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Days from playing their final home game in California, the Oakland Raiders wave a bittersweet farewell to a city that backed them through dark days and bright

By Marc Sessler | Published Dec. 10, 2019

Come to sunny California,
Come at once -- make no delay.
Build your homes in charming Oakland,
Gem of San Francisco bay.
When you come you'll join with Sheba's
Far-famed royal queen of old
And proclaim in words of rapture
That the half has not been told.

The name-dropping of a Biblical queen from Ethiopia is noted in J.W. Dutton's poem published in The Oakland Tribune on May 1, 1907, but Dutton's "the half has not been told" gets closer to prophecy worthy of Old Testament lore. The city's true gem was still in the making, decades away from becoming a thing -- but a thing it would become:

The Raiders of Oakland.

A pro football team born in the ebb-and-flow fires of the AFL -- tinged initially with threats of bankruptcy -- only to morph into a rough-and-tumble underdog puncher predestined to permanently rock the 100-year-long storyline of the NFL.

When Gary Oldman took on the part of Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone's JFK, his world altered after digging into the hidden nooks and vast meadowlands surrounding the death of a president. Poring over books and memos and deep-diving into the mystery with his own eyes, the actor emerged in a mesmerized state, telling people: "The subject is so vast, you get completely sucked in. A friend of mine said that it was better than a relationship."

Oakland's flight with the Raiders has nothing to do with school book depositories or bullets that are magic, but the relationship part -- better than a relationship -- applies. The deeper you dig, the farther you fall into a swirl of city-love madness saved exclusively for an underdog troupe set apart from the big-burgh operations out of New York, Chicago or Dallas -- not to mention next-door neighbor San Francisco.

The story of the Oakland Raiders -- set to play their final game ever in the Coliseum this Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars -- is rooted in a passionate affection between city and team. Something that should render Las Vegas, the club's new home, as a guarded love interest for years to come. Not because the team's new setup in the desert won't offer every possible perk and amenity -- it certainly will -- but because the gravitational and spiritual forces tying the Raiders to Oakland will never be topped by another.

The more one mines into the nuances of this relationship, the more it becomes apparent: Oakland and the Raiders are linked by a mythology that channels back to pre-merger worlds that serve today as the very basis of the game we witness each Sunday. If the Packers and Green Bay feel psychically tied at the hip -- if the Bears of Chicago chart to October days of old -- then doubly so with the sacred bond between Silver and Black denizens and the Bay Area township where it all began.

The chants ring down in unison from those who lived inside this coupling from the start. Lived within it -- and crafted it -- on autumn Sundays in "charming Oakland" of old:

"You don't know when you're coming out of college and you're going to play pro football," said legendary Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano, a second-round pick in 1971 out of Bowling Green who played for a decade in Oakland. "You could play in f------ Saigon or Fairbanks, Alaska. You're so excited to be a part of the NFL, that you'll play anywhere, you'll do anything. And I really didn't realize how cool Oakland was until I became a real citizen of Oakland, until I lived there, until I went out and shopped there, went out and drank beers there, met the people there and realized how cool of a place it was and how the guys that came before me set me up for just a love-fest."


Today the names and legendary types come easily to mind. Epic men of Raiders lore flowing through movie projectors onto walls: Revealing the dancing, darting shapes of Marcus Allen weaving through Redskins defenders for 191 ground yards in a merciless romp of Washington in Super Bowl XVIII. Previous to that 13-year sojourn in Los Angeles, the memory-stamp of joyful coach John Madden carried off the field after downing Minnesota in Super Bowl XI -- the emotional capping of an eight-year journey too often sullied in the postseason by an archrival Steelers outfit dueling for glory in the AFC.

