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Steelers Vs. Ravens: Exploring the Origins of One of the NFL's Best Modern Rivalries

The Steelers vs. the Ravens. The NFL has longer rivalries and rivalries with deeper socio-historical roots but I defy you to produce a feud in today's NFL that features more hard-hitting, close games and higher stakes involved when the two teams square off.

The Steelers and Raven's don't play each other - they test each other's wills, nerves and breaking points.

Intensity between these teams runs so high that people seldom question how it all got started, a mistake we'll begin to rectify here on BTSC.

Understanding Baltimoreans

To understand this rivalry, one must first understand the character of Baltimoreans, which can be tricky until you experience Charm City up close.

My folks moved to Maryland's DC suburbs when I was 14 months old. I may bleed Black and Gold, but my accent betrays my cumulative 25 years living in Maryland.

But the DC Metro area had, and to some extent still retains, a distinct cultural identify from Baltimore and the two city's approach to their sports teams is particularly instructive.

When the Senators left DC, Washingtonians seamlessly shifted their baseball loyalties to the Baltimore Orioles. The scorn I earned from my fellow second graders after wearning  Pittsburgh Pirates during the 1979 World Seriestaught me this lesson at an early age.  

When Bobby Irsay dispatched the MayFlower trucks to steal the Colts from Baltimore on that snowy, dark 1984 night, it made news in DC, but most simply shrugged their shoulders and said, "Who cares? The Colts suck anyway."

And the Washington crowd naively assumed the Redskins became Baltimore's team.

The Legacy of Football in Baltimore

Going to college in Baltimore showed me just how ignorant this assumption was.

Even in 1994 you could go to Angelos' in the working-class neighborhood of Hamden for the world largest slice of pizza and still see black and white photos of Johnny Unitas, Don Shula and other Colt's legends prominently adorning the walls, and overhear old timers anguishing over why Don Shula waited so long to play Unitas in Super Bowl III.

Like Pittsburgh, Baltimore is at its core a football town.

Baltimoreans not only failed to adopt the Redskins and they deeply resented attempts to "shove the Redskins down our throats."

As Elliot King, chair Loyola Maryland's Writing and Media department, explains "When I moved here in 1992, it was clear that the Redskins were anything but the home team." (Emphasis in the original.) 

Maryland's "Give Baltimore the Ball" campaign for an NFL expansion franchise unified the city, and they took it in stride when the NFL snubbed them and award a team to Jacksonville (17 years later, I'd like to invite up Paul Tagliabue to the tarpped upper deck in Jacksonville to explain that one, but I digress....)

Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke had in fact sabotaged Baltimore's bid, eyeing the Baltimore market and a stadium site in Laurel, Maryland. Michael Wilbon summarized the idiocy of the idea by observing "there are people in Baltimore who would rather die and go to hell than see the Redskins move that deep into Maryland."

Baltimore didn't want the Redskins, they wanted their own team. Months after rejecting the Redskins, between 30 and 40 thousand Baltimoreans began regularly filling up Memorial Stadium to watch the Baltimore CFL Colts/CFL's/Stallions.

Art Modell took note, and after negotiating in bad faith with Cleveland, he threw up his arms and accepted the Maryland Stadium Authority's offer to build him a stadium in Baltimore.  

The Baltimore Ravens were born.

Stocking the Keg with Gun Powder

With football ingrained in Baltimore's DNA, one might expect the Ravens-Steelers rivalry to be automatic and in the collective memories of many it was.

Dan Gigler, Post-Gazette on-line editor, was a Johns Hopkins student during Super Bowl XXX and reported Baltimoreans expressing sympathy after the Steelers heart breaking loss, noting that:

That memory makes me laugh because starting that fall, they would've spit on a Steelers fan in the same situation.

Memories can be tricky things, because the Steelers-Ravens rivalry didn't start in 1996.

Steelers fans dominated Memorial Stadium the first Steelers-Ravens games in 1996 and 1997. I was present for the Kordell Stewart's 5 interception-to come from behind victory in 1997, and most of the cars honking horns and waving Terrible Towels had Maryland license plates.

As late as 1998, papers were quoting Art Modell's surprise at the fact when scores from other games were announced and the Steelers were winning, the crowd at  Stadium cheered. There was even a famous incident where a Baltimore municipal worker made announcements about snow-related closings while wearing a Steelers jacket. (Can't find links for either of those, any help is appreciated.)

