There are few rivalries in all of sports more bitter than the one between the Oakland Raiders and the Denver Broncos. They became natural rivals in 1960 when they entered the AFL together in the same division. One could say the bitter rivalry started at that time, but back then they were at least on even footing with the Chiefs and Chargers.
The Raiders first bitter rival was probably the Chiefs as the two teams were the best in the AFC West back in the early days. The Broncos, on the other hand, were a laughing stock and didn't have their first winning season until 13 seasons into their existence.
Come the 70's the Raiders' attention would shift outside the division altogether and to the Pittsburgh Steelers where they found a decade long thorn in their sides.
The Broncos hated the Raiders plenty, as did a few teams back in those days. But it was pretty one-sided as the Raiders always got the better of the deal. So, while the Broncos players were fuming, the Raiders were more concerned about teams like the Steelers and Dolphins.
Some hatred between the Raiders and Broncos started to brew in the 80's when the Raiders were denied the right to trade for John Elway and he became a Bronco. But even then, the hatred from Al Davis was more geared toward the league itself and commissioner, Pete Rozelle, as the man who was angry at Al Davis for suing the league to allow him to move his team to Los Angeles.
The Raiders began the 80's with their second Super Bowl win and began their time in Los Angeles with their third championship. In the late 80's, with Elway at the helm in Denver and the Raiders on a downturn, the Broncos began going to Super Bowls. They lost all three of them, but they were suddenly the team to beat in the AFC and the Raiders were looking up at them for once.
With the Raiders chasing the Broncos heading into the 90's, the seeds of a new level of hatred could be planted. Former Broncos General Manager and Director of College scouting, Ted Sundquist, remembers vividly the day it all began. He tells the story in full detail.
"It would have been 1993," Sundquist said in an exclusive interview. "Both [the Broncos] and the Raiders were wildcards. Kansas City won the division and the Raiders were the second wildcard and there were three 9-7 teams. The Raiders pulled out the first wildcard and we pulled out the second wildcard. We went down there and played them in the coliseum and just got our butts handed to us. It had to be the most depressed that I ever remember seeing (Broncos Defensive Coordinator) Charlie Waters. In the fourth quarter he's sitting on the bench and just has no answer. We couldn't stop them and the crowd was going crazy.
"We played them in week 18 -- there were two bye weeks then. If we had beaten them, we would have gone 10-6, they would have gone 9-7 and the playoff game would have been in Denver. But we lost in overtime, in LA, 33-30. And we had to turn right around and go right back and play them in the coliseum and they just smoked us. And the thing about that game, the week before we had a 27-13 lead at halftime and blew the first half lead in the second half and they outscored us 20-3 in the second half. So, that turned us around and put us in the wildcard spot number two and forced us to have to go back to LA and then they kicked our butt. And that was probably two of the hardest back-to-back losses that I had.
"It played hard on the team and we came back the following season and we didn't improve, we went to 7-9 and [Wade Phillips] ended up getting fired and Mike (Shanahan) came on."
"Every club, you can go to a point in the timeline and get the stone in the pond that causes a ripple effect. It would be fairly easy to say that that was one of the stones back then that kind of convinced us that we weren't getting where we wanted to go. Losing back to back to the Raiders in LA and under the circumstances not coming back the next year and learning from that and actually digressing and I think Pat (Bowlen) was like ‘Ok, I'm gonna go get my guy now'. He was coming off a Super Bowl with San Francisco. That's a big one. That's a big memory for me early, early in my career and pretty much set the stage for the importance of the Raider, Bronco rivalry. At least for me."
The Broncos adding Mike Shanahan is what really took the rivalry between these two teams to a new level. Shanahan had been fired by the Raiders four weeks into the 1989 season after just 20 games on the job. Al Davis said it was "with cause" and refused to pay him the remainder of his salary.
Following his firing, he went back to the Broncos for one season as an offensive assistant before heading to the 49ers in 1992 as offensive coordinator.
Then in 1993, when the Raiders had beaten and demoralized the Broncos the way they did in those back to back games, the wheels were set in motion for a coaching change in Denver and Shanahan returned with plans on exacting his revenge on Al Davis and the Raiders twice a season.
"From Denver to the Raiders perspective, I think it got trumped up quite a bit when Mike was head coach because of his relationship with Al Davis and some of the things that went on between them and Al firing him," Sundquist continued. "He always felt like Al Davis owed him money. And Al Davis always said he didn't owe him any money. It was like $200,000 that Mike said Al had stiffed him out of a contract or something and Al was like ‘No' and afterwards Mike's making six, seven million from the Broncos and he's still fired up about that $200,000. I think that was something that he used to motivate himself, so to speak, and really just kinda stoke his fire. But it did. It went back and forth to that money that supposedly was owed by Al to Mike when they severed the relationship.
