Fear of a silver and black planet
Sacramento is Raider Nation. Deal with it.
Nine people sit at three tall tables just off the bar inside an Arden Fair Mall-area restaurant. They are watching the CBS telecast of the November 18 Oakland Raiders-Minnesota Vikings pro football game on big-screen televisions facing either side of their silver-and-black bedecked grouping.
“You guys want another pitcher of beer? You OK?” a strikingly gorgeous waitress asks three … erm … well, let’s just call them “offensive-linemen sized” guys fighting for elbow space around a table top overtaken by beer glasses, beer pitchers, cups of salsa, jalapeños, guacamole and sour cream, and plates that moments earlier had precariously balanced quesadillas, fried shrimp, chicken wings and French fries drenched in ranch dressing with bacon bits sprinkled on top. Given the figure tightly encased in a push-up bra, baby-doll tee and black microfiber short shorts, there is no way in hell the waitress could possibly consume the mass consumables she’d brought this table, at least not without depositing said consumables into the nearest ladies-room stall.
As a little bubble of ranch dressing snails down the facial area between the lower lip and upper chin of one plus-sizer staring blankly into the boob tube, one of his tablemates yells “Stoopid!” as the tele captures yet another Raider mental mistake on offense. But this trio and the Raider fan six-pack adjacent to them are on their feet cheering seconds later as safety Jerrod Cooper levels Viking punt returner Mewelde Moore a split second after he’d caught Shane Lechler’s 54-yard punt.
“That’s what I’m talking about! That’s what I’m talking about!” shouts Javon Barreno, who is sitting at the next table over from the big boys and has this endearing habit of repeating the same lines twice. “Whoop! Whoop!”
He’s proudly decked out in a black Raiders Game Day jersey emblazoned with the No. 24 superstar cornerback Charles Woodson wore before splitting for Green Bay after the 2005 season. Stitched into the front thigh of Barreno’s shiny silver pants is a large black Raiders emblem, and the black theme is repeated when it comes to his gloves and skull cap. Dangled around his neck and waist like some kind of crude bondage gear is the kind of chain you’d use to tie a large dog to a tree. Dangling from chain links at waist level are two plastic skulls on one side and a miniature skeleton on the other. Next to the roll of paper towels in the center of the table that serve as napkins, bibs and quicker picker uppers are Barreno’s large silver and black Raiders flag and rubber mask with crude black whiskers, a hog-like snout, shrunken heads protruding from … aw, hell, look at the photo above and write your own description.
The sign out front may read “Hooters,” but make no mistake: You are in Raider Nation. Indeed, all of Sacramento is Raider Nation.
What’s that, you blow-dried, Brie-munching, chardonnay-swilling, knit-sweater-over-the-shoulder-wearing yuppity-yup?
More like the Whiners!
Not on this side of the Delta, bucko.
Let’s go to the stat sheet. Long, storied, blood-soaked history: check. Blue-collar work ethic: check. Inferiority complex due to lack of respect from the rest of the League (of Cities/National Football): check. Crusty old leadership painfully out of touch with the way things work in modern times: check. Sizable collection of hardcore denizens who know all too well the ins and outs—especially the ins—of the criminal-justice system: check.
Yep, the evidence is irrefutable: Sacramento is Raider Nation.
Need more evidence?
Just ask a local Raider fan.
Sacramento Raider Rooters bills itself as the team’s oldest booster club in town. It formed in 1967 and became officially sanctioned the following year. The Raiders is the only pro-football team that officially recognizes its fan clubs.
Former contractor Billy Reed founded the club, which sends busloads of Sacramento Raider fans to home games, hosts local viewing parties for away games and conducts various charity events in the months between seasons.
During both of their respective teams’ glory years, the Raider Rooters and San Francisco boosters sponsored a trophy that would be held by the club whose team won the annual Raiders vs. Niners “Battle of the Bay” game. If the Niners won, the Rooters would also feed the winners steak dinners. If the Raiders won, the Rooters were fed beans.
Ed Atkins, the current president of Sacramento Raider Rooters, is adamant about there being more Raider fans than Niner supporters in town. He claims there are more Raider fans in the triangle from Vacaville to Placerville to Nevada City than in all of the southern San Francisco Bay area.
(Of course, actual numbers to verify this are impossible to gather. For one thing, Raider fans can’t always make bail.)
