‘They Know the History, but They Haven’t Lived It’
BY BARBARA JOHNSON
OAKLAND, Calif. — I’m Barbara Johnson, an 81-year-old Raiders fan. I have been around a long time, and I’m conflicted about the prospect of the Raiders leaving this town once more. I know I don’t want the Raiders to move, but what I don’t know is whether I’ll still root for them and travel to games if they do. I have been a loyal fan since the little-known newspaper contest to name Oakland’s new pro football team in 1960. The team became a local laughingstock when it was briefly named the Señors (and not the correctly-spelled señores). I went to the first game, and despite moving to Maryland in 1980 I’ve attended at least one game each year the team has played in Oakland. I have rejoiced, cried and even sometimes said a cuss word about the former Señors. But I have never swayed in my love and loyalty.
I introduced each of my grandsons to football by bringing them to their first Raiders game when they were old enough to understand. One of them, Robert Klemko, became a writer for this website two years ago, and he asked me to write a story about the possibility of the Raiders moving from Oakland to the Los Angeles area.
San Francisco had the Giants and 49ers, and we clung to our group of misfits in the funky upstart league. Maybe these modern fans just don’t identify the Raiders with Oakland in the way that we did back in the day.
This season I found myself on a plane to witness the opening game against the Bengals. It makes me feel so warm because I always meet at least one other Raiders fan on the plane. No matter our record, there is someone on that plane besides me. This trip I saw a man wearing a 1960 throwback Raiders shirt sitting next to his wife in her Raiders cap in the first row.
I thought that since I was going to write something for The MMQB, I would take the opportunity to talk to other Raiders fans, the young, middle-aged and elderly, to find out if I was the only one conflicted about supporting the team if they moved. I started this conversation as soon as my friend Barbara Jean, a beautician, picked me up at the airport and we drove to the beauty shop where she would do my hair. The shop owner, Cassandra Williams, does not attend games, but her son has season tickets.
“I don't know if they will leave or not,” Cassandra said, “but if they keep threatening to leave Oakland, let them go, and we will get another team.”
I whipped my head out from under the drying hood and gave a choice response. Suddenly I remembered I was a journalist, and I promise you I did better after that.
Whenever I attend a game, whether I bring my grandchildren or not, I always find myself visiting the Airport Hilton Hotel, where the Raiders used to stay the night before home games. At the hotel bar and gift shop you will often find former Raiders luminaries from the glory era. On Sunday morning of the season opener I saw a small elderly gentleman sitting in a wheelchair clad in Raiders regalia, so I walked up and introduced myself.
I asked the man if he would give me his name so that The MMQB would know my story was authentic. He slowly pulled a card out of his back pocket. It read: Al LoCasale, Executive Assistant, Oakland Raiders. Retired. I knew Mr. LoCasale as Al Davis' wingman for 35 years; he was always depicted as the voice of reason. I was so flabbergasted, and I blurted out, ‘Oh my God, I know you, Mr. LoCasale.’ He smiled and explained that he travels from El Segundo for the games and it would be easier for him to see the games if they moved.
But, he said, “They are really the Oakland Raiders. Oakland needs them.”
On Sunday morning, the Hilton was abuzz at breakfast time with Raiders fans from out of town. It is also the place where Super Bowl-winning coach and former Raiders quarterback Tom Flores has breakfast. I hesitated to disturb him, but I did it anyway, and he agreed to be interviewed.
To my chagrin, Mr. Flores said he believed there was a only 50/50 chance the Raiders would stay in Oakland. He felt they should stay in Oakland, but the city doesn’t show enough interest in keeping the team. He said the city has not made one decent offer to the Raiders during the process.
Among fans at the hotel, opinions were mixed…
“They are not going anywhere,” said Mike Boudney, a season-ticket holder from L.A. County. “[Owner Mark] Davis hasn’t got the money.” Darryl Reed, who was attending his first-ever Raiders game from Charleston, S.C., said he brought his son to see the Oakland Coliseum because, “It may be the last year they play in it.” Tina and Jim Yataw of Albany, N.Y., said this was their first-ever home game in 45 years as Raiders fans, and they would have no problem traveling to southern California if the team moved.
