Silver and Black Like Me
Photo by John Gilhooley"THESE NUTS!" a red-bearded yokel yells at the top of his lungs. "THESE MUTHA-FUCKING NUTS!"
The teenage rednecks and burly Latino pals flanking Red Beard are nearly shitting their pants in moonshine-induced laughter. They are staggering above seats they cannot possibly afford behind the Raiders bench at McAfee (ne Oakland-Alameda) Coliseum, where the Raiders are playing their Sept. 1 pre-season game against the New Orleans Saints. The matchup might have been meaningless if not for the fact that Hurricane Katrina had roared through the Deep South mere days earlier; if I heard, read or had injected into me one more story about the majesty, diligence, focus, discipline, intensity, loyalty-to-sport, professionalism or innocence with which these plucky Saints concentrated on football while their thoughts were on the underwater fans back home, I was going to do the Technicolor hurricane yawn on the spot.
In an attempt to meet and understand some of the costumed Raider fans who brought me to Oaktown, I had moved from the seat number printed on my ticket to the rows up against the tunnel leading from the field to the locker rooms. But as the last seconds ticked off the game clock, ushers who'd experienced Raider fans at previous games showering opposing players with projectiles had strategically blocked my path, pushing me into the seat directly in front of the Red Beard Brigade.
"THESE NUTS! NOT THESE NUTS! THESE NUTS!"
This goes on a half-dozen more times before I nonchalantly crick my neck, glance over my right shoulder and try to ascertain the context for these incessant screams on behalf of a particular set of dry, dehiscent, one-celled seeds.
"THESE NUTS! NOT THESE NUTS," Red Beard yells as he points both hands at his crotch, "BUT THESE NUTS!" For the latter pair, he points in a directional plane that includes—gulp!—me. But surely he can't be referring to me as a nut. No, he must be pointing through me to some other nuts beyond my line of vision. Whatever he is pointing at, his "These nuts!" refrain continues, so I turn my head back toward the action on the field, pretending not to pay attention. But, Jesus Christ, it's these nuts this and these nuts that, not these nuts, but these nuts, etc.
Will this game ever end?
Finally, the subject matter changes.
"Look at all these people in their jerseys," Red Beard laments; he sounds like a World War II vet talking about those dirty Krauts. "We got 34, 72, 32. Those are Bo Jackson, Howie Long and Marcus Allen's numbers. They're not Raiders!"
I realize that this particular diatribe is crescendoing into let's-kick-all-their-asses territory. Jackson, Long and Allen played for the Los AngelesRaiders, or Los Angeles Traitors, as they were known to many Oakland fans. Some here still can't get over the fact that owner Al Davis moved his team to LA in 1982 and kept them there until 1994. It especially stings now that Davis, who is demanding more improvements to the Oakland stadium, is threatening to move south again if his wishes are not granted. Of course, these mooks would pound a Southern Californian for the injustice without ever laying a finger on the Raiders' benevolent, oily-haired king.
By the way, did I mention I'm wearing a black No. 34 Raiders jersey?
* * *
My old man was always a Los Angeles Rams fan, but he spent every game yelling at the TV, droning on about how horrible our hometown team was. So this young pup believed him and spent the rest of my days rooting against the Rams, even when they moved just down the road to Anaheim in 1980. At a very early age, I briefly sided with the Kansas City Chiefs, and then the Minnesota Vikings for a few seasons. But it was the Oakland Raiders who ultimately stuck. In the swingin' '70s, they had guys with long hair and beards, cigarettes dangling out of their mouths, blood and remnants from the chow line staining their away-game whites. I loved quarterback Kenny Stabler. The way he carried himself was so anti-establishment. I still remember being alone in my back yard, pretending I was Stabler, trying desperately to complete passes as a lefty like Stabler even though I was right-handed. When no neighbor kids were around, the clothesline stood in for receiver Fred Biletnikoff. Ah, Freddie B.: there's something about a scrawny white guy who ran flawless routes, caught anything thrown his way and took long drags off cancer sticks on the sidelines. And the Raiders had those defensive players who would not only outplay the opposing offenses, not only humiliate them, but maim them.
I went on to play high school and college football in Southern California. Actually, "play" is too strong a word. Let's just say I was on the rosters, that I was a live tackling dummy for the starters, that I never missed a pre-game meal. My college had loose ties to the Raiders; our head coach's nephew was their special teams coach for a while; my defensive backs coach, a football genius, they used to say, scouted for the team.
