Raiders Memories From Past Training Camps

After covering the Las Vegas Raiders for the last 50-years, Sports Illustrated's Raider Maven reflects on his best training camp memories.
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With training camp having started a few days ago, the Las Vegas Raiders rabid Silver and Black fans couldn’t help but think of the years when the team held camp in Santa Rosa, Calif.

One day, Coach and General Manager Al Davis was driving north on Highway 101 in Santa Rosa, about 60 miles from Oakland, and spotted the El Rancho Motel. After taking a quick look around, Davis decided that this was where the Raiders would hold training camp, and they did, from 1963 to 1984.

“That was a tremendous practice facility we had in Santa Rosa,” Davis said years later. “It was a little out in the country and the players could concentrate on football. It was the perfect place to get ready for the season.”

Davis had three practice fields and a weight-lifting area built behind the hotel surrounded by a six-foot wooden fence, along with a locker room, and the Raiders spent almost eight weeks there during the summer months and they worked hard.

There were two practices in full pads every day, sometimes in the chilly fog that rolled in from the Pacific Ocean about 20 miles away, and another workout in the afternoon when temperatures sometimes rose to above 90 degrees.

“I figured weather that’s good for growing grapes is good for training camp,” Hall of Fame Coach John Madden said. “Cool in the morning, hot in the afternoon, cool at night.”

Madden loved working his linemen on the seven-man blocking sled, which he sometimes rode as they pushed, and several years ago he was with a TV crew filming the site of where training camp had been when they found the sled drawing rust in a now-empty lot behind where the El Rancho had been.

“I had so many memories of Santa Rosa, and (the sled) was about right where we’d finish at practice,” Madden said. “We’d just push it off to the side. Weeds were growing around it.”

After a few phone calls, the sled was moved to the parking lot outside Madden’s office in Pleasanton, outside Oakland.

The Raiders also had team meetings in addition to practice every day, but the characters on those Raiders teams still had their fun and plenty of it.

“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.”

As the Raiders beat writer for the Oakland Tribune for several seasons in the 1970s, I was there for much of it.

When 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.”

And after meetings at night, there were a few hours before curfew.

“We’d hit five bars in two hours,” said running back Pete Banaszak, who named the path he and other players wound take as “The Circuit,” before they returned to make curfew. “The Bamboo Room, The Music Box, Melendy’s, the Hilltopper and the Hofbrau.

“Madden worked the piss out of us in training camp. 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. … But we still had our fun.”

Said quarterback Kenny “Snake” Stabler: “We couldn’t wait to get out of meetings and hit ‘The Circuit.’”

The Raiders set curfew at 11 p.m., and 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 Indianapolis 500.

But that didn’t mean the fun was over, as breaking curfew and not getting caught was a challenge many players were willing to take.

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 center Dave 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 a former 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.

Gotcha!

One day, 6-4, 300-pound All-Pro tackle 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.

Brown also is remembered for his first day at training camp with the Raiders when there were no scheduled workouts, and after lifting weights out the outside platform, he walked slowly to the back of the field and took his three-point stance in front of a wooden goalpost.

Then he fired out and delivered a blow to the padded post, which cracked in half and hung there.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said wide-eyed young tackle Henry Lawrence, as Brown turned and walked slowly back to the locker room as his new teammates mostly stared in disbelief.

Brown also opened their eyes when he took guns he owned to the back of the practice field during downtime and shot at blackbirds on the fence and the trees behind. And then there was time linebacker Ted Hendricks rode a horse onto the practice field wearing a World War II Germany Army helmet.

And training camp was not official until defensive tackle Art Thoms got into a fight with guard Gene Upshaw, accusing him of holding during practice 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.

Said Hall of Fame wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff: “There’s definitely some ghosts around (the El Rancho). The grounds seeped beer.”

The real action in Santa Rosa took place off the field.

One year, guard George Buehler wanted to give himself something to do during the downtime at training camp, so he went to a hobby shop and bought himself an unassembled model of a German Panzer tank.

The tank ran by remote control, so once he was finished with the project, Buehler would place the Panzer on the walkway outside his room and send it across the quad to the Raiders office, where public relations assistant Ken Bishop would put Buehler’s mail inside.

Once Buehler got the high sign from Bishop, he would maneuver the tank back. No kidding.

There was much, much more, some of which can’t be told here, but there was seldom a dull moment at the El Rancho.

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 Tournament.

“(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.

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 to youngsters he spotted along the way from the back of the convertible he was riding in.

On a day in August of 1976, Frank Cooney of the San Francisco Examiner and I were walked toward the front of the motel, when the door of one of the rooms flew open and suitcases began flying out onto the walkway, followed by living legend George Blanda.

“They put me on waivers, and they want me to stick around to see what happens,” said Blanda, who was just shy of his 49th birthday at the time. “But to hell with that. I’m out of here.”

Blanda, a quarterback, and kicker scored 2,002 points, an NFL record at the time, and passed for 26,920 yards and 236 touchdowns while playing in parts of four decades. Blanda got into his car and was gone after 26 seasons in the National and American Football Leagues.

The El Rancho Motel is gone now, too, but oh the memories that remain.

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