Steelers-Raiders rivalry rich with NFL history
The Pittsburgh Steelers played their first game at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on Oct. 25, 1970, and from that point over the next six years, two months and two days, the Steelers would visit the multi-purpose park six times.
The franchises never have shared the same division. But during their common heydays, it seemed like they did.
“It felt like we went out there every year,” four-time Steelers Super Bowl champion running back Rocky Bleier said. “And it felt like we played them twice a year: once in the regular season and again in the playoffs or (conference) championship game.”
The Steelers and Raiders did, in fact, meet nine times over five seasons between 1972-76. The Steelers played just as often at the Oakland Coliseum in that span (five times) as they did the home stadiums of AFC North rivals Cleveland, Cincinnati and Houston.
“You knew going there,” Bleier said of Oakland, “that their fans were absolutely rabid.”
The Black-and-Gold. The Silver-and-Black. Two iconic American sports franchises. Sunday’s 4:25 p.m. Steelers-Raiders matchup might not necessarily be the most anticipated NFL game of the day, but that is only because the 2018 Raiders are 2-10.
Ask any football fan over 50, though: Steelers-Raiders instantly conjures up memories of what was once must-see NFL TV.
“It brings me back to my childhood,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said this week, “and really when I fell in love with football was watching these two teams play.”
Adding extra nostalgia is Sunday’s meeting almost certainly will be the final one in Oakland. The Raiders announced their intention to move to Las Vegas, ending a history of Steelers-Raiders games in Northern California that dates to a 31-14 Raiders win on that October day 38 years ago.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin this week gave his players what veteran guard Ramon Foster called “a history lesson” for playing in what is one of the NFL’s oldest stadiums.
“He was just letting guys know where we are going,” veteran receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said. “Into the Black Hole.”
Arguably the NFL’s most renowned fan seating section, the Black Hole is known for its colorful personalities and less-than-hospitable treatment of opposing players.
“Obviously, being a visitor in that stadium, for people who have never been before, you got the guys with costumes,” Heyward-Bey said. “And then there’s the bad locker room. I mean, it’s horrible.”
No questioning that, but that 52-year-old visiting football locker room is also the spot of one of the Steelers’ greatest moments. It’s where the franchise celebrated earning its first Super Bowl berth via a 24-13 victory Dec. 29, 1974.
That was just one of two AFC title games the Steelers played in Oakland and also part of a stretch of five consecutive seasons the Steelers and Raiders met in the postseason.
The most famed moment among those meetings, of course, came at Three Rivers Stadium: Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception in 1972. The Hall of Fame running back will be in Oakland for Sunday’s game.
“There’s a rumor going around that Phil Villapiano is going to be escorting Franco Harris to the stadium,” Gruden said. “If that happens, that will be one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”
The linebacker who was covering Harris when he made the famous deflected catch, Vallapiano is one of several Raiders who, to this day, believes the Immaculate Reception was illegal.
For almost four decades until his death, eccentric Raiders owner Al Davis was among that group of Immaculate Reception truthers. And to hear Bleier tell it, it was the frosty relationship between Davis and Steelers coach Chuck Noll that led to the rivalry. The two were on the staff of the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers together from 1960-62.
“One of the reasons that we didn’t have numbers on our practice jerseys was because of the fact that Chuck Noll just never trusted Al,” Bleier said. “And it would be harder for them to be able to spy on us and understand who’s playing what position.
“Or at least that’s how part of that story goes.”
Heyward-Bey will be the only active player on the field Sunday to have played in a game for the Steelers and the Raiders.
“There’s teams that when you think of the NFL you think of: the Steelers, the Raiders, the Cowboys,” he said. “They are the staples of the NFL. So it’s always a big game when it’s storied franchises like that.
“And, no doubt, it’s a cool place to play.”
A place where the Steelers haven’t won for 23 years and are 2-6 all-time during the regular season.
After Sunday, the next time they meet — in all likelihood — the “Oakland” will have been stripped from what is decades of history in the Oakland Raiders-Pittsburgh Steelers rivalry. Think it won’t be the same? Remember, this happened once before (the Steelers played at the Los Angeles Raiders four times in the 1980s and ‘90s), and the memories and the rivalry endured.
“There’s a lot of games to look forward to,” Steelers defensive captain Cameron Heyward said. “But when these two teams meet, there’s a lot of history that goes along with them.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.