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Labriola on Tommy Bell, '76 AFC Championship

Ready or not, here it comes:

• “To be quite honest with you, we’re not a group that runs from these type of games. We’re the type of group that runs to these type of games.”

• When Coach Mike Tomlin made that point last Tuesday during his weekly news conference at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, he was referring to the present-day Steelers and he was talking about Sunday’s rematch with the Cleveland Browns, to be played at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field.

• Steelers-Browns II will be staged 17 days after the first game of this annual home-and-home series ended with one of the most disgusting events in the 100 years of NFL history, that being Myles Garrett ripping off Mason Rudolph’s helmet and assaulting him with it. In this age of absolutely everything being on videotape and available to view at any time on any device in super-slow-motion, no further explanation or description should be necessary.

• Tomlin wasn’t threatening any retaliation, but it was more of a promise that the Steelers do not and would not shrink from these kinds of matchups. “We’re excited about this game,” continued Tomlin. “We love being in hot-button games.”

• And the history of the franchise supports that contention, because 43 years ago, on the day after Christmas in 1976, the Steelers played in the hot-button game of that season, of that era in fact, and the guy who got the NFL through it to the other side unscathed was a man by the name of Tommy Bell. More on Bell later, but we begin with why Dec. 26, 1976 was such an important date in NFL history and why it should serve as a lesson for this Sunday at Heinz Field.

• When the 1976 season began, the Steelers were the NFL’s two-time defending champions on a quest to make history as the first team to win three Super Bowls in a row. To get to those first two Super Bowls in order to have a chance to win them, the Steelers had to go through the Oakland Raiders, an established power from the old AFL, a team that had gone to Super Bowl II and lost to Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, a team that cultivated and embraced its image as outlaws.

• The Steelers had gone through the Raiders in both of the previous conference championship games and to say that there was no love lost between the two franchises by the start of the 1976 NFL season would have been the understatement of the decade. Starting with the 1972 regular season and proceeding through the 1976 regular season, the Steelers and Raiders had played eight times, an ungodly high number for teams not in the same division. The Steelers were 5-3 in those eight games, and 3-1 in the four of those eight that were playoff games.

• Over the course of that phase of the series, the rancor had grown exponentially, and on Sept. 12, 1976 it exploded.

• In the 1975 AFC Championship Game, Jack Tatum had taken Lynn Swann out with a hit that resulted in a concussion, and one of the lasting images was of Joe Greene carrying the receiver off the field in his arms like a child. Then came the 1976 regular season opener, and as Franco Harris was running down the sideline on the other side of the field, George Atkinson had come up behind Swann over the middle and clubbed him in the back of the head with a forearm.

• Don Meredith was doing the color commentary for the NBC broadcast of that game, and he said on the air, “I’m telling you, they’re picking on Lynn. I don’t think you’re supposed to do that. I think Atkinson did another no-no – gave him a karate chop across the back of the neck.”

• On Monday back in Pittsburgh, Chuck Noll reacted during his weekly press conference, and the phrase “criminal element” was introduced to the football public. Atkinson responded by suing Noll for slander and libel. The NFL season continued, but the hatred between these teams continued to percolate, never too far below the surface.

• As the two teams continued on separate courses that would intersect in the AFC Championship Game, what had happened in the previous season’s conference championship game and then was repeated in the 1976 opener kept coming up. In Pittsburgh, Joe Greene said, “I guarantee that if Atkinson starts pulling that stuff, I’ll come off the bench to get him if I have to.”

• The potential for a riot was taken seriously at the NFL offices in New York City, and so it was that Commissioner Pete Rozelle played his trump card. It was known in league circles that the game’s absolute best referee – Tommy Bell – planned to retire at the conclusion of the 1976 season. In recognition of Bell’s status and reputation, Rozelle offered him a choice: His career could end either with him working Super Bowl XI, or Steelers-Raiders in the AFC Championship Game.

• Bell didn’t hesitate. For him, it would be Steelers-Raiders.

• The rest of the officiating crew for the game included: Al Conway as the umpire, Leo Miles as the head linesman, Bruce Alford as the line judge, Stan Javie as the back judge, and Jimmy Cole as the field judge. Including Bell, there were 81 years of NFL experience on that crew.

• The New York Times reported that Miles, Javie, and Cole would be assigned the primary responsibility of monitoring the Swann-Atkinson interactions, and then NFL Supervisor of Officials Art McNally told Dave Anderson of The Times, “We have rules, and we expect the rules to be followed.”

• The crew of officials, headed by Bell, took control of the game from the start, and there were no shenanigans, nobody coming off the bench to enforce any frontier justice, no “karate chops across the back of the neck,” none of the gratuitous violence that had come to be expected when these two teams lined up against each other.

• In fact, there were just 12 penalties assessed that day. Twelve. Combined. And all were of the 5-yard variety. And yet, it was a physical, hard-hitting game. Disappointing for the Steelers, who lost. Exhilarating for the Raiders and their fans. Beautifully boring for those who tuned in expecting a sideshow. A relief for Rozelle and his league.

• The referee for Sunday’s game between the Steelers and the Browns will be Clay Martin.

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