Franco Harris, far left, sees the ball fly into the air after the Oakland Raiders' Jack Tatum decks the Steelers' Frenchy Fuqua (33), setting up the "Immaculate Reception."
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
How do you get one 2-4 team interested in playing another 2-4 team? Mike Tomlin pulled out a history book. The title: Steelers vs. Raiders, 1970s.
Tomlin regaled his players this week with stories from the ancient rivalry that spawned Super Bowls, Hall of Fame careers and lawsuits. To a man, his players say they gobbled it all up even if Tomlin missed most of it -- he was born the same year the Immaculate Reception occurred.
"Coach T was breaking down the history," Ike Taylor said. "There's a lot of history behind those games. Back in the '70s. I wasn't even thought about. I was born in '80."
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And guard David DeCastro was born in 1990. By then, Steelers-Raiders was basically irrelevant. But he and other young Steelers still enjoyed Tomlin's history lesson on the rivalry between two franchises that have won nine Super Bowls between them. In four of those Super Bowls, two each, the Lombardi Trophy first had to be won through a playoff or championship game between the teams.
"It's cool to look back," said DeCastro, who played in the Raiders' shadows at Stanford. "It's old, but it's always cool. He talked to us about events that happened that I wasn't fully aware of."
Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who grew up in Dormont, played two seasons for the Raiders and has now heard the history from both sides.
"Anytime you have an old-school rivalry like that, it goes on forever. I think what keeps it going is the fans. The fans are so great in Pittsburgh, in Oakland, they've been around so long [and] they love their teams. They remember the old Steelers-Raiders games. That's what makes it special, the fans make it special," Gradkowski said.
"It's guys like my dad who remember those old-time games. Coach Tomlin showed us the importance of this game, the history lesson."
Like what? Did he use audio-video assistance or merely use the old rivalry as some sort of metaphor, the way Bill Cowher told his team about the impossible journey of Christopher Columbus as the Steelers entered the 2005 playoffs as the lowest seed?
"I knew about the Immaculate Reception," Emmanuel Sanders said. "But I didn't know about the Ice Bowl and all the other games, the Criminal Element game and stuff like that. It was definitely intriguing to hear, definitely cool.
"It kind of motivated guys to allow us to know that we have to go out there and bring our A game, just based off the history of the game.''
Maybe Tomlin could have given that history lesson last year, when the Steelers went to Oakland and were upset, 34-31, by a Raiders team that finished the season 4-12. That should be motivation enough for this team. But 21 players on this team were not Steelers last year, so what do they know even about the modern rivalry with the Raiders, who have won three of the past four against the Steelers?
"He thought it was the right time to break down the history," Taylor said of Tomlin's stories. "Because you have a lot of young guys who know nothing abut the Raiders and the Steelers. A lot of young guys weren't here last year."
Marcus Gilbert, who tasted Raiders-Steelers for the first time as a rookie last season, said: "It's two storied franchises. Every time you step on the field, it's a close game, a big challenge. For decades. Even last year, we went in there and lost by a field goal.
"When they play the Steelers, they know what it is, when we play them, we know what it is."
It is a matchup of 2-4 teams, with the loser falling farther behind the eight ball in their goal to make the playoffs. That's something the Raiders haven't done since 2002, when they reached the Super Bowl and lost to their old coach, Jon Gruden, and his Buccaneers.
They've been in free fall ever since. That's also the previous time they had a winning record and Dennis Allen is in his second season as their seventh head coach since that Super Bowl 11 years ago.
That may be why Tomlin brought up the two teams' rivalry from 35-40 years ago, to take their mind off the sad state of affairs the Raiders have become in the 21st century.
"It doesn't matter," Taylor said. "A lot of teams get up to play us for some reason. They're looking at our record and they know it's going to be a physical game. Regardless what their record is, we know it's going to be a physical game."
Raiders fans, now they're the real deal.
"It's scary," Taylor said. "It's scary going into that 'Black Hole.' "
O.co Coliseum, formerly Alameda County Coliseum, is the oldest and smallest stadium in the AFC, built in 1966 with a capacity of 53,286. Many come dressed in outrageous, intimidating outfits. It's nothing to see a fan dressed in a Raiders uniform, his face painted silver and black with long spikes sticking out of his shirt.
DeCastro was injured and did not make the trip as a rookie last season.
"I heard they're crazy. They'll Google you and bring up anything they can find, any dirt on you. It's their right and they're going to try to rattle you and get you off your game. You have to stay focused and play football," DeCastro said.
Gradkowski enjoyed it all when he played there.
"It's Halloween out there every week, and this week, it makes it even more special because it's so close to Halloween," he said. "It will be interesting to see them dress up. It's a cool environment."
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