A tale of three Superfans: How NFL relocation is changing their lives
In the days leading up to Tuesday, Jan. 12, as the cities of San Diego, St. Louis and Oakland prepared to learn the fate of their respective NFL teams, Rafael Alvarez in San Diego received a phone call. “Well, Alvarez?” asked the local sports radio journalist on the other end of the line. “What is Bolt Pride going to do for the owners meetings?”
Bolt Pride is the most celebrated Chargers fan group, with hundreds of members and nearly 10,000 followers on Facebook from all over the world. Alvarez is one of its four founders and leaders. He has been a season ticket holder since 1992 and was inducted into Pro Football’s Ultimate Fan Association (PFUFA) in 2013. For Alvarez, the Chargers aren’t just the team he cheers for—he tailgates at 7 a.m. on Sunday mornings in the stadium’s deserted parking lot for this team, he has built an extended family with this team and now he has no control over whether or not he’ll lose this team.
Alvarez thought about the owners meetings, and then answered, “What is Bolt Pride going to do for the owners meeting? You know what? Bolt Pride is going to party.”
Over 1,500 miles away in St. Louis, Karl Sides, or ‘Ram Man’, as he is known by, received a phone call—or, more accurately, hundreds of calls and messages, from fans of other teams asking how he was doing, from friends already offering him places to stay in L.A. in 2016. Ram Man is the president of PFUFA, and he has led tailgates to watch his beloved Rams since they arrived in 1995. And now, on that Tuesday night, he followed along with the owners meeting as the votes went from 5–1 in favor of the Carson project (“St. Louis gets off! Yay!”) to a closed door meeting where all of a sudden the Rams are moving to Inglewood. “WHAT?” Sides says. “You’re shocked. And it was anger at first, and then it was really depression. Because my wife and I looked at each other ... we’ve been married for 25 years, and for 21 of them we've been going to Rams games. It’s taking a part of what we did together away from us.”
Back west in Oakland, Ray Perez, the fan who goes by Dr. Death and whose recognizable costume includes a silver Raiders hard hat with a Mohawk-shaped line of knives across it, sees the owners in Houston announce that it won’t be the Raiders who are L.A.-bound—at least not right now. Dr. Death (also a member of the PFUFA) has been attending City Hall meetings and giving speeches on why the Raiders should stay in Oakland for three years now, so this is a great moment for him. But then he watches as Raiders owner Mark Davis declares this a loss.
“He said that this is a bad day for Raider Nation. That the Raiders lost,” Perez said. “No, Mark. YOU LOST. It was a glorious day for us. We dodged a bullet!”
These three men are the superfans of NFL Superfans. They have all dedicated a huge part of their lives to the cause of their teams and their cities. Sure, they’re the ‘leaders’ of their respective fan groups, but that’s not what matters to them. The winning isn’t what matters to them (and if it was, I think they would have had to give up a long time ago). What matters are the people they’ve met along the way, the local charities their groups have raised money for over the years and the cities they adore and get to represent. Bolt Pride, Ram Man, Dr. Death—these are all extensions of Alvarez and Sides and Perez. Their teams are a part of them, and that bonds them. Their reactions to losing their teams—or, in two cases, potentially losing—makes them different. When it comes to their coping mechanisms, it’s a Tale of Three Superfans. Here are each of their stories.
Rafael Alvarez, San Diego
“They have contingency plans, we have contingency plans. Except our contingency plans, our plans A and B and C, they all involve a party.”
Alvarez is the eternal optimist. Home games are his fountain of youth. The joy and pride he shows when discussing the Chargers and his beloved Bolt Pride family is infectious. He tells me the official values of Bolt Pride, (“Chargers, family, respect and having a great time”) and invites me to a meeting of their not-yet-launched ‘Brew Club’ at the end of February (there is already a Bolt Pride Wine Club). He was unsure of which day the relocation announcement was going to be made, so he organized the party mentioned above, which he dubbed the ‘Diehard Bolt Fan Party,’ for Wednesday night, Jan. 13. It was either going to be a celebration or a protest, and, at least for now, it was the former. By the time he arrived at the party—15 minutes before he was even scheduled to be there—there were already local San Diego news stations surrounding the bar, and the place was packed all night long. “Of course, we had a blast. It was phenomenal. It felt so good, I did not want to let that go [on] Wednesday night, and I’m not ready to let it go as a fan.”
