Steelers were certainly no choirboys themselves and the Raiders had the footage to prove it.

But the "ace in the hole" in this case came in the form of NFL Director of Officials at the time, Art McNally, whom the league flew out to San Francisco to testify against Atkinson. In his statement, McNally said that, "He (Atkinson) went to another level as he attempted in injure Swann deliberately and maliciously."

Apparently the jury bought into it, because after just four hours of deliberations, Noll and the Oakland Tribune were both found "not guilty". But the case still wasn't over. Mel Blount, one of the Steeler players whom Noll had said also sometimes played outside of the rules, was so incensed that he filed a $5 million lawsuit against Noll and vowed "Never to play for him again."

After a few months, however, things settled down and cooler heads prevailed. Blount eventually dropped his lawsuit against Noll and returned to the team finishing his illustrious Hall of Fame career here.

But this was a world class rivalry, so big that it had even started some fighting "inside la famiglia" so to speak. The Steelers, as you can imagine, were completely thrown off their game the following season because of this huge distraction.. After all, instead of attending training camp at St. Vincents', half of the team and their coach was off testifying across the country in a California courtroom. Their string of championships was eventually shattered and some writers even prematurely labeled them as "dead". There would be two more SuperBowl trophies for this group of players to eventually claim, but in this era, they would always have the Oakland Raiders to contend with.


EPILOGUE: Ravens VS. Raiders

Between the years 1972-76, the Steelers played the Raiders nine times, five of them coming in the playoffs. In 17 total meetings between the teams, the Raiders actually hold a 9-8 advantage. There's hatred and then there's hatred. Spitting in a players mouth is a good start, but the Ravens are still pikers compared to the Raiders of the '70s, regardless.

Yes, Ravens-Steelers is big and the Ravens are, after all, a divisional rival too. But in the long and storied history of the Pittsburgh Steelers, they're not anywhere near what the Raiders and Steelers had going in the '70s. But these things take time. With the Ravens being in our division and with a shot at the SuperBowl dangling in the balance, there's plenty of motivation available to allow both teams to throw more than just a few logs onto this ever-growing bonfire. Stay tuned for the next installment Sunday night!