Saturday, September 3, 2016

East Coast Fans Await Raider Nation's Rebirth

Despite being thousands of miles away from California, dozens upon dozens of Oakland Raiders fan clubs dot the East Coast. Uncommon Journalism speaks with the leaders of three booster clubs in Atlanta, New York and Southern Pennsylvania to find out what makes the 'Raider Nation' a fan base unlike any other in professional football.

WELCOME TO THE BLACK HOLE: Long-considered among the most passionate - and yes, most raucous - fans in professional football, the Oakland Raiders have inspired a deeply devoted fanbase, sprawling from the sandy shores of the East Bay in Northern California all the way to the concrete coastline of the Hudson River in New York. 

By: James Swift

"The Autumn Wind is a Raider, pillaging just for fun. He'll knock you 'round and upside down, and laugh when he's conquered and won." 
- Steve Sabol, "The Autumn Wind" (1974) 
"In football, I root for the Oakland Raiders, because they hire castoffs, outlaws, malcontents and fuck-ups, they have lots of penalties, fights and paybacks and because Al Davis told the rest of the pig NFL owners to get fucked ... Someday, the Raiders will be strong again and they will dip the ball in shit and shove it down the throats of the wholesome, white, heartland teams that pray together and don't deliver late hits."
- George Carlin, Brain Droppings (1997)
For Clint Gharib, it was like winning the Super Bowl. The investment adviser and head honcho of the Atlanta Raiders Booster Club was glued to his TV screen, anxiously awaiting the fourth quarter clock to hit triple zeroes. The final score? The Oakland Raiders, 24, and their arch rivals, the Kansas City Chiefs, 20.

Although it's always sweet to triumph over a longtime divisional adversary, there really wasn't much to celebrate about the win. The Nov. 20 Thursday night home victory represented the team's first victory of the year. After a 0-10 start, the Raiders would go on to accumulate a lackluster 3-13 record to cap the season.

But in the grand scheme of things, the game marked a turning point for the long suffering franchise. To Gharib, that was the moment he knew that - after nearly 15 years of lackluster play - his beloved, silver-and-black-bedecked squad was finally starting to turn the corner.

“That was the impact of the bottom," he recollected, "and it was going to be looking better from there on.”

Indeed, recovery mode began the very next season. With an offense anchored around standout Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper and second round quarterback draftee (and perhaps to the chagrin of George Carlin, a devout born-again Christian) Derek Carr
- not to mention a much-improved defense led by Khalil Mack, who would go on to become the first player in NFL history to ever be named an Associated Press All-Pro player at two different positions in the same season - Oakland doubled their win count from the previous season en route to a 7-9 record. Sure, it's not exactly something to boast about, but considering how low the franchise has sunk since the early 2000s, it was nonetheless reason for Gharib - and his fellow Raiders fanatics across the country - to celebrate.

At the beginning of the 2016-17 NFL season, the Raiders find themselves in a position they haven't been in since the heyday of Rich Gannon and Tim Brown. Not only are media juggernauts like ESPN and Sports Illustrated expecting the team to post their first winning season since 2002, many are predicting the team to win the ultra-competitive AFC West - a division, it is to be noted, that is home to the reigning Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos.

"It's not going to be easy, but I do think the Raiders have the ability to win the division. I'll be shocked if we don't make at least a wildcard playoff spot," Gharib said. "To me, the Raiders right now are on the verge of where they were in 1972 and 1973. I think we're one more off-season away, as far as good drafts and off-season free agency, to build a true dynasty team."

The enthusiasm is shared by John J. Lauro, founder and president of the New York-based Silver and Black Empire booster club.

"The team itself now has a winning attitude, and that was something that was missing for far too long. Now wins are no longer novelties, now they are expected," the 39-year-old Long Island native said. "I do believe that there is a Super Bowl in the core of this roster, given the strength of our team and the overall condition of the rest of the AFC, I think this team can contend within three seasons."

Having finally emerged from salary cap hell thanks to the fiduciary finagling and finessing of general manager Reggie McKenzie, Raiders Boosters of York, PA past president and charter member John "Hook" Maddux likewise believes the time is now for the Raiders to return to glory.

"The only thing that would keep them out of the playoffs this year are pre-snap penalties and poor tackling. Barring injuries, of course," the 59-year-old graphic designer declared. "I see a Super Bowl in the near future. If teams like Arizona and Carolina can do it, why not us?"

