The Las Vegas Raiders will begin training camp, like most NFL teams, on July 28 at their new headquarters in Henderson, Nevada.
It will be nothing like the good old days, when the Silver and Black spent almost eight weeks training at the El Rancho Tropicana Motel in Santa Rosa, about 60 miles north of Oakland by way of Highway 101, from 1963 until 1981.
“Every year, when I was packing for training camp, I would tell my wife how much I hated it,” linebacker Phil Villapiano said. “But actually I loved it, because we had to much fun, and I just couldn’t wait to get there.”
Coach and General Manager Al Davis found the El Rancho while driving up the 101 one day and decided it would be the perfect place to get the Raiders ready for the season. He had two practice fields built behind the hotel and surrounded them with a rickety six-foot wooden fence.
There were six preseason games in those days, so the camp could last almost two months.
It was at the El Rancho that the Raiders became one of the great franchises in sports, at training camp and mini-camps.
“We were in Santa Rosa three months out of the year," Hall of Fame Coach John Madden said. “You think of that, and how we practiced then, and they'd probably throw us in jail today.
“I figured weather that’s good for growing grapes is good for training camp. Cool in the morning, hot in the afternoon, cool at night.”
It’s only about 20 miles from Bodega Bay, where Alfred Hitchcock filmed his classic movie, “The Birds,” to Santa Rosa, and the fog rolls in from the Pacific Ocean in the evening and sometimes remains until early the next afternoon.
Then the temperature can rise to nearly 90 degrees.
“Madden worked the piss out of us in training camp,” running back Pete Banaszak said. “These guys today go out in their underwear and baseball caps and sunglasses and don't put pads on. We practiced twice a day in pads.”
However, when the Raiders were done with practice, the fun began.
Once the afternoon practice was over, the Raiders had an hour or so before dinner and many of them went next door to the Bamboo Room and had a few beers, “to replenish our fluids.”
Said Hall of Fame wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff: “There's definitely some ghosts around (the El Rancho). The grounds seeped beer.”
Not only that, but this is also where All-Pro tackle Bob Brown shot at blackbirds with his pistol at the back of the practice fields, where Hall of Fame linebacker Ted Hendricks rode onto the practice field on a horse, and where training camp wasn’t official until Hall of Fame guard Gene Upshaw got into a fight with defensive lineman Art Thoms, who claimed Upshaw was holding him in seven-on-seven drills.
In addition, the practice field at the El Rancho is where quarterback Kenny “Snake” Stabler first said: “Lowball thrower, highball drinker,” a line he used for the rest of his career whenever he threw a pass into the ground.
But the real action in Santa Rosa took place off the field.
Villapiano was known as “The Commissioner,” because he was in charge of tournaments the Raiders played in off-hours, including a Machine Bowling Tournament among the pinball machines at the Bamboo Room, the Air Hockey Tournament and the Foosball tournaments.
“(Villapiano) started them because he figured he could win,” center Dave Dalby said.
The slogan for these events was: “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”
Biletnikoff had a string of shutouts going in the Air Hockey Tournament one year before someone noticed he had cellophane stretched over the goalmouth.
After evening meetings, the Raiders had a few hours to hit the nightclubs of Santa Rosa before curfew, and there was a string of bars known as “The Circuit,” that became popular hangouts.
“We’d hit five bars in two hours,” Banaszak said “The Bamboo Room, The Music Box, Melendy’s, the Hilltopper and the Hofbrau.”
Said Stabler: “We couldn’t wait to get out of meetings and hit ‘The Circuit.’”
Curfew was at 11 p.m., and at a few minutes before the hour, Santa Rosa Avenue in front of the El Rancho and the long driveway to the back of the hotel where the players lived resembled the last lap of the Indy 500.
However, simply because curfew had passed, it didn’t mean the night was over.
One night, defensive backfield coach Bob Zeman had bed-check duties, and opened the sliding glass door on the patio side of a large room occupied by Dalby, tackle John Vella, tight end Bob Moore, and wide receiver Mike Siani.
It was dark in the room, so Zeman flipped on the lights and found all four players in bed, with the covers pulled up to their necks.
“Zee, I was almost asleep and you woke me up,” one of the players said, so Zeman flipped off the lights and closed the door. However, being an ex-player he was suspicious, so he walked around to the other side of the building where the cars were parked.
Not a minute later, the four players came out of the room, fully dressed and on their way back out.
One day, 6'-4," 300-pound Bob Brown walked into the hotel room at the El Rancho that served as the Raiders office during training camp and threw a couple of hundred dollars on the desk to pay his fine in advance and proclaimed: “I’m going to miss curfew night.”
Nobody said a word to Brown, one of the most fearsome players in NFL history.
Training camp was climaxed by “The Rookie Party” on the final night, with the winners of the tournaments being feted after a parade of cars across town to the nightclub which had been chosen for the occasion.
One year Banaszak, one of the winners, threw candy from the back of the convertible he was riding into children he spotted along the way.
Back in Oakland, the fun wasn’t over, as the Raiders partied with fans in the Oakland Coliseum parking lot after games, and at Clancy’s and other bars in Jack London Square, the Brass Rail and Pier 29 in Alameda and the bar at the Concord Inn.
And of course, when party-hearty John Matuszak played for the Silver and Black, “Tooz Day” was always a big day, or actually night, because it usually was five days before the next game.
But it was nothing like the eight-week fraternity party at the El Rancho in Santa Rosa.
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