The Raiders are gone but they will always belong in Oakland


Photo courtesy Oakland Raiders

If you were there when it all started, one of the first things you remember about the old Oakland Coliseum was the corner of the end zone before they remodeled the place and how close it was to a concrete wall that separated the fans from the field. Cliff Branch and Fred Biletnikoff used to run visiting defensive backs into it when they could. That was the Coliseum and that was the Raiders in those days.

You remember the exposed infield that stretched like a scar through the middle of the playing field for many years, making clear this was more the Oakland A’s home than it was the Raiders’, much to Al Davis’ disgust.

And you remember that when you stood on the grass late on a fall afternoon waiting for the Raiders to finish beating up another opponent the place was 22-feet below sea level, meaning you ruined a lot of shoes waiting for them to clamber up the concrete ramp leading toward their locker room. They most often went up there with victory and a shred of violence in tow. You often showed up with wet socks.

The old place is almost dead now and today so are the Oakland Raiders, both victims of the times and the NFL’s unending focus on money.

The final obituary won’t be written for two or three years, but Monday morning around 10:30 a.m. West Coast time 32 businessmen voted 31-1 to allow the Raiders to move to Las Vegas. They can do so whenever their glittering, state-of-the-art stadium is finished at the end of the Strip heading toward L.A., where, by the way, they once escaped before returning to where they were meant to be.

Oakland.

The old place is almost dead now and today so are the Oakland Raiders, both victims of the times and the NFL’s unending focus on money.

Al Davis’ son, Mark, may have had no choice after 10 years trying to find a way to get the city and county to build him a new home allowing him to compete financially with his NFL peers, but the fact is that his legacy now is set. He’s the guy who sold out Oakland for good.

Without the Oakland Raiders, the NFL just doesn’t have the right sound to it. While a headline  across an edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal screamed, “Viva Las Raiders,” it didn’t quite feel right. Some may say Sin City is the proper place for the Raiders, but you wouldn’t say it if you were ever in the Coliseum between 1966 and 1981 when they were the winningest and wildest franchise in NFL history.

They won more games than anyone (although fewer Super Bowls), and they were certainly flagged more often. They were in the middle of more iconic games than any team in league history, games that need only be explained by their nicknames.

The Holy Roller.

Ghost To The Post.

The Immaculate Reception.

The Heidi Game.

The Sea of Hands.

They were the silver-and-black attack, and their home was the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, which was always shortened to the Oakland Coliseum. The original Coliseum is where gladiators got thrown to the lions. So was this place.

It was a utilitarian building built amidst a neighborhood of warehouses. It cost $25.5 million in 1966, and for that kind of money you got a concrete crater with minimal frills — and maximum thrills once the Raiders moved in.

Now the place will be empty in two or three years, the Raiders having gone off to Las Vegas to play in a place with a retractable roof they say will cost $1.49 BILLION to construct. It may be a place where a new history is written. Certainly on the day the vote was announced, Davis quoted his father, Al, saying, “The greatness of the Raiders is in its future.’’

Not lately. Even with a vastly improved team, the greatness of the Raiders remains its past and what happened so often inside that concrete crater.

It was there in 1974 that a local radio station all week appealed to Raider fans to “ wear black, carry black, wave black.’’ On the afternoon of Dec. 21, the place was a sea of onyx as the Raiders trotted out to face the Miami Dolphins, who had been in the last three Super Bowls and won the last two.

Ken Stabler photo courtesy of the Oakland Raiders

Things did not start well. Nat Moore returned the opening kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown, and the Raiders seemed to chase Miami all afternoon until with 4:54 to play they were down 19-14. That’s when Branch hauled in an 83-yard TD catch, falling down as he did. Untouched, he jumped up and took off for a 21-19 lead.

Miami responded with a reminder of who it was, scoring again to take a 26-21 lead with 2:08 left in a playoff game that was turning black for the Raiders. Back came Stabler again until, with the ball on the eight-yard line, he scrambled to throw under pressure. Miami’s Vern Den Herder grabbed his feet and began to drag him down, but not before Stabler flipped the ball toward Clarence Davis in the end zone. Miraculously, it went through three Miami defenders before Davis caught it.

“The Sea of Hands’’ was born as black clad Raider fans poured onto the field like a college crowd and lifted head coach John Madden on their shoulders. Oakland was becoming somebody. It was the beginning of a sea of miracles.

Two years later, on Dec. 18, 1976, Stabler would beat the New England Patriots despite being down by 11 as the final quarter began. He led them to two scores, the last coming when — after being sacked and throwing two incompletions — he was hit in the head on fourth down by Patriots’ lineman Ray Hamilton.

Hamilton was flagged for roughing.