Considering a phenomenal off-season that saw the Raiders pick up top-tier free agents like Kelechi Osemele, Sean Smith, Reggie Nelson and Bruce Irvin - plus the acquisition of potential defensive studs Karl Joseph, Jihad Ward and Shilique Calhoun in the 2016 draft - their optimism for the team's future, for what seems like the first time in ages, doesn't seem misplaced.

While the jury is still out on whether the Raiders' sky high expectations will be met this season - as always, we will have to wait for the verdict to be meted out on the gridiron - it's fairly safe to assume that, no matter how they fare on the field, the so-called "Raider Nation" will remain fiercely devoted to and prideful of their team colors.

"Let's face it, not everyone likes us, some downright hate us, but when you walk down the street and you see another Raider fan, you have that connection," Lauro said. "I don't think any other fan base has the loyalty and camaraderie that we do. A lot of that has to do with the fact that we have had some bad times, and we have stayed loyal. That breeds a certain type of bond that I really can't put into words."

Or as one Chiefs supporter told Gharib? "If you want a friend for life, get a Raiders fan. They're loyal to the death."

America's real team

Nowadays, just about every sports team - be they professional, collegiate or even high school - uses the 
term "nation" to describe their fan base. However, that phraseology was pioneered by fans of the Raiders in the mid 1990s, when the team made the great migration from Los Angeles back to their original stomping grounds in Oakland. The term, supporters say, is applied for good reason: simply put, Raiders fans are everywhere.

Perhaps no one said it as well as former Raider Rickey Dudley in 2003 (who, irony of ironies, was then playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - the team that would go on to defeat Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII.) "You know why they call it the Raider Nation? Because it's nationwide," he said. "Miami, Boston, wherever. You're part of the Raider Nation. It's so large. They say Dallas is 'America's Team,' well, I'm not so sure about that. The Raiders are beloved."

One glance at the list of official Oakland Raiders booster clubs more than verifies that claim. The team has loyalists from coast to coast, with fan club chapters stretching all the way from enemy territory in San Diego all the way to Rhode Island. And in between, there are booster clubs dotting the map in places like Kentucky, South Dakota, Virginia, Florida and Texas. And lest you think the "Raider Nation" mantra is only applicable to the lower 48, keep in mind the NFL team also has fan clubs in the United Kingdom, Mexico and Australia. Additional research conducted by the The San Francisco Chronicle reveals the Raiders also have strong support from residents in other non-traditional American football markets as well - including fans in nations such as Brazil, Kenya, South Africa, Mongolia and Afghanistan.

So how did a small-market team from northern California inspire such fervent allegiance from people all over the globe? By and large, much of it has to do with the Raiders getting heavy play as an "evening game" team back in the 1970s.

"Our afternoon games were almost always the Raiders," said Gharib, who was born in Chicago and grew up in northern Indiana. "I watched them almost as much as I could watch 
the Bears growing up." 

It's the same story for Lauro. Long before the advent of the Internet and satellite television gameday packages, the Raiders were one of the few NFL teams to receive heavy national TV exposure.

"When it was harder to watch out of market games, the Raiders were featured, which is why so many of our fathers were Raider fans," he said. "It is very much a family tradition with some people. This is what the Nation was built on, family and loyalty."

Then, there's that renegade mystique that surrounds the franchise, from the cavalier management style of its founder Al Davis to its intrinsically intimidating team aesthetics.

"We're not running around with innocent looking dolphins," Gharib said. "We're generally wearing skulls ... even Al Davis said he wanted to be that sinister image."

But Gharib contests that the Raider Nation also signifies something deeper about the American way of life. During the Raiders' golden years in the 1970s and early 1980s, the franchise was known as a last refuge for the League's malcontents and wash-ups - a place where the unwanted and the uncontrollable could redeem themselves, run wild and achieve success on their own terms. Take Jim Plunkett, for example: when the journeyman quarterback joined the team in 1978, the Heisman Trophy winner was considered by most sports writers to be a shell of his former self. Under the leadership of head coach Tom Flores and with support from wide receivers Dave Casper and Cliff Branch, the "has-been" Plunkett was named Super Bowl MVP just two seasons later.

"I always thought the Raiders were more 'America's team' than the self-proclaimed Cowboys because they were very much like America," Gharib said. "Misfits, screwballs, rejects, the what-ifs - people forget, America was founded by that very same type of mold."