Why do so many Raider fans call the Sacramento area home? Atkins thinks it is because the original Raiders were a “lunch-bucket team. They were the underdog. You’d go to a Raiders game and it would not cost that much. The 49ers were more middle class.”
It’s something he believes transfers to baseball, with more Sacramento Raider fans rooting for the A’s than the Giants.
“It’s something about the silver and black,” Atkins says. “Ninety-five percent don’t like the 49ers. Maybe it’s also because Al Davis did everything first. He was the first to hire a black coach—and he hired him twice.”
The original Sacramento booster club actually disbanded between 1981 and 1994—the dark days when the Raiders, or “Traitors” as Oakland fans called them, played in Los Angeles. Atkins says it took a Hall of Famer to put his club back together again after the team returned to Oakland. Legendary Raider center Jim Otto, who was then living in Auburn, apparently leaned on Raider owner Al Davis to help resurrect the booster group, offering to get out of the burger-chain business to help promote the team full-time.[page]
Other Central Valley connections to the team include Hall of Fame receiver Fred Biletnikoff living in Rocklin, team CEO Amy Trask being from Stockton and the sister of “The Stork,” Ted Hendricks, residing in Sacramento.
As a longtime Raider Rooter who has seen it all, Atkins says it’s a shame that today’s players aren’t as close to Sacramento as they once were.
“It’s difficult to get players to come to our events,” he said. “It wasn’t like that in the ’60s and ’70s. They came and drank beer with us. Now these players have trainers who watch everything they eat and drink. But the stories they tell. … They have pretty good stories.”
Membership numbers fluctuate with the wins and losses, but Atkins maintained his club still has a strong following, drawing 50 people to a viewing party for last season’s final regular season game (a loss) and getting commitments from 300 local Raider fans to travel to Miami for this season’s match up.
But Atkins does still have to explain the Raider experience to the curious.
“On Saturday, a lady who has never been to a Raiders game asked me what it is like. I asked her if she’s ever been to a Halloween party.”
Denise Browne picks up the silver and black pom-poms that had sadly been collecting dust and shakes them enthusiastically after the TV screen at Hooters shows her Raiders making a particularly good play. The action then cuts to her purple and white pom-pom shaking counterpart, who unlike Browne is fat, male, brown-goateed and wearing a white Einstein wig with Viking horns sticking out of it.
Browne co-founded the Sactown Original Raiders Rooters back in 1992, making it the longest, continuously running Raider fan club in town. Though they belong to rival clubs, Atkins and Browne agree there are four recognized Raider booster groups in town.
Browne’s club formed a couple seasons before the Raiders ended their 13-year stay in Los Angeles, where Browne made long commutes to as a season-ticket holder. To see away games in those days, one usually had to go to a sports bar with enough TV screens to show all NFL games simultaneously. Even for those games that did make it to her home screen, Browne felt more comfortable gathering in pubs with fellow Raider fans because she could yell at the screen without disturbing her neighbors. That’s really why Sactown Original Raiders Rooters was born.
Right now, she counts about 65 members, who mostly caravan together to home games and bond at off-the-hook tailgate parties. Booster clubs also choose one away game per season that members are encouraged to travel to despite the evil stares, obscenities and projectiles that will be thrown by Raider haters.
Besides game trips and/or viewing parties, the club sponsors end-of-season raffle events for local children’s charities, and steering-committee members gather with booster club reps from around the country for the annual NFL Draft Day party inside the longtime Raider watering hole Ricky’s in San Leandro. Sactown Original Raiders Rooters also join together for picnics, baseball games and Super Bowl parties, not enough of which directly involve Oakland’s pro franchise these days.
But Browne does not solely blame mounting Raider losses for the low turnouts at viewing parties like the one that brought nine die-hards to a corner of the national chain establishment that proudly displays a “Hooters is football” banner and yellow street signs with insightful messages like “Double curves” and “Caution: blondes thinking.”
“I started noticing the crowds getting smaller with the advent of the NFL Network and other channels,” Browne says. “It used to be you had to go to a place like this to watch away games.”
Dwindling membership or not, her club is being wooed by local restaurants that want to host future viewing parties. In fact, this season the Sactown Original Raiders Rooters are rotating among various venues before picking one single place they’ll call home away from McAfee Stadium for next season. Browne ticks off the list of places, then proudly says, “They all wants us.”
Imagine that: Raider fans actually being wanted. For something other than felonious assault!