But after filling our conversation with words like “wonderful,” “phenomenal” and “amazing,” the jovial Alvarez stops me to make sure I know he also feels resentment. He understands that the NFL is a business, but he can’t help but wonder why an attempt at decency can’t be made as well. “I don’t think it’s a lot to ask for an owner to truly embrace a community. That act alone would be actually good for the bottom line. It’ll be good for business.” As he continues, he becomes more and more impassioned: “It’s always business, business, business, and yet they act like such jerks! And they alienate the community! How is that good for business?!”
Even with the resentment, Alvarez feels responsible to not lose his group along with his team. “[If they leave] I could walk away and just leave it alone, and then people will ask ‘Hey, remember Bolt Pride? Yeah, whatever happened to it?’ I don’t think I want that.” Should the Chargers relocate, he’ll never go see them in L.A. (he explains San Diego and L.A. are like “oil and water,” and that’s a whole separate issue) but he’ll use his season ticket money to travel elsewhere. He’ll go to Atlanta, he’ll think about trips to Kansas City and Denver. He can’t control what happens to his team, but he can control how it impacts his life in the long-term. “You know, in St. Louis, the sun came up on Wednesday,” he says. “They lost their team. They had no team but the sun came up. And what are you going to do? Let’s reinvent ourselves. Let’s work to not lose what we have gained, what I have gained. It’s everyone I’ve met. Everyone who I’ve shared any kind of moment with, the tailgates together. How do we keep that? Let’s not lose that. It’s too much to give away. It’s worth too much.”
He tells me life is too short, and wants me to know that when Chargers fans come together, it’s a truly beautiful thing. “Come on!” he says. “Let’s celebrate life. Let’s enjoy it. I mean, we might be cursing Spanos or whatever...but we’ll still enjoy life.”
Ram Man, St. Louis
“Getting mad doesn’t do any good. I mean, it makes you feel good for a little while. But then you still have that empty feeling.”
When I talk to Ram Man two days after it’s announced his team is leaving, I don’t know what to expect. Would he be miserable? Furious? It’s neither of the above—instead, Sides is calm and reflective. “You never want to lose your team. That just…it leaves a hole.”
Sides was a Rams fan before they even came to St. Louis because he gravitated toward players he admired, like Deacon Jones, and he “didn’t care for” the city’s other former football team, the St. Louis Cardinals. When the Rams gave St. Louis a football team back, he wanted to show the NFL how proud he was, so he purchased some gold lamé material, sewed horns on his hat and painted his face. Initially his outfit included a cape, but that particular accessory didn’t survive a rainy road game in Cincinnati; he switched to a jersey with the name RAM MAN on the back, and thus his alter ego was officially born.
His tailgates on Sunday started with a 5 a.m. wakeup call, and a core group of 16 people that could stretch to however many felt like joining on game day. The interest from all over grew, thanks to social media (something all three superfans praise for its ability to connect them with fans across the world), and so Ram Man & Co. decided to be ambassadors for St. Louis. He’s had visitors from Germany, Wales, London and Buenos Aires, just to name a few. “We called ourselves the Rambassadors of the Gridiron. Everyone would look for our sign and know they were welcome.”
One international friend he met through the fandom over the years that he brings up multiple times is Fernando from Mexico City, who started coming in every year and staying with Ram Man for games. This season, Fernando attended the final three home games with Ram Man before flying home. And that’s when you can hear the sadness seep into Ram Man’s voice. “That’s something that we’re going to miss out on now. Because he’s not going to come to St. Louis anymore.”
People expect him to lash out in rage, but that wasn’t his overwhelming reaction, he insists. He’s more hurt than he is angry. But he does talk about Stan Kroenke’s handling of the situation with a real sense of disappointment, at the very least. “There was no need for what everyone’s calling the scorched earth that Kronke did … Everyone understands business. And you’re in business to make money. I guess you need more than $7 billion to make yourself sleep at night. But you know, it was uncalled for. So that’s why everyone’s angry.”
So what now for Ram Man? “One of my really close friends is an L.A. Rams fan and we’ve always said, ‘We’re Rams fans. No matter where they play.’ And that’s always been our motto.” Though he won’t go to L.A. in 2016 because the wound is too fresh, he already has his road game plans in motion, and when he does get to L.A. in 2017, he hopes his friend Fernando from Mexico City will join him.