The Raiders are the constant subject of football's love-poetry -- The Autumn Wind is a pirate / Blustering in from sea / With a rollicking song, he sweeps along / Swaggering boisterously -- made all the more emphatic through the decisive, imaginative, zero-boundary-dreamland leadership of Al Davis, who morphed a sickly, toying-with-bankruptcy AFL outfit into the NFL's happy-go-lucky super-villain: A powerful force roasting opponents on the grass-and-dirt surface of the Oakland Coliseum when not sailing on to distant shores to wreak ultra-havoc with a grin.

He growls as he storms the country,
A villain big and bold.
And the trees all shake and quiver and quake,
As he robs them of their gold.

There is nothing in sports like the image of those storied Raider plunderers sweeping in to dissemble cowed signal-callers, blow up hapless ground-churners and separate unsuspecting pass-catchers from the ball.

And while all this history unfurled successfully for a time in Los Angeles, nothing we imagine and feel about the Raiders would have been possible without Oakland -- oft-drowned out by the lights and call of San Francisco, but cut from a cloth utterly unknown to any other gridiron home-front. Oakland will soon be a city with no team. A few decades from now, its impact will fade as all bright lights eventually do. But at present, the world is still filled with those who remember this link as something unmistakably ideal, mysterious and symbiotic. The way your grandparents fell in love and endured tough American times for six decades and then passed away within months of each other because the separation removed all meaning of life from either side. Stories from an NFL landscape bathed in something different, nearly holy and from the past. An irreplaceable golden light from afar.

The existence of pro football is an oddity. If earth's DNA fluttered even one iota to the east or west, the concept of human beings flinging a ball made from the flesh of a pig would sound like the fascinations of a lunatic.

But it came to us at the perfect time and from that funneled idea-zone came the Oakland Raiders -- and, more specifically, the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. A hothouse of lathered up Silver-and-Black faithful populating an impossible place for opponents to flourish. Treasured yet more because it was a home that only arrived after the Raiders played the role of a raging afterthought as the secondary residents of Kezar Stadium and Candlestick Park during their first two seasons in the AFL, from 1960 to 1961. Finally bolting San Francisco in 1962, the Raiders held court in the tiny and temporary home of Oakland's Frank Youell Field while the city put hammer to nail on the Coliseum.

"Frank Youell Field was named after an undertaker in Oakland, and I hope that it's true because it adds to everything else that was going on at that time in the American Football League," broadcaster Charlie Jones once told NFL Films of the 22,000-seat "complex" that cost $400,000 to prop up.


"Frank Youell Field up in Oakland? Come on, that thing?" ex-Bills linebacker Paul Maguire said in the same production. "If they had the wave in those days, the whole thing would have come down. I swear to God, it's the worst-looking mess I ever saw. They played in an erector set. It was terrible."

The tectonic shift came in 1966, when the Raiders moved into their true home at the Coliseum -- not named after an undertaker, but instead breathing intense life-energy into a setting that would weld the players, coaches and fan base into one for the next five-plus decades.

Today, the Coliseum is seen for what it is: an aging swath of architecture allergic to the modern perks and state-of-the-art eccentricities of newer venues. Instead, it's flush with the imperfections, hidden-away creases and folds of someone passed by in the street. The Coliseum is special because of its inner world -- a messy, beautiful building that faithfully blessing-kissed the home team a thousand times over while leaving infiltrators second-guessing their place in existence. The dirt infield during baseball season, the hardened clumps of earth, the unnecessarily soaked grasslands in early winter, the locker rooms barely kept up to code -- all swirling into a visiting-team experience set aflame as 56,000 rowdy-bordering-on-lunatic types flooded the seats to raise the spirit world.

"I always felt that we really had a home-field advantage," said Villapiano. "It's probably from those secrets, you know, from the guy on the sideline who kept the clock. I feel like somehow or another we probably had another 10 seconds. The referees loved being there, they loved talking to us Raider players. I think they thought they were cool because they were in Oakland. There was something different about that stadium. And then, you know, we'd have a drought. And we're playing against a fast team. And the grass would be three inches long, it would be soaking wet. There was always a home-field advantage."

