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The Raiders' rabid fans finally have a team to get behind ... but for how long?

At last, the die-hards in Oakland are beginning to put years of NFL irrelevance behind them as the Raiders roll toward the playoffs, but the talk of relocating to Las Vegas has been a dark cloud over the Black Hole.

This story appears in the Nov. 21, 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated.Subscribe to the magazine here.

All this leather and face paint! So many spikes, chains and skulls! It’s as if a Dia de los Muertos parade wandered into a biker bar, and they all decided to check out the underground Goth discotheque next door. If this were a movie, it would be a collaboration between Steve Sabol, the late cofounder of NFL Films, and George Miller of Mad Max fame.

Don’t be afraid. Unless it’s third-and-long for the visiting team, these people—denizens of the Black Hole or, more formally, section 105 at the Oakland Coliseum—aren’t as mean as they look.

Take Storm Raider, president of the booster club, the Knights of the Shield, Chapter 209, which just held a blood drive. Dr. Death, one of his leather-bound brethren, is active in Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “We’re not thugs,” says Eric Barnhart, understated in a Raiders camo T-shirt. “We’re good people.”

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Kickoff was 20 minutes away for the most important football game in more than a decade at the moldering old bowl that is the Coliseum. In section 105, excitement—and blood-alcohol levels—ran high.

Leading the crowd in a sinister-sounding RAAAIII-ders chant was Gorilla Rilla, the top hat–sporting simian well-known to Raider Nation. A few seats down, longshoreman Steve Rundle shouted at back judge Steve Patrick, 40 feet away in the south end zone, “Let ’em play tonight!” In a 30–24 win over the Buccaneers a week earlier that lifted its record to 6–2, Oakland was flagged for an NFL-record 23 penalties. Glancing in Rundle’s direction, the zebra permitted himself a brief smile.

“Dammit!” exclaimed Dr. Death, not far away. “We need a knife!” (Alas, the half-dozen knives protruding from his hard hat, in Mohawk array, are made of foam.) The doctor, in real life a 28-year-old publicist and community organizer named Ray Perez, sought a sharp edge not to perpetrate mayhem but to cut one of the zip ties holding his banner to the railing in front of him. The sign, which needed to be lowered a few inches, served as a shot across the bow of the city that has opened its arms to—and promised to build a $1.9 billion domed stadium for—the Raiders: VEGAS, IF YOU BUILD IT, WE WON’T COME.

In a cruel twist, the NFL’s most raucous, least inhibited fans stand poised to lose their team just as the Raiders, after 13 years vacillating between lousy and mediocre, are returning to their past glory. In coach Jack Del Rio’s second season, with budding superstars Derek Carr (quarterback) and Khalil Mack (defensive end), the Al Davis slogan Commitment to Excellence no longer seems like an attempt at morbid humor.

Davis died in 2011, bequeathing the club to his son, Mark, who has tweaked his old man’s motto ever so slightly, demonstrating a Commitment to Exiting the stadium he regards, clearly, as a prison. Despite his never-ending quest to bolt—Davis has explored in-state stadium opportunities in Inglewood, Carson, Concord, Vallejo and Dublin, as well as in San Antonio and Vegas—Raider Nation remains remarkably loyal to the team.

On Oct. 19, at the NFL owners’ meetings in Houston, Davis informed his peers that he would seek their permission to move to Las Vegas. (He’ll need the approval of 24 of the 32 owners. That vote could happen in January. In the interim, expect Oakland to file a proposal for a new stadium.) Three days earlier, standing in a drizzle in the Black Hole before a Week 6 game against the Chiefs, Dr. Death trembled with indignation at the mention of the team owner. “Mark Davis should be ashamed of himself,” he says. “If he’d devoted a quarter of the time he’s spent in Carson and San Antonio and Las Vegas” trying to line up sponsors for a new facility in Oakland, “he’d have a deal by now.”

“Look at this,” he proclaimed, gesturing to the packed stands. “We’ve got a full house for every game now. And he wants to move the team?” Raising his voice, like Mel Gibson exhorting the gathered clans in Braveheart, he went on: “We’re not the Las Vegas Raiders, or the L.A. Raiders. We’re called the Oakland Raiders!”

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The fans at 53,250-seat Oakland Coliseum are fiercely independent in spirit. They are also, arguably, codependent: supporting, enabling and forking over their hard-earned dollars to a club that is eager to abandon them, as it did from 1982 to ’94, when it was relocated to Los Angeles. “I’m not going to lie to you,” says Rundle, a season-ticket holder who’s been coming to games since the days of Kenny Stabler. “It’s been tough, all the losing.”

Since its last winning season, in 2002, this team has stacked up defeats—11.2 per year, on average—which explains the euphoria surrounding the Raiders in the buildup to their Nov. 6 matchup with the Broncos. Relevant at long last, the Silver and Black were tied with the defending Super Bowl champions for first place in the AFC West. Members of Raider Nation braced for a reality check.

It was Denver, it turned out, that needed to assume the crash position. In an all-phases 30–20 ass-whuppin’ signaling an AFC West sea change, Oakland flat out bullied the Broncos, outgaining them 218 yards to 33 on the ground and bogarting the ball for more than 41 minutes. The Raiders’ rapidly improving defense, often a bend-and-then-rupture unit over the first six weeks of the season, held its opponent to fewer than 300 yards for the second straight Sunday.

“This is the game I’ve been waiting for since 2002,” says Rundle, the long-suffering longshoreman. “It’s been a long time since we've gotten this feeling."

Enjoy it while you can, Steve.

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