Purple Reign 1: Chapter 8 “First Things First”

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“It’s depressing beyond what you can possibly understand. You know, I’ve sat in this locker room so many times. I’ve been here every year of my career – twice in ’94 – and I’ve never been in this room at the end of a game and been a winner. It really hurts.”

-Defensive end Rob Burnett, Sept. 8, 1996, in the visiting locker room at Three Rivers Stadium after the first loss in Ravens history, but the eighth straight loss in Pittsburgh for the Modell franchise

It has been said that you need to crawl before you can walk.

For the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, much of that crawling was done during the end of the 1999 season. Before Shannon Sharpe came to play. While Trent Dilfer was still sitting on the bench in Tampa Bay, waiting for redemption. While Jamal Lewis and Travis Taylor were still attending college classes and hoping to become first-round draft picks in the NFL.

On Dec. 12, 1999, the Baltimore Ravens defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-24, in a dominating effort at Three Rivers Stadium. It was the first sign of life on the road for a franchise that had never won in Pittsburgh and really hadn’t even been close to winning a key road game.

Like the Pittsburgh-Modell rivalry, the Pittsburgh-Baltimore rivalry had always been very lopsided. The Pirates had defeated the Orioles in the World Series in 1971 and 1979. In the latter series, the Orioles squandered a 3-1 series lead. As for the Colts, two of their final, three playoff games while the franchise was in Baltimore were against the Steelers, both embarrassing losses – 28-10 in 1975 at Three Rivers and 40-14 in 1976 at Memorial Stadium.

In other words, there was no rivalry.

Just pissed off and beaten Baltimoreans hating everything about Pittsburgh, from their women to their sports teams to their beer. The worst part about the mythical Steelers-Ravens rivalry was the Steelers’ fans uncanny ability to obtain large chunks of tickets when the NFL returned to Baltimore and the series came to town. One Steeler actually called Memorial Stadium “Three Rivers Stadium South” after the Ravens squandered a 24-7 halftime lead with an embarrassing second-half performance on 33rd Street in 1997, finding every conceivable way possible to lose a football game. More than 20,000 Steeler fans waved gold and black Terrible Towels as the Ravens completely self-destructed and Ravens’ fans headed to the exits to watch the Orioles play the Seattle Mariners in the baseball playoffs that day just five miles to the south.

As for Pittsburgh and the Modell family, it had always been painful – long before the franchise rode into Baltimore. At one point in the Browns-Steelers series, the Modells had gone 16 consecutive years (1970 through 1986) without a victory at Three Rivers Stadium. Then, in the late 1980s, the Browns suddenly won four straight at the confluence, only to lose seven straight again, including a playoff game in 1995, before the franchise was relocated to Baltimore.

Art Modell tried every method conceivable to break the Pittsburgh jinx. He tried different hotels each year, both downtown and in the Pittsburgh suburbs. The team flew different airlines and routed through Cincinnati, where they’d had success. They even took the bus, but nothing seemed to work.

“Hell, I think we went by horse and carriage one year it go so bad,” Modell joked years later. “The only thing we didn’t do was go by Piper Cub (two-person aircraft).”

Modell hated Pittsburgh!

Baltimore hated Pittsburgh!

There was no getting around it.

Brian Billick understood the rivalry from the minute he took the head-coaching job in Baltimore.

“I’ve never lost at Three Rivers Stadium,” Billick boasted with a smile from the podium at PSI Net Stadium on Jan. 19, 1999, the night of his hiring.

After that game nearly 11 months later – the first Modell victory in Pittsburgh in more than 11 seasons, he crowed again, “I still haven’t lost here.”

But the beginning of the 2000 season was about more than just beating a division rival from Pittsburgh on Opening Day. It was more than exorcising demons that went back more than 30 years for the Modell family and the city of Baltimore. It was more than the Modells’ and Ravens’ last chance to win at Three Rivers Stadium before it was to be destroyed.

It was about a fresh start for a 2000 Baltimore Ravens team that was expected to go to the playoffs. And stumbling against a team that was universally considered a non-contender playing with a debilitating quarterback controversy would be devastating.