The score is tied 14-14, the clock reads 1:34 and the crowd of 47,344 at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is cheering Tight End Raymond Chester. Chester has made a splendid catch, coming back to the ball and breaking an arm tackle, and now is in the open field, sailing the sideline chalk all the way to the visitors' 24-yard line. The play is good for 44 yards, and bedlam. Raiders? No. Space Invaders.
"It's the same old House of Thrills all right," said Fred Besana, quarterback of the USFL Oakland Invaders, using a nickname for the Coliseum made popular by the NFL Raiders' frequent miracle finishes, "but we came up a little short." Oakland lost 20-14 in the USFL's first overtime to the Birmingham Stallions last Sunday, but the fans seemed to love the show, nevertheless.
The Raiders' space has been invaded by a team trying to catch the rejected on the rebound, but the Raiders' place in the hearts of the Oakland fans and city fathers, not to mention on the dockets of California courts, is secure.
In Oakland the torch is still carried high despite the fact that the Raiders sued the NFL and last year won the right to ditch the Bay Area in favor of Los Angeles. The results of that suit's damages phase, which began last Monday in L.A.; of the NFL's appeal of the original verdict; and of Oakland's suit to retain the Raiders via the right of eminent domain, which is scheduled to be tried beginning May 16, will be greeted with joy or sorrow, but not indifference. We're talking true love here, but that apparently doesn't mean the city won't take its football however and whenever it can get it.
"Now we have something to go between the Raiders, when we get them back, and the A's," said Oakland Mayor Lionel J. Wilson. "The Raiders think the Invaders will help keep them in Los Angeles. We think otherwise."
Competition from USFL teams has not been welcomed by NFL teams in some cities. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for instance, gave their statistical crew an us-or-them ultimatum when it asked if it could work for the Bandits. But the emergence of the USFL in Oakland was not decried by Raider Managing General Partner Al Davis, who no doubt views the Invaders as an argument against his former city's claim that it was left high and dry—and without stadium revenue—by his departure. He even parted amicably with Ticket Manager George Glace when Glace chose to return to the Bay Area.
"By the time I came back here in November, the Invaders had sold 25,000 season tickets," says Glace. The Invaders say the Raiders wouldn't relinquish their Oakland season-ticket list, but Glace, a Raider fixture for 20 years, may have known it by heart. More than 50,000 tickets were sold for the Birmingham game, the home opener; all 53,482 might have gone had it not been for ominous weather forecasts on what turned out to be a rapturously sunny day.
Final days in the sun are what the Invaders represent for their coach and general manager, John Ralston, 55, and veteran ex-Raiders Chester, Defensive End Cedrick Hardman and Running Back Arthur Whittington. The players had seen their NFL value peter out, but they are among the best in the USFL. "No speed, no speed at all," said Raider Cornerback Lester Hayes, an interested spectator last Sunday, critiquing the play. But what about the size of the crowd, Lester? "Oh my, yes, just look at them."
The Raiders still maintain a small office in Oakland, in the same building they used to occupy in its entirety, across the Nimitz Freeway from the Coliseum complex. Most of the space in that building is now leased by the Invaders. Last Friday, two sheets of notebook paper were taped in a window there, with arrows pointing to INVADERS TICKET OFFICE and INVADERS GENERAL OFFICE.
Real estate investment manager Tad Taube was recruited as the Invaders' owner through the efforts of Ralston, who was the USFL's only salaried employee two years ago. "I worked on everything from getting charter flights to jockstraps," says Ralston. After nine years as coach at Stanford, he had guided the Denver Broncos from 1972 until 1977 and worked in the 49er front office in '79 and '80. Then he found himself out of football. "Every morning I pinch myself," he says of his new job. "I knew I'd never get back into the NFL. I found half the owners in this league. Now we have 53 ownership applicants."
It was Taube who chose the name Invaders, certainly reminiscent of the previous Coliseum tenants. Says Ralston, "We were trying to fill a void here. We recognized we had to earn the respect of the Oakland fans." He signed many players released in the NFL's final cutdown last Sept. 6 and veterans like the former Raiders and linebackers Frank Manumaleuga (Kansas City) and Dewey McClain (Atlanta). "I was in the NFL; I know what happens," Ralston says. "The difference between those players cut and those kept is just that the latter can help on special teams."
"We want to expose the teams that want to make this look like a bush league," said Chester last week, "the ones who turned their back on guys with NFL experience."
The Invaders also made a 64-year, $6.4 million offer to Stanford Quarterback John Elway—and that was base pay, $100,000 a year through 2046 being the least Elway could make. Elway said no. But he adds, "I haven't counted the USFL out yet."
Being eclipsed for a time by the Elway business wasn't anything new for Besana. He had caddied for Steve Bartkowski and the late Joe Roth at the University of California—he started all of four games in college—and had been let go in consecutive years by the NFL's Buffalo Bills and New York Giants. For the last three years Besana had played for the champion Twin Cities (Marysville and Yuba City) Cougars of the California Football League. Says Chester, "Besana's better than 70 percent of NFL quarterbacks right now."
It was a major league throw by Besana, a sideline loop over Birmingham Corner-back Emmuel Thompson to Wide Receiver Wyatt Henderson for a 22-yard touchdown, that tied the game Sunday at 14. Then Besana found Chester for that moment of déj√† vu. But Oakland's hope for a fairy-tale finish ended when Place-kicker Kevin Shea woefully missed a field-goal try from 27 yards with five seconds left. Then came OT. After the Invaders punted on their first possession, the Stallions played Raiders as backup Quarterback Bob Lane threw on third-and-one from the Oakland 26 and hit Running Back Earl Gant on a pass to the one. On the next play Lane sneaked in for the winning touchdown.
Nobody was expecting perfection, of course. "It was good. I'm just glad to have some football to see," said Raider Offensive Tackle Henry Lawrence, who was also in the stands. A new league, some old fans; a new team, some old principals. It may not be the NFL, but at least they have each other.