The line of cars headed to the funeral viewing seemed endless, tying up traffic in Randallstown for hours on the afternoon of Aug. 2, 2021. Thousands of well-wishers had come to pay their respects to Darren Sanders, the former Baltimore Police detective who served for 18 years as the Ravens’ security director.
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, a close friend, was in attendance. So were Ravens front-office officials and coaches. Current and former players came as well.
And a group of four from Pittsburgh.
“I could never have brought myself not to be there for the viewing or the funeral,” said Jack Kearney, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ longtime security manager, who was joined by three colleagues. “None of us could.”
Hard hits and sharp tongues have long defined the Ravens-Steelers rivalry, which will play out again in a Sunday night game ripe with postseason implications. A Ravens win at M&T Bank Stadium would turn their regular-season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals next weekend into a de facto AFC North championship game. A Pittsburgh win could keep alive their slim hopes of joining the Ravens in the playoffs.
For the Ravens and Steelers’ security teams, though, these games have come to mean something else. They are reminders of whom they’ve lost and the community they’ve found. It is a rivalry that has fostered a fraternity, one whose bonds have only deepened since Sanders’ passing last summer at age 55.
“We, as security, are former police officers, former FBI agents and so on,” Ravens Vice President of Security Craig Singleterry said in an interview. “But we build a bond. We both do the same job: taking care of the team, players, ownership and executives. And we, as Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore, have that rivalry on the field. But the security guys, we’ve got a regular-type bond with each other because of the fact that we do the same job.”
Kearney joked that he met Sanders “when the Baltimore Ravens were still the Cleveland Browns.” Kearney was a sergeant in Pittsburgh with the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office’s fugitive squad when he took a call from a Baltimore homicide detective who believed a suspect was somewhere in Western Pennsylvania.
“It was just a cold call,” Kearney recalled in an interview. “I just answered the phone, and it was Darren on the other end.” They clicked immediately. “Loved the guy from the minute I met him,” Kearney said.
Their paths would cross again. Sanders joined the Ravens’ security team in 2004, five years after Kearney, now the chief deputy in the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office, took a part-time job overseeing security for the Steelers.
As AFC North brethren, they saw each other often. When the Ravens would visit Pittsburgh, Kearney and his team might be called on to arrange tickets for a player’s family members, or facilitate hotel accommodations, or help with game day logistics. When the Steelers would visit Baltimore, the Ravens would return the favor.
“I think you become a police officer because you want to help people. You want to make a difference,” Kearney said. “That carries over into your other job, if you’re fortunate enough to be one of those 32 people [managing an NFL team’s security].”
They had to be prepared for anything. In an August interview with SiriusXM, Bisciotti recalled heading to the Steelers’ former home, Three Rivers Stadium, in 1996 and introducing himself and his family to Kearney, who was then handling escorts for visiting teams.
Dozens of Ravens employees had made the road trip, and Bisciotti told Kearney he wanted to join them at a tailgate party outside the stadium. Kearney had a “deathly look on his face,” Bisciotti said. But after two golf carts and an extra security guard were summoned, Bisciotti made his way to the gathering. Kearney, Bisciotti recalled, remained wary of the trip all the while, keeping his hand on his gun, just in case.
“When I was leaving that day, he said, ‘You know, that’s the first time in all my years being here that any owner has asked to go to a tailgate party,’” Bisciotti said. “And I said, ‘Well, it’s going to happen more often than you think, bro.’”
Other incidents required the Ravens’ help. Before a 2003 game in Pittsburgh, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis got into an altercation with Steelers linebacker Joey Porter, who had been sidelined by a gunshot wound. Lewis later told reporters that he was offering words of encouragement to Porter, who claimed that Lewis was actually mocking his signature leg kick celebration and telling him, “This is my house.”
“It wasn’t funny at the time,” said Kearney, who now calls it one of his funniest memories. “Darren and I had our hands full keeping those two apart after the game.”
Their friendship blossomed over years of road trips and offseason meetings, bolstered by a mutual respect and an affinity for each other’s company. After an overtime loss in Pittsburgh in 2008, Singleterry recalled a Ravens official questioning the path of the team’s buses to the airport. Sanders said he trusted the Steelers’ security team not to mislead them.
“‘Hey, we run the show,” Singleterry recalled a Steelers official telling the Ravens. “We’re going to take you to the airport and get you there as fast and safely and quickly as possible. We’re not trying to sham you and take you the long way so that you can be miserable after a loss.”
Singleterry added: “That was one of the things that built the bond between us and Pittsburgh security.”
They worked together and grieved together. In 2013, after Sgt. Richard Fersch, a deputy sheriff for the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office who worked on the Steelers’ security team, died at age 64, Sanders and Singleterry attended his funeral.
“It just showed me what a class act Darren was,” Kearney said. “All the people in the AFC North are pretty close. I think we’re different from a lot of the other divisions. But all four of us are pretty close.”
“There’s nothing that we won’t do for them or they won’t do for us,” Singleterry said of the Ravens and Steelers, “as far as security and getting things done with us.”
When Sanders was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011, Kearney was devastated. “That really bothered me,” he said. Sanders beat that cancer, only for doctors to find a brain tumor. In December 2019, he had brain surgery and underwent six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation to treat glioblastoma, an aggressive form of cancer.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Kearney said. His voice softened. “I really thought he had a brighter chance of beating the brain cancer than he did the prostate cancer.”
Sanders died July 23, 2021, at his Owings Mills home. He was survived by his wife and three children. Singleterry called him his best friend and a blood brother. A portrait of them hangs in his office.
“He was my mentor,” he said. “He taught me a lot of things about security. He taught me a lot of things about life. He was just an all-around good person.”
At Sanders’ funeral services, Singleterry recalled members of the Steelers’ security team approaching him with tears in their eyes. “This is wrong,” they told him. “He’ll be sorely missed.” A month ago, Singleterry even got a call from former Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whom he’d gotten to know over the years. Roethlisberger wanted to know how Singleterry was doing; he knew he was missing Sanders.
Coach John Harbaugh, who called Sanders “as loyal and genuine and real as anyone I ever met,” remembered being struck by the scale of his funeral. At one of the services, a loudspeaker was set up outside to accommodate the overflow crowds.
“I can’t say it was surprising, but you’re always surprised when you go to a viewing and there’s literally thousands of people there,” Harbaugh said in an interview. “How do you expect that? I knew he was a popular guy and people loved him, but I didn’t expect there to be — were there thousands? Thousands. Thousands and thousands of people. It was crazy.”
Kearney arrived in Baltimore on Friday to begin his preparations for Sunday’s game. This is his 23rd season with the Steelers, and also his last. Sanders’ death, he said, has made him realize that “there’s other things in life.”
“Obviously, I’m going to miss Darren not being there,” he said. “I’ll be happy to see Craig. I couldn’t think of a better place for me to go to. … I couldn’t think of a better city for it to be my last regular-season game.”
Steelers at Ravens
Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 2