The lowest of the lows

Geographically situated in south central Pennsylvania, Maddux finds himself knee-deep in a three-way market war between the Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. Alas, he supports none of those teams - he's been a dyed-in-the-wool Raiders fanatic since the days of Jim Otto, Daryl Lamonica and Hewritt Dixon in the late 1960s. A host of Raiders greats - among them, Willie Brown, Morris Bradshaw and Otis Sistrunk - even flew in for his club's 25th anniversary party two years ago.

Alas, Maddux - like all Raider fans - has dealt with nothing but frustration and disappointment
for the last decade and a half. 

"We used to be hated," he laments. "Now, we're mostly ridiculed."

Even the most hardcore Oakland Raiders supporters have had to accept the brutal truth that their beloved franchise has been a model of futility since 2003. To give you an idea of just how long mediocrity has been the norm for the Raiders faithful, keep in mind the last time the team posted a winning record, Saddam Hussein was still in control of Iraq, Facebook was two years away from being founded and the stock price for Apple - hoovering around $106 in Aug. 2016 - was a meager $14 a share. Raiders fans conceived the night of Super Bowl XXXVII have never seen their team do better than 8-8 in the regular season - and by now, they're old enough to be freshmen in high school.

Over the span of 14 years, the team has employed an NFL-high nine separate head coaches. During that same time frame no less than 19 different quarterbacks have started for the squad. Registering 74 victories and 217 losses since 2002, the Raiders 14-year winning percentage stands at an atrocious 25 percent.

What went wrong for what was, at one point, one of the most dominant teams in professional football? Some pin the blame on a series of disastrous free agency acquisitions, in which the organization wound up paying astronomical sums - thus pushing themselves deep into the salary cap abyss - for underperforming players like Warren Sapp, Randy Moss and Javon Walker (whom the team paid $21 million for two seasons of play, in which he recorded just one touchdown and less than 200 receiving yards.) Others say it is the aftermath of an almost supernaturally dubious series of draft picks, capped off by the signing of number one draft pick JaMarcus Russell in 2007 - an underachieving quarterback that has since been named the single worst draft bust in NFL history by a litany of publications.

But for many Raiders faithful, the absolute nadir had nothing to do with the team's on-field play - it was the death of Oakland Raiders founder and owner Al Davis during the middle of the 2011 season. "The organization was not in a good way to begin with, and at this point we didn’t know what to expect," Lauro recalled. "The head coach made that disastrous trade for Carson Palmer and created a mess that took years to clean up."

Things, however, appear to be on an upward trajectory. The Raiders, after a decade of horrible draft choices, seem to have struck gold with high-performers like Derek Carr, Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, and after years of turbulence at the head coaching position, second-year skipper Jack Del Rio seems poised to command the Silver and Black for the foreseeable future.

Still, having suffered through so much since 2002, Gharib says fans of the team definitely share a unique fellowship.

"Raider fans, much like the team, sometimes we feel like its us versus the world," he said. "So there's an instant bonding because of the hardships the Raiders fans have been through, certainly over the last 12 and 13 seasons."

A bad reputation, or a well-deserved one?

Running down the pantheon of Raiders greats, one comes nose-to-nose with some of the

most ferocious players to ever don a helmet and shoulder pads. From Lyle Alzado to Ted Hendricks to Howie Long, the Raiders - whether they were playing home games in Oakland or Los Angeles - were universally feared and loathed by opposing teams due to their hard-hitting style of play. Typifying the Raiders reputation as the "bad boys" of the NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Chuck Noll (in)famously called the team's secondary "a criminal element" after defensive back George Atkinson knocked receiver Lynn Swann unconscious during the 1976 AFC Championship Game.

Whether that reputation as roughnecks and ruffians is something to be ashamed of or celebrated, naturally, is in the eye of the beholder. Nonetheless, rather than shy away from accusations of being rough and dirty, many Raiders fans take tremendous pride in their less than savory public image.

Lauro recounts playing high school football. "My dad said that if I'm playing cornerback, I have to play like Jack Tatum and the Soul Patrol," he said. "I had no idea who the Soul Patrol was, but my dad got this look in his eye and started telling me about the Oakland Raiders."