Legendary Raiders bookend and coach Art Shell sensed that advantage on a weekly basis, saying: "Players would come from out of town and ... [they] didn't want to be playing in the dirt. It didn't bother us because we wore the right cleats and everything and we were accustomed to it. And then when they put the grass down, they'd be slipping and sliding. I remember one time I was playing (defensive end) Julius Adams from New England and he'd be coming off the ball and he'd slip and fall down and I'd be standing up. So, he said, 'Man, Art, what the hell is going on? What kind of shoes are you wearing?' And I said, 'I'm wearing the same kind you are.' I was lying to him!"

It wasn't just the field, but the entire raucous setting where visiting teams would be treated as invaders from the start by Raiders fans doing their part to jostle the enemy, with ex-Pro Bowl fullback Marcel Reece remembering "people throwing things at the buses, fans shaking them, fans holding up the buses so they couldn't get right in. They're extremely passionate and we knew, no matter what, those fans would have our back and the city would have our back and that was just a part of the mystique of the Coliseum."

Followers of a certain age dial up ingrained visual pictures of the Oakland A's infield dropped smack dab across the gridiron, creating, as Shell mentioned, a wide section of unforgiving dirt for players to deal with -- and avoid. Reece noted how he would laugh with fellow runner Darren McFadden about that particular quirk.

"We do not get tackled until we hit that grass," Reece said. "Because once you hit that dirt, the skin is coming off, no matter what."

That infield once caused a procedural tumult exclusive to the hills and vales of the Coliseum, when groundskeepers once befuddled Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski by painting hash marks halfway on the grass and halfway on the soil, making it near-impossible to boot field goals for either team.

"I just can't do that. Can we move the hash marks slightly?" Janikowski asked longtime Raiders executive Amy Trask, who forwarded the request to the lead official.

"[The official] looked at me and said, 'I can't touch the hash marks,'" Trask recalled. "And I said, 'Just a minute.' I got the league office on the phone. Back and forth, several phone calls and they came back to me, and the league was tremendous about this. To the league's credit, they said, 'Yeah, Amy, go ahead and tell the official he can adjust the hash marks so that the kick can be either all grass or all dirt.'"

The Coliseum's flaws, however, were treasured as advantages by Raiders players, curves and corners that made the place not unlike the home you grew up in, where early memories are imprinted and you fall in love with that specific creak in the stairway that roars every time you take a last step. Confident always in their origin story, these Raiders happily played the traveling role of sea-faring plunder-types -- pillaging just for fun -- when they ventured to uncharted lands.

"We were in Oakland's house -- and we loved our house. It was the best house," said Villapiano. "And whenever we went anywhere else, we thought, 'F--- this place. This f------ Kansas City. F--- Miami. And F--- everybody.' That's the way we thought. We got the best house. And then we'd go on the road and kick somebody's ass just because we're from Oakland. And that's kind of the way we thought and felt. WE HAVE THE BEST. F--- you guys. And we'll shove it up your ass. That's the way the Raiders thought. I don't know if you can feel that, but I knew it. I mean, my God, I didn't want to be anywhere else on Earth."

And there he was.

Guiding this concert all the way. A man of originality and rare spirit and fire from afar: Al Davis.

The owner. The general manager. The coach. And so much more. Raised in life witnessing the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers. Admiring the Yankees for their power and size and might. Drawn to the Dodgers by their cut-against-the-grain, risk-taking bravado. Wanting to blend the two worlds into one fearful, beautiful mix and finding the balance in the palate of the Oakland Raiders.

Al Davis. Who crafted the Raiders with a super-specific image in mind of a team that would stretch the field vertically on offense and canvass the grass with defensive behemoths burning to separate quarterbacks into five-thousand pieces of nothingness. The Raiders would play in a way no team dared, whipping the ball into ocean-swept winds in search of the big play; unleashing punishers to exact malice on the opponent; riling up their beautiful Oakland backers at every chance through four quarters.

