The best football was played in the 1970s, especially when the Raiders played the Pittsburgh Steelers. The most memorable games, like the Immaculate Reception, the Ice Bowl and the Lytle Fumble happened when the Raiders played. So often the luck ran against the Raiders. On the upside, I learned enough to write a book! Here is the introduction to it.
Introduction – "What I Learned from Watching Football"
My purpose in writing this prospective book is to explain how affiliation with a team has affected my perception of competition in the world outside of football.
It all started on Sunday mornings in the autumn of the early 1970s. That was football day. There would be a game on at 10:00 AM (Pacific Time) and another one on at 1:00 PM. Then, to soften the blow of having to go to school the next day, there would be a game on Monday night.
This era of professional football represented the peak of what the sport has to offer. What made this game great is exactly what is missing from today’s professional football:
A classic rivalry that fans could follow. Players rarely changed teams because there was no free agency then and trades did not happen too often. As a result, one could identify the best teams easily because they kept the same players and because they consistently made the playoffs.
A focus on the game instead of hype. There was no ESPN or sports radio then. Now many fans get tired of all of the pre-game shows and just want to see the game.
It was all about the teams rather than the players. Back then, I participated in a pool in which we chose the team winners of the games. Now fans follow fantasy football players and care more about individual performances than what should matter most, team performances.
Fans who watched the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Oakland Raiders in the 1970s knew they were watching two heavyweights go at it and that they would get their money (or time)’s worth. We are still waiting for another epic rivalry and may never get it thanks to team expansion, free agency and the focus on individual performances which have detracted from the competitive team sport that football really is.
I knew the history of these teams throughout the 1970s. My Raiders kept on finishing as the runners-up in the American Football Conference. Watching the games and reading the NFL Prologs (magazines which summarized entire seasons in accounts and pictures) kept me informed.
From reading, watching games and catching clips of old games on commercials like Alcoa’s "Fantastic Finishes," I knew about big games involving the Raiders. These games, and certain memorable plays in particular, will be the focus of this book as it is through them that I learned about competition with others.
One was the "Immaculate Reception," the bizarre play by which the Steelers beat the Raiders in the 1972 playoffs. In my mind, I still see a Raider and a Steeler colliding with each other and a ball at the same time. I knew it mattered which one actually touched the ball. But it took years to reconcile the images with the outcome. I give my thoughts on what really happened in Chapter 1.
I knew about the Steelers’ consecutive victories over the Raiders in the 1974 and 1975 AFC championship games. The more I read and saw Raider losses in the big games, the more I liked them. A pattern began to emerge: the Raiders would win the Western Division, beat their first round opponents and come up a little short against the Steelers in the championship game.
I was just learning how to play poker at this time and I drew a subtle analogy with football. The Steelers had the great hand every year. Their front defensive four, the "Steel Curtain," completely crushed the Raider running game in the 1974 championship, holding them to 29 yards in 21 carries. The Raider quarterback, Ken Stabler, carried the team by passing, especially to wide receiver Cliff Branch. But the Steelers began to anticipate the pass on every play and picked off Stabler’s pass with about a minute left in the game to preserve the win. I go over this game in Chapter 2.
The teams played in the following season’s championship game on an icy field in Pittsburgh. Going into the final two minutes, the Steelers appeared secure with a 16-7 lead. The Raiders managed to recover a fumble and move down the field. On third down, Raider coach John Madden sent placekicker George Blanda to attempt a 41-yard field goal, which he made.
On the subsequent onside kick, Raider Dave Casper fell on the ball at the Raider 44-yard line. The scoreboard showed just seven seconds left. The championship of the American Football Conference and the right to go to the Super Bowl would be decided by the game’s final play.
Years later I would realize that this play would make me a die-hard Raider fan. Obviously, I hoped that the Raiders would pull this game out with a miracle finish, not unlike the Cowboys’ Roger Staubach pass to Drew Person to beat the Vikings in a playoff game just a week before.
But that would have cost the Raiders their "bridesmaid" status that made them so loveable. They would no longer be the team that tried harder (like the Avis commercials of that area). The way it ended epitomized the Raiders’ ability to give "it the best effort," as one of the announcers said. It also gave life to the idea of trying again next year. See Chapter 3 for more details of this remarkable game which confirmed my commitment to the team.
That next year was 1976. I knew all of the players and watched as many of their games as possible. With the exception of a trouncing at the hands of the New England Patriots, the Raiders won every single game and claimed the Super Bowl trophy that had eluded them so many times before.
My interest in the Raiders did not increase because they finally won the big one, but it did when they refused to deliberately lose a game to ensure that the Steelers would miss the playoffs. On a Monday night, they confounded their critics and crushed the Cincinnati Bengals by a score of 35-20. Read about character and integrity shown in this game in Chapter 4.
I rooted them on in 1977 and followed them again to the championship game. This time they played in Denver against the Broncos.
The teams appeared to be evenly matched. Both had great defenses and stars on offense. The Broncos had a huge crowd on hand, but the Raiders had big game experience and were, after all, the defending Super Bowl champions.
Looking back on the game, this was the last time my heart was in my throat for a Raider game. My stomach was so uneasy that several times during the game I had to take a break and work off the nervous energy by playing outside. This game would be the bookend of the "glory years" of what I now call real football. I chronicle this game in Chapter 5.
From 1978 on, the Raiders were never the same and neither would be the game itself. The paralysis of Darryl Stingley from a legal hit by Jack Tatum in an exhibition game in August 1978 saddened me. I had wanted to believe that football was controlled violence and would never permanently injure anyone. How wrong I was. I discuss this tragic play in Chapter 6.
The Raiders won a game in 1978 in which their backs were to the wall. By all accounts, however, they used a play that should have ruled an incomplete pass instead of a fumble that was subsequently recovered by Dave Casper in the end zone for a touchdown as time ran out. Dubbed the "Holy Roller," this game made me think about the ethics of using an illegal play as compared to the ethics of surrender. See Chapter 7.
The Raiders failed to make the playoffs in 1978 and 1979 and then traded Stabler to the Houston Oilers. Other stars, like Tatum, Casper, Villapiano and Biletnikoff, the heart of the team I loved, left the team around this time as well. Though the Raiders won the Super Bowl again for the 1980 season, it was not the same. The feeling of excitement in watching the NFL had gone and would never return.
Note to the Reader: I have not made the chapters available yet. Please respond here or to HartwellPerspective@gmail.com if you are interested in reading the rest of this book.