“It doesn’t matter to me where they move,” said Bob Miller of Jacksonville. “I’ll always follow and travel to games.”
On the shuttle to games, Raiders fans go in like lions—yelling, screaming, and singing as loud as we can. More often than not the ride back to the hotel is near silent, with the occasional mumbling about what went wrong and what we should have done. But that morning we were still undefeated.
Across the ramp from the shuttle drop-off, there was a vendor selling “STAY IN OAKLAND” buttons for $2.00. I bought one and tried to talk to him. He told me he had his “permit” and could not talk to me. It would have been nice to get the opinion of the gentleman who was selling Stay in Oakland buttons.
The aroma of food and the sound of music filled the air in the parking lot before the game. The fans in the lot had been out there since the gates opened and were a little happier than the breakfast crowd at the Hilton.
Jim and Sophie Thompson from Venice, the beachfront neighborhood in L.A., said, “Come south with us.” Ray Lopez of Richmond, Calif., just up the bay from Oakland, said he doesn’t believe the Raiders will move, but he won’t give up on the team: “Don't ever leave us again. I love Richmond.”
I met a group of 100 fans from Vallejo who caravan the 35 miles to each home game. Keith Morris said, “I don't know what I would do if the Raiders left Oakland. I love coming out to games. Carson is too far.” Said Kimberly Thurman: “I would miss the family tailgates, the good times.”
The group, like many other fans I spoke with, was more concerned about the economics of the move than the emotions. I’d yet to meet anyone who would feel betrayed by a move, as I would. When our city got the Raiders in 1960 it was all we had. San Francisco had the Giants and 49ers, and we clung to our group of misfits in the funky upstart league that played their home games on a junior-college field. Maybe these modern fans, hardened by losing season after losing season, just don’t identify the Raiders with Oakland in the way we did back in the day. They know the history, but they haven’t lived it.
“Sad to say I go wherever they go,” said Warren Gilbert of Oakland. “My family has had these season tickets since the ’70s.”
When I left the tailgating and walked inside, I was excited again. There is no sports experience like listening to fans yelling RAAAAAAAIIIIIIIDERS. We were coming into the House of Al and we were going to triumph today!
The tribute to Ken Stabler was beautifully done. Stabler represents the good times, when we were respected and feared.
My friend Curtis Williams will be 89 this year and has held season tickets forever. He has become friends with the family that sits next to him, Louie, Tammy and their son Louis, and we were all happy to see each other another year. They said they’d continue to follow the team, but, Louis said, “The city of Oakland needs a revival, and the Raiders will help bring that to a city in need of a blessing.”
There is not too much to say about the game itself, but I was happy to be there anyway. Kind of sad to say, but the best part was the lighting of the torch by Ken Stabler's family and the halftime tribute to Kenny. It was beautifully done. Stabler represents the good times, when we were respected and feared. Whenever Kenny Stabler was on the field, we knew we could win.
Those were the Raiders that Mr. LoCasale and I knew and remembered -- the most-hated winners in America. They showed up again, if only for a game, in a Week 2 comeback victory over the Ravens led by Derek Carr. But the season opener would be the last Raiders game Mr. LoCasale ever saw after spending 34 years in the organization. He passed away over the weekend at the age of 82.
I started off this column by saying I was conflicted about whether I could support the Raiders if they moved from Oakland. I listened to the fans out there Sunday and tried to keep an open mind. I don't know the politics of stadium financing, but I do know that there are many loyal fans who support the Raiders. I guess there aren’t enough of them to make the city commit to help build a stadium, and it doesn’t seem the NFL cares either way.
I will always love the Raiders. To me, they are still a part of Oakland. I do not believe I will be committed to traveling to Southern California, though I’ll still watch on television. Honestly, I won’t know how I feel until next offseason when I start thinking about how it feels to ride the bus to the game and to share the feeling I felt in 1960, when we finally got our own football team.
Only time will tell.
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