Soon it was fourth-and-goal at the 1, and Stabler again performed last-second magic. With 14 seconds remaining, he rolled left, scrambled and finally dove into the end zone for a 24-21 win. When it was over, another Patriot defensive lineman named Julius Adams ran up a ramp chasing the officials, who barely got their locker room door closed before he began beating on it with his helmet. It was only after Patriots’ defensive coordinator Charlie Sumner grabbed him that Adams relented.

A week later the Raiders beat the Steelers on the same field after having lost the previous two AFC title games to them and went on to win their first Super Bowl.

Earlier that same season, in a rematch of the 1975 AFC championship game, the Raiders and Steelers faced off in a primordial battle. They racked up 878 yards and scored 45 second-half points between them, including 38 in the fourth quarter.

Trailing 28-21 with 1:05 remaining, Stabler again snaked his way through a defense, rolling left and then diving in for the tying touchdown. Overtime seemed assured until a Terry Bradshaw pass was tipped and intercepted. Soon after, Fred Steinfort kicked the winning field goal to cap a 17-point Oakland explosion in the final two minutes and 38 seconds for an improbable win over the defending Super Bowl champions.

It wasn’t always quite so wild, but it always seemed that way back then. The Coliseum may have been a building without flair, but its occupants were anything but.A few years earlier, they made it clear that anything could happen at the Coliseum … and often did.

It wasn’t always quite so wild, but it always seemed that way back then. The Coliseum may have been a building without flair, but its occupants were anything but.

On Nov. 17, 1968, the New York Jets held a three-point lead with 65 seconds to play in a classic old-time AFL shootout that included eight lead changes. The clock was approaching 7 p.m. on the East Coast, and NBC had to make a decision. The network had scheduled a popular kids’ film called “Heidi,’’ to begin at the top of the hour, and a directive had come down that come hell or high drama in Oakland put on the movie.

So NBC broke for a commercial and never came back. But the Raiders did, scoring two touchdowns in nine seconds to win 43-32. But if nobody saw it, does it still count?

It not only did, it led to the NFL re-writing all future TV agreements to include a clause that guaranteed games of visiting teams would be shown in their entirety in their home market. There would be many more memorable games in Oakland but no more Heidi games.

The Raiders of those days didn’t always win but they certainly played a lot of hell raising games. One came on Oct. 16, 1977. That day Stabler threw a remarkable seven interceptions to the Denver Broncos in a 30-7 loss. When it was over he stood at his locker in a wet T-shirt and scruffy beard, not at some wooden podium giving wooden answers.

Asked how he could throw seven picks in one afternoon, Stabler said with that charming Alabama twang, “It wasn’t too hard. They kept getting open.’’

The loss of the Oakland Coliseum and the Oakland Raiders is another reminder that we’ve lost a time when pro football was more than just another business run by suits for suits. The fierce pride of the working-class characters who packed the place before luxury boxes and club seats began to rule decision making is what made the Coliseum. You couldn’t find a glass of chardonnay or a steak dinner or warm soup in the place. It was a beer-and-burger joint, but back then so was pro football.

One of the many characters who populated the place was a 12-year-old kid I first encountered outside the Coliseum in 1974 doing splits and dancing to a boom box. Every Sunday he’d ask, “Hey, mister. Got any extras?’’ If you gave him a ticket or two, he immediately scalped them before asking someone else the same question.

A’s owner Charlie Finley saw him dancing one day and took a liking to him, making him a clubhouse boy and resident spy for seven years. But every fall Sunday the Raiders were around so was Stanley Burrell, out with a bunch of kids gathered near the players’ entrance, which sat below the main parking lot.

Then one day he was gone, like the Coliseum soon will be. He reappeared a few years later in gold shoes and fancy clothes as someone the world knew as M.C. Hammer, one of music’s first rap stars. Well, it’s not Hammer Time in front of the Coliseum anymore, and in two or three years it won’t be Raider time, either.

Something will be lost then, an old building for sure but also memories of a time when football was wild and free and every decision the NFL made wasn’t just about the money.

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1 Comment

  1. Rasputin
    March 28, 2017
    Reply

    This is one thing you and I agree on. It sucks that the NFL treats its fans this way. I’m not a Raiders fan and don’t care much for Oakland or California for that matter, but I like the Raiders mystique. I respect the franchise and its history. I like that the old school Raiders talked about “greatness”, harkening to a time before parity. I wasn’t a big Steve Sabol fan but I liked the “Autumn Wind” poem he crafted. I like John Madden. I was glad when the team left LA and returned to Oakland, where it belongs.

    Having a villainous character like the Raiders has been good for the NFL. We need stories and enduring narratives like that, as opposed to yearly randomness and high roster turnover that sometimes seems more like a bingo tournament than anything worth committing to with deep feeling. Hopefully the Raiders return to Oakland some day, and hopefully some day great teams return to the NFL.

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