For Staff Writer Ralph Wiley, the look at the human and logistical sides of the football Raiders' move from Oakland to Los Angeles (page 22) was at once a homecoming and a leave-taking. Wiley worked at the Oakland Tribune for 6½ years, two of them as a four-times-a-week sports columnist, before joining our staff six months ago. This isn't to say that Wiley has completely abandoned the Bay Area. He still owns a house on Oakland's Rawson Street, about four miles from the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
"There's a renter there now, but it's still mine," he says. "Al Davis has a house in the Oakland Hills and I have one in the foothills. We left town at the same time. But I consider myself an Oaklander who happens to work out of New York."
His roots, though, are in Tennessee. Born and raised in Memphis, Wiley was first acquainted with the written word by his mother, who was a professor of humanities at S.A. Owen (since renamed Lemoyne-Owen) Junior College. Now Mrs. Dorothy Brown and assistant principal at Washington, D.C.'s Woodrow Wilson High, she read to her infant son from the works of Dumas, Dostoevski and Richard Wright. "I think those readings established a phonetic presence in my inner ear for what sounds good," Wiley says.
By the time he was a high school senior, Wiley had written several plays and studied enough piano to rattle off a Beethoven concerto with ease.
September 5, 1982
But something about football—specifically, "the feeling of breaking free"—beckoned, and he set aside the arts of the salon for a four-year ride as a wide receiver at tiny Knoxville College. A severe knee injury felled him early in his freshman year. "Two things struck me as I lay on the ground," he says. "The first was how quickly it can all go. The second was all these words to describe the pain."
Like the eponymous coyote of cartoon lore, Wiley kept trying, playing football his next three years. His speed was gone, but words kept coming and he began writing sports for The Knoxville Spectrum, a local weekly, while earning a B.S. in business and finance. In August 1975 the Oakland Tribune offered him a position as a $125-a-week copyboy. "I was shocked, appalled, dismayed and insulted by the salary," he recalls. "I took the job." In 1976, on a flier, Wiley did a profile of Julius Erving that opened eyes. After a year of cityside reporting he moved over to sports.
"Sports are all simple games," he says. "It's the people that are complex." And not just the participants. "There's a painting in my office of a boxing match by George Bellows called Both Members of This Club. The most interesting thing about it is the faces of the spectators in the front row. That's the lure—the reaction of everybody else, not just those directly involved."
So it is that Wiley comes to this week's subject not completely dispassionately. "I was once a Raider hater," he says. "But then, in 1979, they had a difficult year and handled it well. And I found myself pulling for them. They didn't turn tail like typical bandidos. I'll be sad if I go back to Oakland and the Raiders aren't there."