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Oakland is the only NFL team to formally recognize its booster groups, and these groups are spread around the world. There's even an online Christian Raiders club. On game days, Garcia's club rents out Larry's so he can control who gets to stay and who must leave. Not wearing Raiders club or team gear is discouraged. And God help the schmuck who enters wearing an opposing team jersey. "I'll say, 'Dude, what were you thinking? Turn your jersey inside out if you want to stay, but I'm not responsible for your safety.'"
You get the distinct feeling few take the burly Vietnam vet up on his offer.
A fellow named Mondo, sitting near Garcia, started the OC club in 1983, when the Raiders called Los Angeles home. Mondo a few years ago became an ordained Christian minister and turned over the booster club reins to Garcia. "Mondo got the calling," Garcia said. "He had visions and stuff. I told him to go do what he needed to do. He helps a lot of the people in the club now."
Oakland Raiders Boosters of Orange County have boasted as many as 420 paid members during the glory years, although it's around 200 now as the team is in rebuilding mode. Fifteen or so members are season ticket holders who attend home games in Oakland and watch the away games at Larry's.
Testosterone and tattoo ink flowed generously during the viewing party, but this predominantly Latino, working-class crowd remained upbeat, as glad to be together as they would be at a cousin's wedding and generous to a complete stranger who just wanted to watch a game with them. They talked excitedly about the club's charitable work on behalf of needy Orange County children.
They certainly were nothing like the fans described by a "Raider hater" in the new book Better to Reign in Hell: Inside the Raiders Fan Empire (see accompanying review). Of both Oakland and Los Angeles fans, the unnamed source said, "I think both are scum really. Oakland because of its middle- to lower-class people and LA because of [the] South Central environment. Hell, taking my kid to a Raiders [game] in LA was like watching Boyz n the Hood over and over and over."
Garcia says he has been a fan long enough to see the Raider-fan image tarnished by the so-called "gangsta element," and he concedes his group has had to beef up its bylaws to keep out the riffraff and ensure their gatherings remain family friendly.
"I've even been told now by some of the young guys I'm not a Raider fan," he said incredulously. "But we're too old for that. The club has evolved. We were young and crazy; now we're grandfathers. You got to let it go, dude. Take that somewhere else. You see some of these gangsters or whatever, and they've never been to a game, they just wear Raider black. Unfortunately, that's what it's become associated with."
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Garcia's devotion to Raider Nation extends beyond Orange County. He's also an Oakland season ticket holder and among a select group of superfans who slide into elaborate costumes and take on alter egos like Señor Raider Man, Gorilla Rilla, the Violator, the Dictator, Raider Gloria and, in Garcia's case, D-Fence, the guy in the hard hat who hoists a giant "D" in one hand and a section of white picket fence in the other to get the crowd to cheer on his team's defense.
"I've been doing this for years," D-Fence says proudly. When his 25-year-old daughter was young, she'd tell friends, "My dad is D-Fence." Garcia's 6-year-old grandson is now nicknamed "Little D-Fence."
D-Fence is an honored guest at the elaborate tailgate parties held before home games. "It's like getting together with old friends," he says. "The group I hang out with will treat me to five-course dinners. I'll bring a little liquor. Everyone feels like kings. Once or twice a year I'll drive up and bring enough meat for everyone. We swap off each game. People will bring oysters, lobsters, fresh guacamole, tri-tip, chicken—we eat good. How many skinny Raider fans do you see? No tofu or vegetarian food for us."
I would go on to pose for photos with many costumed characters while at the Raiders-Saints game, but my favorite encounter came before the game, while waiting to have my blood drawn in the sports arena adjacent to the stadium. The American Red Cross was collecting blood for Hurricane Katrina victims. I was wearing my gray T-shirt with "Oakland Raiders" spelled out in faux pigskin, chatting about the upcoming season with a muscular guy in a white Raiders hat and jersey—love Randy Moss, hate Kerry Collins and really hate the brutal schedule—when we were seized upon by a dozen TV and print folk who'd come to localize the hurricane story.
That's right, home viewers, even those scummy Raider fans were pitching in.
On the way to my 15 minutes of fame, I looked over the reporter's shoulder to see another microphone stuck under the nose of my fellow blood-lettee.
"This is what we do in Raider Nation," he told the reporter. "We help people, in the community and around the world." He also somehow let it slip that he belonged to that elite fraternity of costumed Raider Nation fans.