The truth about rivalries is seldom told. For instance, most of them are a crock. Oh, maybe not the way you're thinking. Yankees fans will always hate Red Sox fans, and the good folks of Green Bay might occasionally stick a dirty finger in the beer of a Vikings fan on the next barstool. But those are rivalries between towns and populations. They have little to do with the actual competitors in the locker rooms because, for the most part, the players couldn't care less. That is why Johnny Damon could change addresses from Fenway Park to Yankee Stadium without losing a minute of sleep. That is why Brett Favre tried to exchange his Packers uniform for a Vikings jersey last offseason. That is why Eric Clapton took his guitar from Cream to Derek and the Dominos. To the players, it is a business and not a matter of loyalty. Which is why you might want to pay attention to the AFC Championship Game today. For this is one of the rarities. This is miffed versus angry. This is accusers and accused. This is Steelers versus Ravens.
It is not just that these teams play in the same division and have split their past 12 games. It's not just because they come from blue-collar towns with proud football traditions behind them.
This is a rivalry borne of —supposedly — cheap shots and retaliations. Of insults and bounties. It began when Bill Cowher and Brian Billick were the head coaches, and it has continued, with great animosity, into the next generation.
Go back to 2002 when Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress went nuts after Ravens linebacker James Trapp supposedly tried to stomp on his head. Both players were ejected.
That was also the year Cowher complained to league officials that Baltimore was essentially cheating by leaving quarterback Chris Redman off the injury report when he missed a game with a bad back.
Go back to 2003 when Steelers linebacker Joey Porter confronted Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis after a game for supposedly mocking him on the field. The linebackers later got in a shouting match during a coin flip.
Go back to last season when Ravens linebacker Bart Scott threatened to kill Steelers receiver Hines Ward during a game and willingly talked about it later. Ward, who has a history of bone-jarring blocks downfield and broke the jaw of a Bengals player this season, has heard from several Ravens players that there is a bounty on his head. Linebacker Terrell Suggs confirmed it in a radio interview a few months ago, but later said he was joking.
Go back to this season when Steelers rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall sent an ill-advised text message to his friend, Ravens rookie Ray Rice, saying he was going to have a big game against Baltimore. Rice showed the text around to his teammates, who publicly took offense. The end result? A Lewis tackle in that game fractured Mendenhall's shoulder and knocked him out for the season.
The stories go on, and so does the distaste.
"Every now and then you hear their guys say, 'You're not going to break my jaw,' " Ward said. "I get a big smile on my face when I hear guys talking about that because they are more worried about me than trying to stop Willie Parker or Heath Miller and those guys.
"I take pride in trying to get under their skin because I guess they are trying to knock the smile off of my face. To have that impact on the field? They were trying to fight me, literally, rather than trying to stop our offense run plays. I just want to do anything to win games."
The funny thing is Ward is not exaggerating. A poll in Baltimore voted Ward the most hated Steelers player, and the Ravens really do seem preoccupied with his role on the field.
"His time will come. He'll get his," Scott told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "He'll come across the middle one day and someone will hit him or take out his knee. The guy will be fined and (Ward) will be gone. No one will care. No one will even care. No one will send him any cards saying they're sorry. Not to that guy.
"You reap what you sow."
In the end, it is the game that matters.
Just don't be surprised if some of the anger gets in the way.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]
ravens linebacker Ray Lewis
steelers receiver hines ward