"Certainly I think he circled those two dates on his personal calendar and I think the media [in Denver] knew that there was a little friction there that they always kind of played it up big. So, in my years with the Broncos, the Raiders were the biggest rivalry in the game that really made our hair stand up on the back of our neck a little bit within the division."
Shanahan as head coach in Denver was plenty to raise the bitterness factor to an all-time high. The fact that in just his second year on the job he led the Broncos to three straight double-digit wins seasons and two Super Bowl wins, only stood to further enrage Al Davis.
As soon as the 90's ended, the Raiders were back on top. They had three straight double digit win seasons of their own, culminating in a trip to the Super Bowl where, as fate would have it, they would lose to their former head coach, John Gruden.
Then it was the Broncos turn and THEY had three straight double digit win seasons. Unfortunately for the Raiders, after that they were unable to swing things back their way. For several years after that the Broncos hovered around .500 while the Raiders were mired in a stretch of historic futility.
In 2008, the Broncos cleaned house. Shanahan was fired as Head Coach and Executive Vice President and Sundquist was fired as General Manager after seven seasons on the job.
During those seven seasons while Shanahan and Sundquist were in the Broncos front office, Al Davis would not speak personally with the Broncos. In the rare instance business needed to occur between the two franchises, Sundquist would speak with Amy Trask or another person in the personnel department. Never to Al Davis directly.
Sundquist has moved on from NFL front offices and scouting departments now. Currently he's a contributor to the website The Football Educator and the site's purpose is in the title. He also hosts a Denver radio program called Mile High Sports.
It wasn't until Sundquist had moved on from the Broncos that he had his first encounter with Al Davis. Sundquist tells the story of that moment.
"After I left the Broncos, I was driving in the mountains with my wife. We were on our way up to our house up in the mountains that we've got and the phone rang and it was Mr Davis' assistant and she said ‘I've got Al Davis on the line and he'd like to speak with you.' and I was like ‘Are you kiddin' me?" Here I am winding through the mountains and I tell my wife ‘We're gonna have to pull over to the side of the road, Al Davis wants to talk!'
"So, we got on the phone and he asked how I was doing, and how things were going, and was I staying up on the league, and asked me a few questions. And I thought ‘Hey, he's gonna ask me if I have any aspirations of coming out to Oakland and helping them out'. And in the end I think all he was doing was just kinda fishing. Seeing where I was at and might tell him anything and what was going on in Denver. It was funny. He did ask me ‘what were they paying you out there?' and I told him and he was like ‘Oh, no, no, there's no way we'd do that.' (laughs) So, why would you ask me the question?
"But it was a fun conversation and it was good and it gave me the opportunity to have a one-on-one with him after leaving Denver which kind of made it a little different than had I been there as the general manager. I tell you what, say what you will, he meant a lot to football. He's a big part of why the league is what it is now and I think in the long run, we'll look back and kind of miss him to be quite honest with you."
There are a lot of people with varying feelings about Al Davis and for that matter, the Raiders. But even amidst bitter rivalries, there's an underlying respect.
"I've always said a strong Raiders is good for the NFL," said Sundquist. "When they fell on hard times, you wish from [Al Davis'] perspective he'd asked for more help and been a little more open to receiving help. That there'd have been a lot of people that would have gone to work for him and work for that organization. It started to slip on him a little bit and to be honest with you I think it was bad for the league because I do think a strong Raiders, not only in the division but in the league, is good for the league.
"There is a mystique about the Raiders. Say what you want about Al Davis, but he was a masterful marketing guy from that standpoint. It's just fun. It's fun when they're good and it's fun when they're playing good football."
The Broncos once again have an elite quarterback and are Super Bowl contenders. The intense hatred between these two clubs may have cooled some with the departure of Mike Shanahan and the death of Al Davis but make no mistake, it still exists. John Elway is the Broncos' Executive Vice President and he was a big part of that rivalry over his 16-year career (1983-98). The Raiders even hired away a Broncos assistant to be their head coach -- Dennis Allen -- just as they did with Shanahan so many years ago.
It has now been 20 years since those back-to-back Raiders wins made the ripples that created the tsunami of hate between these two franchises. It has also been 10 years since the Raiders were able to hold their own in the rivalry, let alone fight back. The hate may still be there but real bitter rivals have their roots in respect for formidable opponents. So, just as it started, it would take a pivotal Raiders victory over the Broncos to spark the fires of this rivalry once again.