It was late in the 1987 season, and captains of the Houston Oilers and Indianapolis Colts met at midfield before a game at the Astrodome.
"Welcome to the House of Pain," said Oiler linebacker Robert Lyles, coining the term that symbolizes the image of the bad boys of the National Football League.
This is not to say that the Oilers have confined their intimidating tactics to their home AstroTurf. Having been a notoriously poor team away from Houston, they declared before this season began, "We've got to take the spirit of the House of Pain on the road."
The Oilers absorbed a 38-7 pounding from the Minnesota Vikings in their season opener in Minneapolis but got in enough licks along the way to send a message to the Chargers in advance of Sunday's game at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
As the score against Coach Jerry Glanville's team mounted in the second half, safety Tracey Eaton was called for two personal fouls, Lyles for one. The Oilers were penalized 13 times for 98 yards, putting them ahead of their league-leading 1,150-yard pace of 1988.
Before that game, Viking Coach Jerry Burns warned his players about the Oilers.
"I said to them if this were a street fight, I'd bet on them, but it's not," Burns said in a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "I don't want them retaliating to any chippy play or late hits, because 100% of the time, the guy who retaliates is the one who gets the flag."
By the time the game was over, his team's lopsided victory notwithstanding, Burns was convinced that the Oilers had lived up to their tawdry reputation.
Said Burns: "I was impressed by the way our players kept their poise, even though Houston tried to intimidate us and was guilty of a lot of late hits.
"There was holding of our wide receivers, late hits on our quarterback, late hits on players who were down. That type of play hurts a team in the long run. It hurt any chance they had of coming back."
Viking linebacker Mark Dusbabek, who was on the Oilers' injured reserve list in 1987 and 1988, denied Glanville had encouraged the Oilers to take cheap shots.
"They play hard, aggressive football," Dusbabek said. "Coach Glanville has never coached his players to play dirty. They swarm to the ball but play within the rules. This upsets some people."
Obviously, it upsets a lot of people, and none more than Pittsburgh Coach Chuck Noll. Ever since the Steeler-Oiler game of Nov. 15, 1987, Noll has given Glanville a priority rating on his hate list.
In that game, defensive end Charles Martin of the Oilers speared running back Earnest Jackson of the Steelers, forcing Jackson to leave with bruised ribs. Martin is the same guy who the previous year put a body slam on Chicago quarterback Jim McMahon, now with the Chargers.
Jackson charged Martin with a cheap shot, and Noll said, "If the league doesn't do something about their spearing, we may go spearing ourselves."
When the Steelers and Oilers met again a few weeks later, Noll grabbed Glanville with one hand and pointed a finger at him with the other. Glanville tried to yank his hand away, but Noll held on tight.
"Your damn guys jumping people, that's going to get your butt in trouble," Noll said.
At the league meetings in March 1988, Noll described the Oilers' tactics as "worse than anything I saw in the Steelers-Raiders rivalry in the '70s." He referred to the time he labeled certain Raiders as "a criminal element."
Noll added, "I don't think the game should be played that way. There are players on that team (Oilers) who are trying to do something with hits that are meant to end players' careers."
Glanville reacted by saying, "That's a total, complete lie. Nobody on this team has ever been told to do that. We don't go after anybody's knee, ever. Noll ought to look at how he lost that game with Cleveland rather than look at us."
In that game, the 1987 regular-season finale, Steeler cornerback Delton Hall was ejected for a flagrant personal foul. That penalty set up the Browns' winning touchdown.
Noll didn't deny that Hall had been out of line but said, "Teams have led the league in personal fouls wherever Glanville has been in the past. They have the philosophy that the officials will get tired of throwing flags."
Actually, the Oilers were called cheap-shot artists as far back as 1985, the year after Glanville took over as coach. In an exhibition against the Rams, Oiler safety Bo Eason dived over the pile on a blitz and hit Ram quarterback Dieter Brock in such a way that Brock suffered a knee injury. Ram Coach John Robinson complained.
In the fifth game of the 1987 regular season, the Denver Broncos set an NFL record with 11 first downs on penalties against the Oilers. Several Denver players blasted the Oilers for what they characterized as cheap shots.
Nobody said much about the Oilers in 1986, perhaps because they lost 11 of 16 games, including eight in a row.
In 1987, though, several San Francisco 49ers told their teammates to "keep their heads on swivels" to watch out for the Oilers. While nothing untoward happened in that game, the Steeler-Oiler confrontation came a week later.
After that, the Colts felt the Oilers' sting while drubbing them, 51-27. After a late touchdown, Oiler cornerback Patrick Allen nailed Colt kicker Dean Biasucci on the extra point.
The Oilers thought the Colts had poured it on, but the league office didn't look at Allen's act that way. It fined him $5,000.
Two weeks after that, Oiler linebacker Walter Johnson leveled kicker New Orleans kicker Morten Andersen on a kickoff. Coach Jim Mora of the Saints charged Johnson with a cheap shot; ironically, Johnson now plays for him.
After that incident, the Saints kept a man back to protect Andersen, one of their most valuable commodities. He missed two field goals, but the Saints won anyway, 24-10.
On and on it went. In the 1987 playoffs, Oiler linebacker John Grimsley made a late hit on Bronco wide receiver Vance Johnson and knocked him out of the AFC championship game with a groin injury. At least Grimsley said he was sorry, conveying his regrets to Johnson in a visit to the hospital.
Besides their actions on the field, the Oilers have incurred opponents' wrath by shouting insults. They seemingly have developed a "we-against-the-world" attitude.
Mark Heisler of The Times wrote last December: "The Oilers dote on the outlaw image they've worked so hard to acquire."
Rick Reilly wrote in the Jan. 2 Sports Illustrated: "It's a team that spats with its own fans and the local press, a team with a headhunter rep, a team whose uniforms come equipped with shoulder chips."
Since most of the real hitting in football is done by tacklers, the Oilers' defense has been targeted with a great majority of the accusations. Their special teams also have gotten into the act.
Questions about the Oilers' allegedly dirty play were directed to center Don Macek and wide receiver Anthony Miller of the Chargers. Macek gave the Oilers a pass; Miller didn't.
Macek said, "I don't know if they live up to their reputation of being cheap-shot artists. Their concept of defense is blitzing, attacking, somewhat of a gambling style. There's nothing wrong with that."
Miller: "Sometimes they take cheap shots. You just have to forget about that and play hard. I won't let it affect my attitude going into this game."
As for the Oilers themselves, a remark by cornerback Steve Brown probably sums up the philosophy of their defense.
Brown was quoted in SI as saying, "I'm aggressive. Sometimes a head gets in the way."
Interestingly, this approach has not met with full approval from the Oilers on offense.
Quarterback Warren Moon told The Times' Heisler, "Who does it come back to hurt? Us, the offense. It just gets the other team's defense fired up."
Moon elaborated this week.
"On defense, we play a more swarming style," Moon said. "When you're asked to run to the ball and get in on every tackle, you're going to get some late hits now and then.
"But I think we have to get a little bit smarter and not take those cheap shots. You have to back off and just let the guy go out of bounds."