In the beginning, the Ravens stunk. They lost nine of their first 12 games and seemed sure to fall again when the Pittsburgh Steelers rode into town Dec. 1, 1996.
At 9-3, the Steelers were playoff-bound, a first-place club expected to hand the home team its fifth straight loss. Pittsburgh was smug from the top down.
"We're playing the Baltimore Ravens, whatever their name is," Steelers president Dan Rooney said.
That snooty attitude vexed the Ravens' Derrick Alexander, a starting wide receiver. And when he and his teammates stepped on the field at Memorial Stadium, to the jeers of thousands of Pittsburgh fans, Alexander seethed.
"There seemed to be more Steelers fans at our place than us, and they all waved those yellow 'Terrible Towels,'" Alexander, 39, recalled. "That got us pumped up, made us want to play harder. We were thinking, 'Get these guys out of our stadium.' "
Leave, the Steelers did, upset by the Ravens, 31-17.
It was the team's first-ever victory over Pittsburgh, and no one played better than Alexander, who had 7 receptions for 198 yards (second-most in Ravens' history) and a touchdown.
A first-round pick from Michigan, Alexander shredded the Steelers' pass defense — No. 1 in the AFC — and, on one play, froze Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson with a head fake on a 53-yard completion.
Alexander also had a 44-yard reception and a 24-yard TD from quarterback Vinny Testaverde. He bunched five of his catches in the second quarter, when the Ravens built a 24-10 lead from which the Steelers never recovered.
"Derrick played as fine a football game as you can play for a receiver," Ravens' coach Ted Marchibroda said then. "He did an outstanding job against an outstanding defensive team."
Fifteen years later, the victory still resonates with Alexander. Drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 1994, prior to their move to Baltimore, he'd anguished through seven straight losses to Pittsburgh. After the win, the Ravens wouldn't defeat the Steelers again for three more years.
The streak would have been worse, had Alexander not intervened.
"That day, I just felt like I couldn't be stopped," he said. "In the huddle, Vinny kept saying, 'Keep it going, keep it going.' He just kept coming at me.
"Nobody on the field was going to keep me from getting open and making the plays in that game. It happens like that, every once in awhile."
Alexander played two stellar years in Baltimore, catching 127 passes for more than 2,100 yards and 18 TDs. Then, a free agent, he signed with Kansas City, hoping to latch on with a winner.
"The Ravens were still losing, and the Chiefs had gone 13-3 the year before (1997)," he said. "Plus, they had Elvis Grbac, my old college quarterback. With them, I thought I'd have a better chance of getting further into the playoffs."
But Kansas City never reached the postseason in Alexander's four years there. And the 2000 Ravens won the Super Bowl.
In hindsight, he said, "It probably would have been a good idea to stay (in Baltimore)."
Now retired, Alexander lives in Leawood, Kan., with his wife and three daughters. A computer buff, he works as a systems engineer for a world-wide health care company, creating software for hospitals.
In his spare time, he ignores his aching knees and messes around on the basketball court in his driveway, or plays slow-pitch softball. The Ravens' all-time leader in yards-per-reception (16.6) is an outfielder and leadoff hitter.
"I can still run a little bit," he said.
His time in Baltimore, though short, was well-spent.
"I met my wife there, at a club called Louie-Louie's, and ate a lot of great crabs," Alexander said.
And, though he lives in Chiefs' country, he still follows the Ravens. Sunday, he'll desert the family, retreat to his basement and watch his old team play Pittsburgh on one of the four TVs he has tuned to NFL contests.
"I sit on a bar stool so I can swivel and watch all of the games," he said. "My prediction? It'll be tight. but I'll go with the Ravens, 20-17.
"In my mind, I'll be out there. Mentally, I still feel like I'm 20."
Baltimore Sun photo of Derrick Alexander by Karl Merton Ferron / Dec. 7, 1997