The Raiders' Los Angeles debut in 1982 was a godsend. I finally got to see my dream team in person with a good friend (and great college linebacker), whose dad scored excellent season tickets—behind the Raiders bench, right at the 20-yard line. I still remember the Denver game when you could see four fights going on simultaneously in the stands. And pity the fools who wore opposing-team jerseys into the LA Coliseum.
When the Raiders cleared out of LA in 1994, I must admit now, it was the right call. They belong in Oakland. But wherever they play, it ain't easy being a Raider fan, and not solely because they are coming off crappy 4-12 and 5-11 seasons (and, as this goes to press, an 0-2 record to start the season). It's bad enough you've got to watch your back around fellow fans like Red Beard. But it seems as if everyone hates you—opposing fans, the sporting media, polite society.
Sports radio host Jim Rome conveniently lumps all Oakland fans together as the singular "Raider fan"—as in "Raider fan don't like people knocking Al Davis" or "Raider fan can't deal with the fact their team sucks" or "Raider fan won't make bail in time for today's kickoff." Rome talks about Raider-fan myopia, a condition whereby Raider fan only sees events one way, the way that puts the team in the best light. Rome says Raider fan claims to have won every Super Bowl—after all the injustices the team suffered are peeled away to prove the team really should have had a perfect record. He's exaggerating, of course. We don't count games where scabs replaced striking players.
Rome is a buttercup compared to other famous observers of the game. Hunter S. Thompson described Raider fans in the 1970s as "a sort of half-rich mob of nervous doctors, lawyers and bank officers who would sit through a whole game without ever making a sound—not even when some freak with a head full of acid spilled a whole beer down the neck of their gray-plastic ski jackets." Over the years, the Raider Nation clearly evolved, as Thompson updated his assessment of the fans: "Beyond doubt the sleaziest and rudest and most sinister mob of thugs and whackos ever assembled in such numbers under a single 'roof,' so to speak, anywhere in the English-speaking world."
More recently, columnist Dave Newhouse of the Raiders' hometown Oakland Tribune lambasted the silver-and-black faithful as a bunch of "uncouth louts" and "a pack of drunken/stoned animals."
My name is Matt Coker, and I am a Raider fan.
* * *
Larry "D-Fence" Garcia
Photo by John Gilhooley
Two weeks before the Saints game, about 50 people in all manner of Raiders clothing were inside Larry's Pizza in Fullerton watching the Raiders' exhibition game against the lowly Houston Texans—so lowly that Houston would go on to win, 19-17, on a field goal with 0.8 seconds left. Two walls inside Larry's are adorned with giant black Oakland Raiders Boosters of Orange County banners. There's also a Wall of Fame with framed photos signed by Raiders players and Raiderette cheerleaders.
Waitresses—their shapeliness stretching tight black Raiders baby tees—attended to customers. Little kids ran wild. Some guys sat at tables alone, glued to one of three big TV screens. People in large groups seemed to talk about everything except football.
"The Raiders pretty much own our county, even if the Rams used to play here," said Larry Garcia, who was parked near the entrance to the pizzeria's dining area. No relation to the Larry of Larry's Pizza, Garcia is the president of this officially sanctioned Raiders fan club. He's a longtime Orange Countian who was never a fan of the Los Angeles Rams, even when they played at nearby Anaheim Stadium before departing in the dead of night for St. Louis. Asked if any of his fellow Raiders clubbers are former Rams fans, he said, "Not so much."
A quick web search reveals Garcia may be on to something. While there are at least two sanctioned Raiders fan clubs meeting in Orange County—at Larry's Pizza and Danny K's sports bar in Orange—and booster groups for the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots, I could find no clubs in the county the Rams called home from 1980 to 1994. The closest I came was the "new" Southern California Rams Booster Club someone tried to start in 2004. Intended to draw OC, LA and the San Fernando Valley Rams fans to a Whittier restaurant on game days, the club had not had another visitor to its site in the previous week, according to an onscreen log that came up when I clicked on their link in mid-September.
Incidentally, Raiders games still draw respectable television ratings in the LA-Orange County market, no matter how much Los Angeles Times columnists wish it weren't so.
"I think it was the take-no-prisoners attitude," Garcia said of what first attracted him to the silver and black. "I like that they tell other teams, 'Hey, you're in our house. If you walk out, you're lucky.' It's what they're known for: blood and guts, home of the castoffs."
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."
* * *
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 Seor 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.
"Is this your costume?" the reporter asked.
First came an incredulous smirk and then that proud straightening of the back—familiar to anyone who has witnessed Trekkies launching into a description of their meticulously accurate uniforms. "Oh, no," said the wide-eyed Raider fan in the same condescending tone employed by the comic-store owner on The Simpsons, "my costume is much too elaborate and takes quite a bit of time to get into."