Moments after the Raiders colorful delinquent of a kicker Sebastian Janikowski drills a field goal to tie the score, Minnesota runs its way to a 19-13 lead. The Sactownies present are quick to find someone to blame.
“Schweigert is always giving up. … Man!” Barreno says dejectedly.
That would be Stuart Schweigert, who is a fourth-year safety the Raiders nabbed in the third round of the NFL draft and a frequent whipping boy for hardcore Raider fans.
Barreno is not a season-ticket holder, yet he finds a way into McAfee Stadium for every home game, somehow snagging a seat within or just off of the notorious Black Hole, the seating area directly behind one of the goal posts that becomes the stadium’s most boisterous rooting section or dangerous place for an opponent to find himself.
“We’re the ones who pound on the walls and throw stuff at the players,” boasts Barreno, beaming.
Meet the Beast. Barreno has been a Raider fan since 1985, which also happens to be the year he was born, and like so many others who have been sucked into the Black Hole, he displays his hyper-enthusiasm by transforming himself into an elaborately costumed alter ego. And like Gorilla Rilla with his online store and busy appearance schedule, Darth Raider with his impressively sponsored Web site (darthraider.com), or Raider Gloria with her freely dispensed business cards—which are like a football cards with her photo in pads and uniform on one side and an ad for the “officially licensed Oakland Raider merchandise” outlet Vella’s Locker Room on the back—Barreno self markets his super-anti-hero, advising one adoring Hooters customer to check out his MySpace page (www.myspace.com/meethebeast).[page]
Atkins counts fans who dress up in costumes among his booster club as well. During that pre-season chat, he mentioned how his club invited members of the city police and county sheriff’s departments to join them for a game—and was shocked by the get-ups the folks in blue showed up in. “You’d be taken by surprise who the people are behind those costumes,” he said.
These kinds of characters and more pop up in a great dissection of Raider Nation, Better to Reign in Hell: Inside the Raiders Fan Empire (2005, The New Press). Authors Jim Miller and Kelly Mayhew are a couple, Raider fans and college professors, having also co-authored Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See with controversial urban theorist Mike Davis of City of Quartz fame.
Better to Reign in Hell does not read like a dry academic paper nor is it post-postmodern doomsaying. But it does put the Raider fan image—indeed, the whole Raider mystique/mistake—under a scholarly microscope. The book traces the common view of a Raider fan—wears wild costumes, assaults opposing fans, drinks the blood of children—back to the days of dirty defenders Ted Hendricks and Jack Tatum through to the John Matuszak-era Raiders of Los Angeles, and on to the teams Miller and Mayhew followed for two disappointing seasons immediately after the humiliating 48-21 loss to Tampa Bay in the 2003 Super Bowl.
The stereotypical Raider fan apparently had not yet de-volved at the time Hunter S. Thompson, who Better to Reign in Hell was dedicated to, described them 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.” Naturally, Thompson would update that assessment years later: “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.”
Miller and Mayhew contend that conditions in Oakland, and later Los Angeles, and then Oakland again, contribute to the bad rep fans get. Oaktown was a rough place long before there was an AFL, let alone NFL, and more recent de-industrialization, ghettoization and globalization—attributes the city shares with Los Angeles, it should be noted—have reinforced that view.
The authors interviewed many Oaklanders who believe the team’s boosters became thuggish only after the Raiders moved to Los Angeles, where its logo and colors were adopted by South Central gangbangers. That “gang mentality,” this reasoning goes, followed the Raiders back to the Bay Area. Proponents of this viewpoint single out the 2003 Super Bowl riots as evidence of this. After all, the violence was confined to the inner-city flatlands, not the more middle-class hills.
But that’s just a convenient cop-out, Miller writes. “Consistently refusing to address the deep, seemingly intractable structural economic and social problems that are the breeding ground for events like the Raider riots, California has chosen instead to moralize and punish, mocking attempts to ‘understand’ as failed liberal relics and speaking piously of ‘family values’ and ‘personal responsibility.’ As a result, our society has become what Barry Glassner (author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage, and So Much More [Basic Books]) has called a ‘culture of fear’ that blows events like the Super Bowl riots out of proportion, making demons out of young ‘Raider thugs’ and blaming them for conditions not of their making.”