For those not in the know, Jack Tatum was known as the hardest hitting safety in pro football, infamous for both his monstrous hit on Vikings receiver Sammy White in Super Bowl XI and paralyzing New England Patriot Darryl Stingley during a 1978 game. Demonstrating his vicious ethos - he once infamously remarked that his best hits "border on felonious assault" - he would go on to pen three best-selling books about his career in pro football (all three of which contained the word "assassin" in their titles) and was eulogized as "a symbol of a violent game" in a New York Times obituary written shortly after his death in 2010.

The passionate - and often rowdy - Raiders fan base, however, has also been slighted for being violent, uncivil and, in some circumstances, downright criminal. It's not hard to find news stories about Raiders fans being arrested for assault during games - in and out of their home turf in Oakland. And one can't help but be reminded of the case of Robert Charles Comer - a Phoenix fan sentenced to death for homicide and rape in 1987. His final words before being executed? Rather regrettably, "Go Raiders."

Both Lauro and Gharib say the team's public image was also heavily shaped by the co-option of the Raiders logo by gangs, especially during the team's stint in Los Angeles in the 1980s and early 1990s.

"I do admit that we are probably the most theatrical of fan bases, and maybe some shortsighted people can't look beyond the skulls, leather and spikes, but if you look underneath that, you will find giant hearts," Lauro said. "Raider Nation fans and booster clubs do so much charity work throughout the country that goes largely unnoticed."

Indeed, an entire Raiders fan charity network went live in 2011, with the goal of changing perspectives on the team's most ardent supporters through volunteer work and community-building programs. And that's to say nothing of the nonprofits started by former Raiders
greats, like the Fred Biletnikoff Foundation, which address social issues such as substance use and domestic abuse.

In his 250-person strong booster club, Gharib said you won't find any degenerates or sociopaths. What you will find, however, are reverends, ministers, local politicians, small business owners, white collar executive types and single moms of all ages, races, ethnic groups, religions and political leanings. Once, his club even hosted a Raiders-themed "sweet sixteen" party for one of its youngest members.

"There is absolutely no rhyme or reason in my club for who is a Raider fan. One thing I am very proud of is the ethnic and social diversity of our crew, and to realize that some of these wonderful people would not have ever met, if not for the Raiders," Lauro said. "We have been to each others' weddings, funerals, births of children, start of relationships, birthdays and celebrations. The Raiders gave us a family."

Still, Maddux doesn't deny that the Raider Nation has its fair share of bad apples. However, he also believes that no one team in the League has a corner on "the thuggish fan" market.

"I've seen the Raiders play in 90 percent of the cities in the NFL," he said, "and sadly, I have seen the same boorish behavior in almost every one of them."

The Silver and Black mindset

It's impossible to explain the Raiders mystique without bringing up the founder of the pro football organization. As revered as George Halas and Curly Lambeau may be, no NFL founding father is as adored, adulated and admired by his supporters than the late Al Davis. 

Raider fans don't just celebrate Davis as a football genius - indeed, he's practically been canonized as a philosopher laureate whose gridiron teachings, much like the immortal musings of Sun Tzu, can be extrapolated to that great, double-overtime, sudden death affair we call life.

"As I dug deeper into the history and mystique of the team, I learned about who Al Davis was, and something about his mentality really spoke to me," Lauro said. "I love that he collected a bunch of players that other teams cast off and that he saw potential where other people didn't. He was a visionary, and in my opinion, the greatest football mind the game has ever seen."

No matter your take on the Raiders, their fans or the man himself, there is no denying that few individuals had as much of an impact on transforming the National Football League into the multi-billion dollar a year entertainment juggernaut it is today as Davis. He was the driving force behind the NFL-AFL merger of 1970, more or less made the vertical attack the default offensive setting in pro football and through his long, bitter rivalry with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, firmly established the threat of franchise relocation as an omnipresent trump card for team owners. 

But it was his trademark "commitment to excellence" that Raiders fans remember - and embrace - the most. Through rough and rowdy play and a personnel philosophy that turned the team into a Noah's ark of sorts for players on their last hurrah, Al Davis crafted the Raiders into perennial AFC title contenders. Rallying the troops under his iconic mantra "just win, baby," the Raiders did precisely that, chalking up 16 consecutive winning seasons from 1965 to 1980

From the team's intimidating color scheme to Davis' progressive politics (in 1965, he refused to play a preseason game in Mobile, Ala., due to its segregation laws) to the organization's constant feuding and fighting with the NFL upper brass (so loathe Davis was to the League leadership that he actually testified against his superiors in the United States Football League's infamous 1986 antitrust lawsuit), the team has always been associated with the renegade and the anti-mainstream, on and off the field. 

