As the Ravens prepare for Sunday's AFC North showdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the latest chapter of what many consider the NFL's best rivalry, The Sun caught up this week with several participants from the series to get some of their memories from past meetings.
Not long after he was selected in the first round by the Ravens in 1997, linebacker Peter Boulware starting hearing about a burgeoning rivalry with the Steelers and how much Ravens' fans disliked that team from Pittsburgh. After a standout college career at Florida State, Boulware's idea of a rivalry centered on the Seminoles' annual grudge match with the Florida Gators. But that was about to change. Boulware said this week that playing in the Ravens-Steelers' rivalry "changes you forever."
"They didn't really compare. It's funny, but I tell people all the time in Tallahassee that although Florida is a huge rival, I can honestly say that I dislike the Pittsburgh Steelers 10 times more than I dislike the Florida Gators," Boulware said. "When I first played them, they had Mark Bruener. He was a tight end and he was a bruiser. He used to hold all the time and I thought he was a cheap player just because he did that. But it wasn't just him. Kordell Stewart, in my first year, he broke a 50-yard run on us, and then Jerome Bettis, all those guys, they just had a lot of guys that were good players, but they talked a lot of trash, too. And we talked our trash. We had our players as well. Again, if you played the Pittsburgh Steelers, you were out for blood."
Bill Cowher was the head coach of the Steelers for 15 seasons before becoming a studio analyst for the NFL on CBS. When he was asked what was his biggest memory from the rivalry, he said, "I sit next to my memory every Sunday," referring to former Ravens tight end and his current CBS colleague, Shannon Sharpe. Cowher said that he and Sharpe "relive the rivalry all the time," especially the two weeks a year the Ravens-Steelers play. Sharpe constantly brings up how the Ravens opened their Super-Bowl winning 2000 season with a 16-0 victory over the Steelers. Cowher reminds Sharpe that the Steelers beat the Ravens, 9-6, two month later. The one memory that sticks out to Cowher, however, is the start of the Ben Roethlisberger era in 2004, fittingly against the Ravens.
"Obviously, it was in an unfortunate way but that's where Ben got his indoctrination," Cowher said. "Tommy Maddox got a pretty big hit, I think, from Bart Scott. And we brought Ben Roethlisberger in during his rookie year in the season game of the season and he finished the game. Baltimore beat us pretty good and Ben's first start was next week in Miami and we never looked back. His career started because of a big hit from the Ravens that put Tommy Maddox out of the game."
Some of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco's best and worst moments as a pro have come on the worn grass at Heinz Field. But just days before he was to return to the scene of his last-second, game-winning touchdown pass to Torrey Smith last year, Flacco recalled his first visit to play the Steelers in 2008, a 23-20 overtime loss in a prime-time game.
"It was a lot of fun. We went up there, and we played a game that we probably all think we should have won. Obviously, we were disappointed, but it was a lot of fun to go up there," Flacco said. "Being a rookie, just going up there and feeling how physical they are as a team and how good they are as a team, it's always been a great place to go back to every year. The other thing I remember is we hit Derrick Mason in the corner, and if we had probably challenged the play, we might have gotten a touchdown out of it. We never challenged it and they called it incomplete."
Former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis didn't consider himself a trash talker. He spoke with his pads and any time he had the ball in his hands. But the Steelers, particularly their linebacker trio of Joey Porter, Larry Foote and James Farrior, who Lewis calls "The Three Amigos," had a way of bringing out the worse in Lewis. He relished the opportunity to shut them up.
"One time, I was running and going around the corner and I saw Foote and I just gave him a stiff arm and pushed him to the ground. I saw Farrior and gave him a stiff arm and pushed him to the ground. And then I saw Porter coming, and when I saw Porter coming, I said, 'OK this is it. This is where I get it,'" Lewis said. "I guess he thought I was going to run away from him, but I just took my head and said, 'I'm going to give it to him.' I lifted him and pinned him to the ground. He got me down, but I was on top. I kind of got up and pushed his facemask down. He came back after me after the play so I knew he was going to get me back. I got the ball on the next play and I just ran looking for the ground because I knew he was coming for me. So I hit the ground and the next thing I know, I see these hands in my facemask and it was dirt and grass and his hands poking into my eyes and putting dirt and grass in my face. He ended up getting a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness and it worked out for us."
Bennie Thompson, the former Ravens safety and special teams ace, loved to hit so few games got him going more than facing the Steelers. He said that he and his teammates "didn't give a [damn] about who won. We cared about how many of their guys we put in the whirlpool or the hot tub, how many guys were on the injury report the next week." Thompson said that the hardest he was ever hit was against the Steelers.
"We were playing in Memorial Stadium against Pittsburgh and it was a kickoff. Their special teams leader, Myron Bell, hit me so hard he literally knocked my helmet off. I still went and made the tackle and the whole stadium went crazy," Thompson recalled. "After the game, Bill Cowher came up to me and said he had never seen a guy like me before. I'm not a Bill Cowher fan because of who he coached for so I didn't care but he sent his best guy after me and that was the hardest I've ever been hit. I was determined to make the tackle."
Recently-retired wide receiver Hines Ward played for the Steelers for 14 seasons and played the part of villain in this rivalry, at least in the eyes of Ravens' fans. Now an analyst for NBC's Sunday Nigh Football pre-game show, he was reminded just how much Ravens' fans hate the Steelers in Week Three while at M&T Bank Stadium for the Ravens-New England Patriots game. A deafening roar went up in the stands before the game when the score of the Steelers' loss to the Oakland Raiders was put up on the scoreboard. It brought to mind Ward's favorite story to tell about the rivalry.
"There will always be one vision that will stick with me from 14 years of playing in Baltimore," Ward said earlier this week. " I remember we played them on a Sunday night and pulling up to the stadium and seeing three generations - a grandfather, a Dad and a 4-year-old kid - giving us the finger. To me, that told everything about what this series is about: a genuine dislike but also respect."
[Edward Lee and Aaron Wilson contributed to these vignettes]