I sat on the bus as we rode from the team hotel in San Jose to the Oakland-Alameda County stadium, known stylishly these days as the "O.co Coliseum." I first experienced the everyday-is-Halloween-here themed stadium in my second year in the league when we played the Raiders on Monday Night Football, and my broadcasting brother Tunch Ilkin made his first career start that night. In recent memory this stadium has seen some really bad football by the Steelers. Curious stuff, stuff that makes you go hmmm.
This particular bus ride however, was an unusually somber bus ride. While players are fairly quiet while decked out with headsets and iPods, this ride seemed tinged with a hint of Rod Serling-esque trepidation and I wonder now if any of the players heard Twilight Zone theme music.
* I've had some angst for games played in the "Black Hole" since I began my career as a broadcaster. Back in the day, whenever we went out to Seattle, and played in the Kingdome, weird things always happened to us. Back in the '80s, we lost three of four trips to the Kingdome. I guess the bizarreness transferred to the Black Hole when they dynamited the Kingdome back in 2000. It's hard to explain when you tell people it was a crazy place to play, but it's true: mental errors on the most basic pass protection; painkiller shots that go awry and render a player unable to play instead of masking the pain; a quarterback breaking his arm punching out a punching bag; fumbles, penalties, extremely bad play all-around that came with regularity every time we played there.
I attribute the bizarreness of the Kingdome to the fact that my rookie year, Chuck Noll took us out to Seattle early. With extra time on our hands some of us went to watch the movie "Halloween" (1980). Terry Bradshaw, Jon Kolb, Mike Webster, Larry Brown, Zack Valentine and I went to a local theater and I think it jinxed us. Bradshaw was so scared when the cat jumped out of the garbage can at the security guard, I don't know who screeched louder, the cat or Brad.
* Though both teams were 2-4 previous to kickoff, I thought perhaps the crazies wouldn't come out to the degree that I've seen in the past because there wasn't as much at stake as in other years. But my fears were quickly abated. One lone Raiders fan, noticing the team buses pulling into the stadium gates, took the time to pull his car over from the busy freeway serving the stadium traffic (four lanes wide) in his battered 1970's Volvo, to stop and give the old one-finger salute with a maniacal glee that only a truly inspired Oakland Raiders fan can pull off. Call me crazy, but if that dude didn't look a tad like Rod Serling …
* Whatever you want to say about the Black Hole, they provide great coffee. Peet's Coffee is served up and it pre-dates Starbucks and Seattle's Best. Giddy-up …
* I perused the sidelines during pre-game warm-ups and bumped into an old teammate Mike Merriweather, who grew up 15 minutes away from the stadium. Mike was an outstanding linebacker with the Steelers back in the day and recorded a 15-sack season in 1984, as well as being the team MVP in 1987. Great guy and he looked as if he could step into a uniform and get the job done right now.
* Another retired Steeler I chatted up was former offensive tackle Marvel Smith. I worked one off-season with Marvel teaching him the gentleman's art of pugilism, or boxing. Marvel told me he's still training to this day. Smith would have been an excellent pro, had he taken up boxing instead of football. Long arms, great feet and by the time I parted ways with him, considerable punching power.
* Yes, it's nice to see that the O.co's baseball dirt surface was covered with grass. I've always hated playing on combo fields because of the unsure footing. Way back in 1980 we played the Falcons in the Fulton County stadium that served both the Falcons and the Braves in Atlanta. The dirt infield had red Georgia clay which found its way underneath your shoulder pads and itched like crazy.
* I took a gander about the stadium, with the lunatics that resemble Raider fans, and remembered Matt Millen relaying the story of his rookie year with the Raiders. Matt said he'd come out of the Raiders' locker room, heading for his car after a game at the Black Hole, and a bunch of the Hell's Angels would start screaming, "Way to go Matt!" Millen said he just kept his head down and walked faster.
* The Raider-ettes, or whatever they call their cheerleaders, stormed the field pre-game dressed like zombies. They didn't scare me.
* I could only shake my head as Terrelle Pryor dropped 93 yards and six points on the Steelers in about 14 seconds. The opening play of the game from scrimmage, no less, which is optimum for getting things right defensively. You have the opponent backed up deep into their end, it's all basic calls and checks, and really it's about getting ramped up to game-speed right away. As Brett Keisel noted post-game, "You can't ease into the game."
* This isn't the first time I'd seen Terrelle do that. Back in 2008, while doing the color on the high school "Game of the Week" for Fox Sports, I watched Terrelle do the same thing to Greensburg while going 94 yards. But he did it in 11 seconds, if memory serves correctly. I guess Terrelle's slowing down in his old age.