William C. "Bill" Woodcock Jr., Maryland native, hospital administrator, political activist, and Ravens season ticket holder explains the still-born nature of the Steelers-Ravens rivalry this way:

I think the Ravens-Steelers games have always been anticipated here because of the proximity of the two cities, their common blue collar background as industrial cities, that so many people in the area have roots in Pittsburgh, and because a fair number of Baltimore NFL fans started to adopt the Steelers as their team during our 12 years without the NFL.

Woodcock, however, concedes that it took time for the Steelers-Ravens fuse to be lit.

Lighting the Fuse...

For my money, the Steelers and Ravens lit the fuse on their on September 3, 2000 in a little corner of Baltimore. Since 1992 the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan of Maryland's headquarters had been at the legendary Purple Goose Saloon in South Baltimore, a pioneer outpost in the fledgling Steelers Nation movement.

The Goose was a shot-n-beer joint that could have held its own with the taverns on Carson Street across from J&L. During the '97, '98, and '99 locals would occasionally stroll in and wonder why the place was packed with Steelers fans and sigh when staff rebuffed requests to turn on the Ravens game.

Opening day against the Ravens in 2000 was different.

Several Ravens fans were on hand, and as the Ravens built up their 20-0 shut out victory over the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium tension in the stadium got worse.

I don't think any blows were actually exchanged, but I did have to restrain a friend, and Steve Chiurazzi, Shaler Township native and then President of the PSFCM, congratulated Ravens fans after the game, but issued an angry warning from the podium that Ravens fans would be wise to take their victory and get out.

Chiurazzi's view of the rivalry is more in line with Gigler's:

I thing the Steelers and raisins [sic] became instant rivals in the eyes of raisin fans only.  I think Baltimore, as a whole, has an inferiority complex.  Maybe this is due to being Washington, DC's "little sister" and not being mentioned on weather maps when they only show DC and Philly.  Who knows?  Whatever the reason, raisin fans have always felt the need to try and flex their "muscles" whenever they can.  Initially, the rivalry was in their eyes, not those of Steelers fans.  Some of the classic matchups over the past few years have changed that.

While I don't share the "instant rival" interpretation there is one classic match up that jumps to mind. The Steelers-Ravens divisional playoff game at Heinz Field in January 2002.

2001 was my first abroad, but sure to be back in the US for the playoffs and my return was rewarded with the explosion of the Steelers and Ravens rivalry had exploded.

Whereas 18 months before tension at the Purple Goose had come down to a half dozen Ravens fans making trouble, the patrons of the bar had two police cars on site before kickoff, with a big sign saying "Closed for Private Party - Steelers Fans Only."

Bill Woodcock also points to that game as the ignition point in the rivalry. Recalling:

But the game where I think the Ravens-Steelers game started to become a rivalry was the 2001 divisional round playoff game in Pittsburgh.  That was a season where the Ravens persevered through a lot of adversity, namely Jamal Lewis being placed on the IR in training camp, the failed Elvis Grbac experiment, Ray Lewis missed a significant amount of time due to injury, and the Super Bowl hangover.  Still, that team went to Miami and won in the Wild Card round, and if we would have gotten past Pittsburgh in the divisional round, many Ravens fans figured that the Ravens would again beat the Raiders in the AFC championship and return to the Super Bowl.

But the Steelers stood in the way and won the game.  A game that many here still say, would've been won by the Ravens, had Randall Cunningham started at QB rather than Grbac.  So that was the first time where the Steelers stopped a Ravens playoff run-- a feat that has since been repeated, of course-- and I think that the definition of who has the upper hand in the rivalry is who beats who in the playoffs.  Whether one team beats another 10 times in a row in the regular season, wins against the other in January are what's going to define the stronger team.

Two Biggest Boys on the Block

Woodcock's right. Since that faithful day, despite flashes by the Tennessee Titans and the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers and Ravens have been the two biggest boys on the block in the AFC Central/North.

The towns are similar. Their populations have their own, distinct accents. The two franchises share a common build through the draft and hitting hard on the field philosophies.

Mix that together with high stakes and physical intensity of the Steelers vs. the Ravens and you not only get the NFL's best rivalry, but very best of the NFL itself.