Indeed, Better to Reign in Hell lays out a compelling argument that suggests the true agenda behind Raider hating is good old-fashioned racism and classism. The authors write, “hating ‘Raiders fans’ is a good way to express general prejudices about race and class that they might perhaps keep to themselves in a different context.”
Minnesota fans have another reason to hate the Raiders just before halftime, as the Hooters TV screen flashes Janikowski nailing another field goal to tie the score at 19-19.
“Piece of cake” says one of the plus-size guys, who’s obviously an expert at recognizing dessert.
But then his party of three heads for the exit.
“Raider Nation! Raider Nation! Raider Nation!” Barreno says as he side-fives each one of them. The trio hasn’t even reached the door before Barreno’s tune changes, however.
“They just got the colors,” he laments. “I mean, why wouldn’t you stay? We just tied it right now. Man!”
“I never left a home game, no matter how much it hurt,” Browne adds. “My guys are on the field.”
“Heck yeah,” Barreno says. “They could be down by seventeen-hundred. As long as they get a field goal, I’ll still be there like, woo-hoo!”
And then there were six Raider die-hards.[page]
Did someone mention die-hards? As several nosh on their Hooters lunches, Tiffany Herrback mentions going to local car dealerships and telling the salesmen, “Don’t show me anything that’s not silver, black, or silver and black.”
She attended this season’s Miami game and was surprised at how many more Raider fans there were in south Florida than she knew existed. She even met rooters from England.
“We’re everywhere,” Barreno says. “Nationwide. We’re even in Canada. Canada!”
“The stadium was only half full,” Herrback says of the Dolphins’ home field. “All were Raider fans. And they were crazed Raider fans for half of the game.”
It even spilled into the Dolphin stadium parking lot.
“There were bands and deejays outside,” Herrback said. “People came up to us and said, ‘You guys are so lucky you’re so close to where the Raiders play.’”
She compared the worldwide Raider Nation fan following to a cult.
“You’re a Raider fan for life,” she said. “I think Raider fans get a bad rap. We’re not all troublemakers. We have good jobs. To be season-ticket holders, you have to.”
Adds a guy in a white Raider Woodson jersey sitting next to her, “Raider fans are doctors, MBAs, lawyers—”
“—and truck drivers,” Barreno interjects. “We’re the loudest, and we’re the rowdiest.”
Rather than dismissing the Raiders’ pirate image, logo and slogans—like “commitment to excellence” and “just win, baby”—as magnets for hooligans, Better to Reign in Hell claims they have helped create a mostly positive subculture that has brought together thugs and cops, white collars and blue collars, drunken heathens and sober Christians.
Browne sums it up best: “It’s a family.”
And as with many families—your Hatfields, your McCoys, your Bushes, your Corleones, your Family Stones—there are enemies of the family. Herrback recalls with horror her shouting matches with a roommate who was a Kansas City Chiefs fan. And there are rough patches all these locals have faced when brushing up against fans of a certain other Bay Area team.
“Raider fans are not anti-Niners,” Browne observes, “but Niner fans are really anti-Raider.”
As the teams line up for the kickoff that will start the second half, CBS flashes highlights of current Raider quarterback Daunte Culpepper hooking up with former Raider receiver Randy Moss while both played a lifetime ago during Minnesota’s offensive juggernaut years.
“Whatever happened to Randy Moss?” the guy in the white Woodson jersey asks sarcastically. Moss, of course, is right now having a career year with the seemingly unstoppable New England Patriots one season after leaving Oakland.
“Traitor!” Barreno yells at the Moss image.
A scoring drive that could put the Raiders ahead is stymied when Culpepper fumbles the ball away in the red zone.
“You know, he only got a one-year contract,” Herrback tells her tablemates.
“Exactly,” Barreno says. “The Raiders are smart.”
“And he really needs to prove himself,” Herrback notes.
“He ain’t got nothing,” Barreno adds.
Later, the Raiders give the ball away again.
“When we’re bad, we’re really bad,” Browne remarks.
What the hell happened?
“Raiders fans are so optimistic this time of year,” Atkins was saying before the current NFL season began. “They know where the stumps are when they walk across the water.”
Sports-talk personality Jim Rome has a name for the kind of optimism Atkins was speaking of: “Raider myopia.” Rome tells his vast listenership that “Raider fan”—always singular and male in Rome speak—is so deluded that he believes the team will go undefeated every season and win every Super Bowl, and when that does not happen the “myopic Raider fan” excuses it away, blaming blind refs, cheating opponents, a dastardly NFL commissioner, the Illuminati. Raider fan intimates that the injustice should be universally acknowledged and rectified by having the Lombardi Trophy permanently displayed in Oakland.