* TERRELLE IS STRONG 1: I knew Terrelle was fast. I knew Terrelle was elusive. What I didn't know is that Terrelle is strong as well. In the first quarter, LaMarr Woodley had a great shot at bringing down Pryor for a sack. Pryor shook out of the tackle that would have bent most guys in half. The core strength necessary to withstand the 275-pound Woodley pulling heavily on your upper body and keeping upright, much like a gazelle freed suddenly from the deadly jaws of a lion on the hunt, and moving downfield, is rather amazing. I found myself mumbling, "No way."
* File this under "Now I've Seen it All." The Raiders showed Oakland native and rap star MC Hammer gyrating and dancing on the jumbo vision scoreboards. That was forgettable enough. But when one of the elderly gents of the chain gang, the guys who move the measuring sticks and down markers up and down the sidelines, joined in, well I don't have words frankly to describe what I saw. What's that line, "Dance as if no one is watching." My man was in a groove …
* Kelvin Beachum just showed me why I think the young man has a bright future. Working in conjunction with his guard, with the Raiders trying to run a T-E twist, where the tackle over the guard tries to hit the gap between Kelvin and his guard, Kelvin positioned himself perfectly to stuff the gap penetrator. Inside hand punch to the opponent's shoulder, sink hip to hip with his guard, and then take over the bull rusher as his man loops to the inside. Outstanding.
* Shaun Suisham just missed a 34-yard FG attempt for his first miss of the season with seconds left on the first half clock. I happened to be standing in the vicinity of Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin. Ben is the picture of dejection, standing there with hands on his hips as if to say, "What else can go wrong?" I think I just saw Serling again on the Jumbo Vision shaking hands with Al Davis. And there ain't a good haircut between them.
* TERRELLE IS STRONG 2: This time it's Troy Polamalu and I believe Lawrence Timmons trying to sack Pryor. Terrelle puts out a long and strong stiff-arm that backed somebody up to a standstill while they were trying to bring Pryor down. This young man is pretty amazing when you see him in the flesh.
* In the third quarter, Raiders CB Mike Jenkins took a shot on Le'Veon Bell after a short, incomplete pass play. The flag is thrown by the line judge, who just happens to be standing in front of me to the left of Tomlin. The ref calls a hitting-a-defenseless-receiver penalty. Almost immediately the flag is picked up and announced as no penalty. Tomlin's jaw dropped open. He looked at the line judge and said something to him. The line judge retorts back in Mike's direction. Then I hear Mike say, "When did you see that, on the scoreboard?" The line judge was in defense mode at this point, and when Mike pressed further, the line judge kept moving away. Get'em, Mike.
* This was, as my old line coach Ron Blackledge used to say, "A little too much heat in the kitchen." In the third quarter I happened to cruise by Mudville after a Roethlisberger sack, and Ben and what was left of his jersey came to the bench area. Ben's jersey was torn like he had been run through a tree shredder. That's one jersey Pinky (the equipment manager) won't have to wash.
* Whoops. The radio frequency police detector for the Raiders just ordered me to immediately shut down my gear, leave the field and get to the booth so that Greg Resch, our on-site engineer for Clear Channel (and a great guy by the way), could re-set my radio frequencies to a more suitable frequency of which I haven't the slightest clue. Apparently, the radio police sideline frequency detector was running low on things to do.
* As I walked back on to the field of play during the fourth quarter, after adhering to the stringently enforced radio frequency police detector directions, I came opon a fresh crash scene. A Raider player got slammed on the sidelines and knocked into a Raiders sideline official, who obviously wasn't paying attention and got mulched. Gee, too bad it wasn't the radio police frequen….ummm, I guess that's not nice. Never mind.
* Whenever you have an opportunity to witness Hall-of-Fame greatness still getting it done on the field of play, it does, at times, take your breath away. Terrelle Pryor rolled toward the sideline and I watched the closing speed of the long-haired-flying, Polynesian human-crash-test-dummy that is Troy Polamalu close on Pryor forcing him out of bounds, moving like one of my boyhood comic book super heroes, The Flash. Adequately trying to paint the picture with words describing what I've just witnessed in real time from ground hog level is beyond my grade level.
* I was making my way up the steps towards the locker room after the game was over, kind of lost in my own little world, remembering my first trip here as a first-year starter back in '81, when I heard the voice of Tomlin (Noll?) boom, then crackle, from somewhere ahead of me. The words, I'm not sure of. It was the tone and timber of the man's voice that startled me, and caused me to walk a little faster out of habit, before I relaxed and realized that I was just a sideline non-combatant, not a player. Yes, a very brief and personal voyage into the "Twilight Zone."