Ram Man’s life will never be the same with his team in L.A., but he’ll continue to serve his role as the president of the PFUFA, he’ll continue to show his love for the Rams and he’ll continue to move toward acceptance. And on the first Sunday of the 2016 football season, while his Rams play across the country, Ram Man will be at his normal tailgating spot, with his normal group of people, saluting his city of St. Louis. He says it’ll be a statement: “We’re still here. You may have left us, but we’re still here.”
Dr. Death, Oakland
“The general consensus among Raider Nation is they’re frustrated and they feel alienated. And we resent him. Because if Mark Davis walked into a bar with a bunch of Raider fans, we wouldn’t be like, “hey Mark Davis how’re you doing!” We’d say “what do you want?”
Dr. Death, passionate and straightforward, is frustrated—something he repeats throughout our conversation. The 28-year-old began going to Raiders games when he was seven years old. “I told my dad this is better than Disneyland. I would go to a Raiders game and high-five random strangers, some of them had face paint on and outrageous costumes, and it wasn’t even Halloween.”
As Perez got older, he started doing small jobs here and there so he could afford a cheap ticket to home games. When Perez told his dad he wanted to start dressing up for the games, his dad forbade him from using skulls as part of the costume. Not a problem—instead, he assembled a helmet of ‘knives.’ When legendary Raider cornerback Skip “Dr. Death” Thomas passed away, Perez adopted that nickname as his own, and so Ray Perez became Dr. Death.
Three years ago, a friend called him to ask if he wanted to go to one of the city hall meetings to talk about the Raiders’ stadium plans. At first, he hesitated, but when he considered not going, he couldn’t sleep. “I said, you know what, if I don’t go and the Raiders move to L.A, I’m never going to live with myself … I think the community, Raiders fans, were almost starving for someone to represent them.”
So that’s what Dr. Death has done—he’s tried his best to represent them. He’s gone to between eight and 10 City Hall meetings in Oakland, sometimes in costume and other times just as Ray Perez, the Raiders fan and communications student. Two years ago, he delivered a petition with 10,000 signatures on it to Raiders headquarters, promising Mark Davis that fans would sell out games. When Davis stood up at the owners meetings, he addressed his fans and said, “Don’t feel bad, we’ll get it right.” But he didn’t say thank you, and Dr. Death noticed.
“It pisses me off, and I’d tell him that. He just needed to say, ‘today was a frustrating day for me, but I appreciate my loyal fans in Oakland and we’re going to get this right.’ And then leave it at that… He doesn’t understand who we are. That’s really frustrating to me.
“You know what that 30–2 vote means? That means they don’t respect Mark Davis. That means they don’t think he’s credible.”
He promises me that anything he says to Sports Illustrated, or on the radio, or to any other sports media outlets about Davis is something he’d absolutely say to his face. “I’m not in a cult. He’s not a supreme leader where I have to bow at his feet. You are sadly mistaken if anyone thinks I’m going to do that.”
Sure, he’s mad, but Dr. Death is hopeful as well. Amidst all the talk of San Antonio or San Diego—places he argues make absolutely no sense for the Raiders to relocate to—he believes a stadium is going to get built and that the Raiders are absolutely going to stay. But he can’t and won’t accept what it would do to him and his fellow fans if they don’t. When I ask him if he’ll still watch, he answers firmly and concisely: “If my wife were to leave me, I would not continue to send her flowers.”
If the Raiders leave Oakland, Perez plans to move to Guam, where his dad lives, because the time difference there will be 18 hours and he won’t be able to watch even if he’s tempted to. In order to move on, he has to cut himself off completely, like one must do after a serious relationship ends badly. For him, the Raiders are important, but Oakland, the city he hopes to move to (he’s currently going to school in Sacramento) and build a future in, is a place that’s shown him so much culture and so much diversity, and he can’t grapple with the pain some billionaire owners will cause it if they strip it of the Raiders. “It would be too heart-wrenching for me to see in Oakland and here in Sacramento the effect that the Raiders leaving would have on the people. It would be too heartbreaking.”
And what about Dr. Death, the alter-ego that has become a key part of Ray Perez’s life whether it’s at games, at work, at charity events, at school?
“Dr. Death played for the Oakland Raiders. He didn’t play for the L.A. Raiders. So, Dr. Death lives and dies in Oakland.”