Romey, such a card. Surely he recognizes the vicious circle the Raiders are really caught in. To remain competitive in his division, Davis must come up with ever more revenue. One way is by driving up ticket prices—and driving out the average Joes who made the Raiders a successful, championship, Everyman’s team. The other way is through the sale of corporate boxes. But the Raiders don’t own McAfee Stadium and Davis’ negotiating tactics (suing the city; threatening to leave town; no, really, I mean it: We are going to leave town) have failed to do anything but make him look like a villain. Coupled with complaints that the team lacks offensive imagination, that it is stuck in schemes that haven’t worked since Davis’ Brylcreamed hair was in style and, well, welcome to the vicious circle the Raiders are caught in.
But that could not temper Atkins’ pre-season myopia, er, optimism. The Raiders were entering the season with a new coach (Lane Kiffin), a hot new quarterback (JaMarcus Russell, the first overall pick taken in the NFL Draft), a proven defense and new hope. The booster-club president said he and other members were heading into the season with concerns about the offensive line and starting-quarterback position, “but everyone is really optimistic. No one is picking the Raiders, and that’s how I like it.”
He believed the Raiders at that time had all the ingredients of a winner, that Russell—a “real specimen”—could grow into the first real quarterback the team has had since MVP Rich Gannon retired in 2005 and that Davis remains such a football genius that he will figure out a way to make this team a winner again.
Things started going south shortly after the conversation with Atkins, however. The NFL Players Association filed a pre-season complaint, alleging Kiffin was pushing his players too hard. Russell refused to sign until after training camp, thus delaying his NFL career until … heck, could be any game now. With nothing else clicking on offense, some argue they may as well throw the rookie to the wolves—and Broncos and Colts and Jaguars—to get him game experience for next season. Others want to protect the Raider quarterback of the future at least until next training camp.
Hope was not lost heading into the fourth quarter in Minnesota, but if hope was a receiver it would be running a fade out.
As Atkins had put it, “It’s only after the season starts and things aren’t going so well that the grumbling begins.”
The grumbling is deafening. A Raider drive has stalled at the Minnesota 30. Like so many other times during this dark Raider age, they are be-fucked by penalties and a lackluster offense. As Minnesota pulls ahead 29-19 shortly after the quarter begins, talk at the table shifts from this game to the opponents ahead.
A guy in glasses and a U.S. Marine Corps leather jacket slides into the table abandoned by the fat guys and places his order. After a few minutes, he catches Barreno’s eye.
“You a Raiders fan? You a Raiders fan?” Barreno asks the lone soldier.
“Oh, yeah, look at my shoes,” the man says as he lifts up a foot covered in a black tennie with silver Raider emblems on them.
“I saw you cheering on one of the plays and wondered if you were a Raider fan,” Barreno says. “Come on, sit over here with us.”
The guy obliges, bringing his slice of chocolate mousse cake with him.
Friendly banter fills this corner of Hooters even though the team that brought everyone here is letting them down. Again.
Final score: Minnesota 29, Oakland 22.
And it didn’t seem that close.
“This will roll off of me by Wednesday,” Herrback says. “When they were winning, it would take me a whole week to recover from a loss.”
“Not me, it gets me. Until I take it out on my wife,” Barreno says.
As others at the table lock eyes in search of validation that Barreno must be joking, he sums up the current state of Raider Nation.
“We’ve got to face the fact we’re a rebuilding team right now.”
Myopia or optimism—myoptimism?—Barreno remains upbeat as he glad hands fellow Raider fans heading for the door.
“It’s a rebuilding year. New quarterback, new head coach. The future’s coming, the future’s coming. The offense needs to line up with the defense. When that happens, we’ll be undefeated.”
Then those three plus-sized guys who left at halftime return to their table. Turns out they left to go to a bar down the street that serves hard liquor (Hooters is beer and wine only). Barreno on the spot transforms them from being faux fans who left early to the cause of this loss for breaking the Raider mojo when the game was tied at halftime. It’s all good-natured, of course.
It’s time to return to our normal lives. For Browne, that means a work week as a property management consultant. A property management consultant with a dark, silver-and-black secret.
“I wouldn’t tell any of my clients I’m a Raider fan.”