KANSAS CITY, Mo. – From the Iron Bowl to Border Showdown, some of the current Chiefs players played in intense college football rivalry games before joining the professional ranks.
But the NFL also has long-standing rivalries, such as Week 15’s contest against the Oakland Raiders.
Do players view Sunday’s matchup, which marks the 110th meeting between the Chiefs and Raiders, with the same intensity they possessed at their respective alma maters and what’s the difference on the approach at the professional level?
The response depends on who’s asked.
Rookie linebacker Nico Johnson, a member of Alabama’s National Championship teams of 2009, 2011 and 2012, is more than accustomed to big-time rivalries at the college level.
Johnson said he’s been studying the history of the Chiefs-Raiders rivalry and believes there’s a similarity to his past experiences.
“You would think as far as the atmosphere, the intensity, the crowd, you would think there’s a difference,” Johnson said. “But the way with the rivalry between the Chiefs and Raiders, it’s similar to the Iron Bowl. I have to say it. The Raiders fans don’t like our fans, our fans don’t like the Raiders, that whole thing between them. It’s up there.”
Johnson’s response may surprise given the deeply rooted rivalries among the Southeastern Conference, especially considering the attention surrounding the Alabama-Auburn annual showdown.
But he’s not alone in thinking that way.
Second-year wide receiver Junior Hemingway, a former Michigan standout, played in the bitter Michigan-Ohio State rivalry.
Hemingway agreed with Johnson’s assessment of Raiders Week.
“As far as intensity, it’s about the same,” Hemingway said. “In college, all the kids are fired up. From the day after that next game before we play our rival, everybody is like, ‘It’s Ohio State week.’ All week long you’re just building up anticipation, it’s that fight, you’re ready to go out there and it’s the same here. I feel it has the same similarities.”
Of course, there are various opinions upon making rounds in the Chiefs locker room.
Quarterback Chase Daniel, a veteran of the Border Showdown between Missouri and Kansas, concedes in any rivalry the opponents want to defeat the other.
But when comparing the intensity of preparing to face a collegiate rival against a professional rival, the former Missouri Tigers quarterback indicated the level slants to the former.
“I think some of the college rivalries because of how long they’ve been there – over 100 years for some of them – I think that’s what intensifies it,” Daniel said. “Take for instance the MU-KU game, that’s the second-oldest rivalry in college football. It’s pretty even. You build up hatred over time of the opposite team. I would just say the intensity is little bit more so in college.”
Rookie fullback Toben Opurum, who played at Kansas, echoed Daniel’s thoughts.
“In college, it seems like people are more invested into it,” Opurum said. “They kind of put the game up on a pedestal. The whole town kind of buys into the whole rivalry thing to whereas in the NFL, it’s normally a rivalry based on divisional opponent or something like that. While it’s still intense, I don’t think it reaches the same level as it does as some of the rivalries that have been in college football for years.”
Differing locker room voices may have been difficult to find when it came to the Chiefs-Raiders rivalry two decades ago under then-coach Marty Schottenheimer.
Former Chiefs wide receiver Danan Hughes (1993-98) said in a phone interview he and his teammates followed Schottenheimer’s lead.
“Marty Shottenheimer hated the Raiders, made no qualms about it, and he allowed his passion and hatred to matriculate over the entire team even if guys came from the Raiders,” Hughes said. “By default, you started hating the Raiders because your leader hated them.”
Former Chiefs offensive lineman Rich Baldinger (1983-92) adds a lot of the personalities in Oakland from his playing days contributed to the rivalry.
“People were bigger than life back then, guys like Howie Long, Greg Townsend, there were just different cats on the field,” Baldinger said in a phone interview. “And before them, Lyle Alzado and Ted Hendricks.
“I don’t know if they’d allow a Ted Hendricks in the NFL any more. It was just something about them; there was always a story about them. I think it was just the personalities that went along with it, what the media made it into and what the media talked about.”
