The Pittsburgh Steelers have enjoyed their share of rivalries during their 79 years of existence, from their historic rivalry with the Browns, from rivalries in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s with the Oilers and Bengals, to the inter-conference rivalry with the Cowboys, and of course their current rivalry with the Bengals.
But with the Raiders it was different. Certainly the Steelers other rivalries have had their heros and vilians. But no one, not even someone as arrogant as Brian Billick or as obnixous as Jerry Glanville could personify the entire rivalry.
With the Raiders, it was different. Different because it was personal at its core, and it all came down to Al Davis. Davis didn’t like Pittsburgh, didn’t like the Steelers and make no secret about it.
In his book, My Steeler Odyssey, Andy Russell talks about how when he got drafted by the Chargers of the AFL and the Steelers of the NFL, Al Davis attempted to entice him not by selling him on the Chargers, but rather by bad mouthing the Steelers organization and the city of Pittsburgh.
From the Immaculate Reception to the Criminal Element
The 1970’s gave Al Davis the perfect opportunity to channel his hatred of the Black and Gold onto the field – to the delight of NFL Fans every where.
It was against Al Davis’ Raiders that Franco Harris made the greatest play in NFL, if not sports, history, the Immaculate Reception. In a single play, the fortunes of a franchise changed.
Five more times the Steelers and Raiders would meet in titanic clashes in the playoffs during the 1970’s. The Steelers would get the better of their West Coast rivals 3 times.
Davis simply refused to accept the Steelers were in fact the better team, never tiring of making excuses, questioning the legitimacy of the Immaculate Reception, or complaining that the Steelers have iced down the field prior to the 1975 AFC Championship game.
It was during that game that Lynn Swann suffered such a tremendous illegal hit at the hands of George Atkinson that Chuck Noll labeled him part of the NFL’s “Criminal Element.”
At Al Davis’ prodding, George Atkinson sued Chuck Noll for libel. Although Davis recruited rising political star Willie Brown to try the case, the California jury exonerated Chuck Noll. Still, the case was tried in the summer, disrupting the Steelers training camp and the rest of their season.
Al Davis may have won the battle, but he lost the war. The Steelers closed the decade with 4 Super Bowls to the Raiders 1.
Al Davis and The Rooneys
Al Davis relationship with the Rooneys saw its ups and downs. Art Rooney Sr. went out of his way to comfort Davis when his wife Carol suffered a stroke. Davis was sure to send flowers to Dan Rooney after a car accident in 1980.
Yet Dan Rooney fought Al Davis tooth and nail as Davis thumbed his nose at the league, not to mention the fans in Oakland, in establish the awful precedent that allows NFL to abandon their fans in search of a new home.
Davis, publicly and falsely castigated Rooney for “…flagrantly cheating on the salary cap” in 2001, to which Dan Rooney defend himself by calling Davis a “lying creep.” (Quotes as reported by Jim O'Brien in Art Rooney.)
In the end, it appears that Rooney remained true to his Catholic faith and made his peace with Davis, saying good things about him in his autobiography Dan Rooney, but reminding readers that “Al is Al,” and upon learning of Davis’ death, Rooney issued the following statement:
Al Davis was a good man and we were friendly rivals. He was a football man and did a lot for the game of football. I had a lot of respect for him and he will be missed throughout the entire NFL.How much the rest of the NFL will “miss” Al Davis is an open question. But neither the NFL nor the Steelers-Raiders rivalry will ever be the same.
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