"He loved Oakland. He loved that stadium. He loved the people of Oakland," said Hall of Fame wideout Fred Biletnikoff, who played 14 years for the Raiders. "He loved being there on game day. He loved that sideline, when he would walk down there into the Black Hole and shake hands with all the people and spend some time down there with them. They loved him. These people loved Al. Al was an icon to them. Al was like a cult hero. He was bigger than Mick Jagger. When he walked out on that field, to that Black Hole, there was no entertainer in the world -- no bigger sports figure in the world -- than Al. He just stood out."

Davis will be talked and written about to the end of days, but his love for the city of Oakland tugged at him when the franchise spent a decade-plus in Los Angeles (1982 through 1994) -- and that affection ultimately pulled him back home.

Said Trask: "When the team was in Los Angeles and we were evaluating all the opportunities to build a new stadium in Los Angeles, we presented him with some opportunities that, from a revenue standpoint, from a financial standpoint, would have been far superior to that in Oakland. But his heart was set on returning to Oakland. That market was extremely important to him."

That loyal Oakland milieu will watch the Raiders depart east into the desert for a splashy, newfound stadium in Vegas. The move has been marketed to us as something different than the Baltimore Ravens being ripped out of the belly of the Cleveland Browns -- or the Colts disappearing to the north in dreadful midnight minutes, via a fleet of moving vans. Less jarring, blamed mostly on city-planners, too -- but that fails to mask over the soon-broken connection between a team and community crafted for each other.

"They were just blue-collar workers," said Biletnikoff. "They were people from different parts of California, different parts of Oakland. People that could relate to the team because everybody looked at our team as a bunch of underdogs. Our fans felt that. They had a relationship with a group of guys on the field as part of their neighborhood, part of their life -- and they felt that."


Said Trask: "There's just something different about Raiders fans, and I mean that in the very best sense of the word 'different.' I would walk through our stadium ... and there were people of every race, multiple religions, every religion, no religion, every ethnicity, men, women, old, young, people from affluent suburbs and people from inner cities. And for the three or so hours they were together in that stadium, it was one collective fan base united in magnificence."

It's one thing for the Raiders to shift between Oakland and Los Angeles and back again. Different feelings are stirred when the team leaves California entirely.

"Two things are not mutually exclusive," said Trask. "For the fans that are looking forward to the move -- I'm happy, I'm thrilled for them. And for those fans who are heartbroken by the move -- I'm heartbroken for them."

Hall of Fame receiver Tim Brown noted the duality, too, saying: "The folks in Oakland, I'll say this -- they may not say it -- [but] I don't think they (the Raiders) negotiated in good faith with what was happening. And pretty much gave them the old Heisman move, hand to the face. That being said, I think this is a beautiful thing. And if you really love Raider Nation, you're going to love them in Vegas because they're going to have the whole place [to themselves] really for the first time in the history of the team."

"It's sad," added Shell. "It's sad that it's happening, but the team can't survive in the situation that they're in now. It's not their fault. With other teams getting bigger and larger and newer, you got to keep up, and the only way to do that, they had to move. And it's sad. But knowing the Raiders fans, they'll make it a long weekend in Vegas. They'll come."

Come to sunny California,
Come at once -- make no delay.
Build your homes in charming Oakland,
Gem of San Francisco bay.

Now the poem must be penned anew describing the flat, white sands of Nevada. More sparse, less oceanic. A state-of-the art building flush with all the accouterments a fan of today would demand. But what about charming Oakland? A town and people disappearing like a sea ship growing smaller on the horizon with each blue wave?

There they go.
Those majestic pirates of the West.
Beholden to their rollicking song.
Their place forever booked in football lore.
Tangling with the Autumn Wind.


Editors: Andy Fenelon, Gennaro Filice | Illustration: Chloe Booher
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