Meanwhile, there’s been an apparent shift in philosophy over the years surrounding how some of the Chiefs players view what is supposed to be a hated opponent.
Respective team success is a factor, as the Chiefs and Raiders have gone in different directions. And those teams aren’t alone when looking around the league.
“You see the Cowboys and Redskins, they’re both struggling a bit this year,” Opurum said. “So the rivalry between them loses its significance whereas in the past when they both were doing well, it was important to the town, the players and everyone associated with it.”
Season win-loss records have a place in determining interest.
But league initiatives surrounding rule changes designed for player safety and free agency also contribute to diminishing rivalries.
“The safety issue has heightened to the point where guys who play against each other care more as opposed to back when I played – and before I played – to where you felt like you were literally going to war against somebody during the game and leading up to the game,” Hughes said.
“You may sit around and have some drinks with them after the game, see them at the Super Bowl and hang out during the offseason, but during that 60 minutes and the week leading up to it, you truly felt like they were trying to take food off your plate and trying to do harm to you and your friends.”
When it comes to free agency, the collective bargaining agreement of 1993 opened the door for player movement around the league.
Gone are the days of a player staying with a team virtually his entire career. And also departing through the revolving door is the institutional knowledge of traditions and history.
For an example, Baldinger points out this year’s Oakland team is different from 2012 with the departures of notable defensive players, such as defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and defensive end Richard Seymour.
“How much of a rivalry can there really be?” Baldinger said. “A lot of the young players, this is their first year with the Raiders, so they don’t understand. A lot of the guys they’re looking up to on that team weren’t on the team one or two years ago either. I think this movement of players has just kind of hurt the rivalries.”
Even Hemingway admits NFL rivalries have evolved over the decades.
“It’s changed over time,” Hemingway said. “A lot of things – rules and a lot of things – come into play when you talk about rivalries. You can tell by looking at film, you can tell it was like fighting out there. It’s changed from back then to now.”
With team allegiances often shifting at the end of player contracts, a question surrounds the importance of NFL rivalries and who takes it more seriously between players and fans.
Offensive lineman Donald Stephenson said a professional rivalry game is felt by players and fans.
“We feed off our fans and stuff like that, so if we know it’s a big game and they feel it’s a big game, it’s probably a big game,” Stephenson said. “I would say it’s both.”
But much like when asked to compare the intensity level, opinions once again vary among players.
“In this day and age where free agency is such a big deal, some people on certain teams that are rivals with other teams, they don’t get to experience it as much as the fans if you’re a lifelong Packers fans, a lifelong Chiefs fans,” Daniel said. “As a player, you don’t get to experience that as much as the fans do. So I think I would go with the fans probably a little bit more than the players.”
“The players are always going to want to win the game,” rookie quarterback Tyler Bray said. “But as far as the battle and rivalry goes, it’s kind of a fan thing. We’re going to go out there and compete the same against whomever, whether we’re scrimmaging each other or playing against another opponent.”
Still, also at play are annual bragging rights against an AFC West opponent.
“There’s a lot at stake for divisional bragging rights,” punter Dustin Colquitt said of Sunday’s game. “It’s a big deal, this is a big thing. I know it’s very important for the Hunt family. They’re both storied franchises and it’s going to be intense. It’s important to win this week.”
In the meantime, a once-heated Chiefs-Raiders rivalry has steadily dissolved since the turn of the century.
While Baldinger looks back at his playing days against the Raiders with fondness, he said the hype surrounding the matchup will now be pushed by the media.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever really have the Draconian type of emotions we had in the past with some of these games,” Baldinger said. “There will always be rivalries, but it will be more media driven than by the players.”
And to Hughes, the perceived loss of player intensity against a team he spent an NFL career holding in disdain is disappointing.
“It adds to the experience, it adds to the excitement to know that the hated Raiders are coming,” Hughes said. “The adrenaline flow, there’s something to be said about that. That factor missing has really impacted the game and I don’t like it.”