And I wondered if it struck anyone else as odd that we were giving blood for Saints fans mere hours before the Raiders would be spilling the blood of Saints players.
* * *
My "costume" is a No. 34 Bo Jackson jersey, a gift I'd received from my brother during the team's LA years. And that's what I'm wearing as Red Beard goes nuts. I can practically feel his breath on my neck as he goes on and on about faux Raider fans in their LA-era jerseys.
"What in the hell are they even doing here?" he asks rhetorically—not that he can spell "rhetorically."
I can smell his breath: booze. I quickly scan my Gameday program.
34. Jordan, LaMont. RB. 5-10. 230. 11/11/78.
That's it! After Red Beard swings me around to face him—and just before he pummels me with his paw—I will calmly explain that I'm wearing my nephew LaMont's jersey number.
Fortunately, there is no need to pull out this lie, for just as Red Beard is ready to throw down the gauntlet—not that he can spell "gauntlet"—a Saints player is hit hard by a Raiders defender and somersaults before smashing into the turf.
"Hey, look," says one of Red Beard's Latino buddies, "he landed on his nuts."
The group of rocket scientists behind me bursts into more laughter, and just as they finish howling, Red Beard apparently forgets the LA Raiders taunts.
"THESE NUTS! THESE MUTHA-FUCKING NUTS! NOT THESE NUTS, THESE NUTS!"
Seriously, can we end this game now?
* * *
Walking through the turnstiles after the game (Raiders 13-Saints 6: Moss made a miraculous catch, but overall the game was sloppy), I bump into Raider Gloria, who poses for a photo and then gives me a card, like a baseball card, with a photo of her on one side and an ad for Vella's Locker Room—an "officially licensed Oakland Raider merchandise" outlet, with four Bay Area locations—on the back. Everyone's got their angle.
Heading for the sidewalk that will take me to my motel, I think back to earlier in the day, on this very same path, where I encountered surprisingly pleasant African-American ticket scalpers ("You got your tickets, man? All right then. Go team!"), a white guy in San Francisco Giants gear who was animatedly going on and on to an older white woman in Raiders silver and black about "Mets fans vs. real Mets fans" and "Yankee fans vs. real Yankee fans," and then, swear to God, a heavyset white man in a white-brimmed Raiders hat and street clothes, staring down at his brown shoes as he walked pigeon-toed, at about the pace of a Dawn of the Dead zombie.
As I thought about these stragglers and the fans I encountered along the way, it occurred to me you can look at Raider Nation any number of ways—thugs, diehards, tweakers, skinheads, vatos, bruthers, gangstas, rednecks, people who are frighteningly attracted to spikes, skulls and Alice Cooper eye makeup, but on the whole the nicest folks you'd ever want to meet. At their core, Raider fans are no different from people who join any other social group, especially those groups with members who wear silly outfits and perform unusual rituals, and the select, extra-committed few who see themselves as mini-celebrities for whatever reason. Go to any square dance, sci-fi convention or yacht club, and you'll see what I mean. Especially the yacht clubs.
As I reach the crosswalk, my thoughts turn to that comfortable motel bed, but then I barely make out a familiar sound in the distance. No, it can't be. Probably just so burned into my brain by now that I'll be hearing it for days, like a Ricky Martin song. But the sound gets louder and louder as the vehicle emitting it draws closer. Finally, it's unmistakable. Red Beard is behind the wheel of a little truck with the rest of his crew packed in the cab like sardines.
"NOT THESE NUTS! THESE NUTS! BWAH-HAH-HAAAAAWWWWW!!!"
Oakland RAIDERS BOOSTERS OF ORANGE COUNTY MEET EVERY GAME DAY AT LARRY'S PIZZA, 926 W. ORANGETHORPE AVE., FULLERTON, (714) 871-3484. DUES ARE $20 PER SEASON. PRESIDENT LARRY GARCIA CAN BE REACHED AT (714) 278-8922 OR VIA E-MAIL AT LARRY.GARCIA@ALCOA.COM; ORANGE RAIDERS BOOSTER CLUB MEETS EVERY GAME DAY AT DANNY K'S, 1096 N. MAIN ST., ORANGE, (714) 771-9706. PRESIDENT DAVE LA BLANC CAN BE REACHED VIA E-MAIL AT DGRAIDERS@HOTMAIL.COM. BOTH CLUBS ARE PLANNING TRIPS TO OAKLAND FOR THE OCT. 2 DALLAS COWBOYS GAME.
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