And that's one of the reasons, Lauro said, why so many fans outside the confines of northern California pledge eternal allegiance to the franchise. 

"They are counter-culture," he continued. "Everyone has a little bit of rebel in them, and Al Davis tailored the Raiders to be that." 

Destination, unknown

Raiders fans - having tasted the bitter end of The Immaculate Reception and The Tuck Rule - are no strangers to cruel irony. Alas, the most recent turn of events for the franchise - even for one that has experienced no shortage of poetic justice over the years - has to be especially acerbic. 

As soon as the team gets a solid nucleus of promising, young players on the roster, what happens? Naturally, owner Mark Davis and company almost immediately begin plans to jettison out of their unfashionable Oakland trappings for greener pastures abroad. 

While the team will play its full 2016 regular season in Oakland (albeit, giving up one home game for a Monday night match-up against the Houston Texans in Mexico City), it's anyone's guess where the team will call home at the beginning of the 2017 season. Proposals have been presented to relocate the team to Los Angeles (after a failed joint stadium deal with loathed rivals the San Diego Chargers fell through, it looks like the Raiders would have to split rent with the newly rechristened L.A. Rams in their new Inglewood digs), San Antonio, Portland and even London. Indeed, just about any proposal - yes, including far out scenarios that would see the Raiders playing home games in San Diego, St. Louis and even Levi's Stadium along with the 49ers - seems more likely than the city of Oakland getting a long-term stadium solution in place. 

At this point, the relocation proposal that seems most likely would see the Raiders traveling eastward to a new, $1.9 billion stadium in Las Vegas. 

Maddux - as are many Raiders faithful - is exhausted by all of the relocation chatter. Nonetheless, he fully comprehends why Mark Davis and his crew are so hellbent on exiting the East Bay. 

"Truthfully, I would like to see the Raiders stay in Oakland forever, but with all its problems, I certainly don't blame the city for not forking over a ton of public money," he said. "Face it, looks like we missed the taxpayer-funded stadium bus that was travelling the country for the past 20 years."

Gharib said that while he will remain a die-hard Silver and Black fanatic no matter which zip code the Raiders call home, he certainly has his preferences for relocation. 

The L.A. thing has already been tried, and there are too many fair weather fans in Southern California, he said. If the Chargers bolt out of town, he won't even mull the possibility of the San Diego Raiders ever coming to fruition. "Would you move the Vikings to Detroit?" he said. "They're enemies."

San Antonio is a bit better, seeing as how they have a built-in Hispanic fan base, the city's economic growth forecast is off the charts and the only other pro team in town, the Spurs of the National Basketball Association, already rocks the iconic Raiders colors. But as far as he's concerned, the best case scenario is migration one state over.

"It's so easy to travel to Vegas, and they will have a whole area where they will be the main attraction from an entertainment standpoint," Gharib said. "Hopefully, they will call them the Sin City Raiders. That just has a better ring to it."

Lauro said that while keeping the team in Oakland is his first choice - "after visiting the Bay Area a few times, you can see that they are very much a part of the city itself" - he just doesn't imagine the city getting behind a new stadium initiative. And there's no way the management is going to continue using a facility built before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, whose infrastructural problems have made Oakland Coliseum the laughingstock of both the NFL and Major League Baseball.

"We are the only team that still plays on a baseball diamond," he said. "That's not acceptable anymore. We will not attract quality free agents if you tell them they have to run on infield dirt four games a year, so a new stadium is necessary."

Whether the team lands in Los Angeles, Las Vegas or London, Lauro said he will continue to loudly and proudly wave the flag of his beloved pro football team. He even throws out his own relocation proposal - moving the team to Al Davis' childhood hometown, Brooklyn.

Ultimately, he said the mailing address of the team's stadium means precious little to him. As long as the team maintains that "us against the world" mentality Al Davis imbued into the franchise more than 50 years ago, Lauro said he's always going to carry the grinning pirate logo - and all that it represents, on and off the gridiron - with pride and poise. 

"My Raiders are my Raiders," he said, "and I go where they go." 

Uncommon Journalism, 2016.

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