Raiders fans grapple with a future without Al Davis
on October 14, 2011
Julia Rodriguez is 70 years old, has lived in the same house in West Oakland for 65 years, and has been an Oakland Raiders fan since she was 12. She’s been to three Super Bowls to see her team, and has been at every single Raiders home game since the professional football team moved into the Oakland Coliseum in 1966.
On Thursday evening, Rodriguez and about 50 other die-hard Raiders fans—many who have been rooting for the team since its inception in 1960—gathered at Ricky’s Sports Theatre and Grill in San Leandro for a meeting of the raucous Oakland Raiders Booster Club, the first meeting of the diehard fans since the death of the team’s owner, Al Davis.
Davis, who died October 8 at age 82 from unknown causes, was synonymous with the team for nearly 50 years. Not only did he own the team—after serving stings as its head coach and general manager—he also embodied its outlaw spirit. According to news reports, ownership of the team will stay in the family, with Davis’ son, Mark, assuming control. (The Raiders’ media office did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment.)
Davis was an NFL legend who controlled the Raiders for more than 50 years, but he was also an enigma. He was a Hall-of-Famer who won three Super Bowls, endearing himself to local fans forever. But he was also well known for his eccentric and volatile personality, and had famous outbursts and dustups with his own players and coaches. He always wore his hair slicked back, and was usually wearing a black or white running suit while in the owner’s box at games. He was famously litigious, suing the NFL multiple times, including in 1982, when a federal court judge ruled in his favor and allowed the Raiders to move to Los Angeles in 1982. He also sued Oakland and Alameda County in 1998 for failing to deliver allegedly promised sell-out crowds.
Ricky’s is a legendary Raiders establishment, where photos of Raider players and fans cover the walls—a place where former players still go to hang out. The booster club meets there every Thursday before a Sunday home game to socialize, hear current and former players speak, and participate in a raffle for Raiders swag.
This Thursday’s meeting was unique, though. Since it was the first time the fans had gathered together after Davis’ death, it gave them an opportunity to talk about what comes next for the team, and share concerns about what might happen without his leadership.
Rodriguez—who was wearing a large blue pin with Davis’ smiling mug attached to a shirt depicting Bart Simpson with the words “Raiders” and “Defense Dude”—said her biggest fear, now that Davis is gone, is that a new owner will move the team away from Oakland. Though Davis did that himself once before—moving the team to Los Angeles in 1982 before returning in 1994—Rodriguez said she believed that at the end of his life, Davis still wanted to keep the team in Oakland. She said she’d heard a rumor that it was in his will. “I hope they follow his wishes,” said Rodriguez. “There’s a lot of pull from the outside, and we don’t want to lose them to another city like L.A.”
Dave Laughlin, a 66-year-old retired Oakland postal worker who has never missed a Raiders home game, blamed the city for the team’s move to L.A., and said he wouldn’t be surprised if it happened again. “The Raiders are a business, and they’ll do what it takes to survive,” Laughlin said.
It’s no rumor that the Raiders want a new stadium. Since Davis’ death, questions, about where the team may end up playing when its lease at the Coliseum expires after in 2013 have popped up all over the Internet. The Raiders could end up in Santa Clara—the San Francisco 49ers have voter approval to build a new stadium there, and a second team, possibly the Raiders, could be added to share the stadium. Or, fans like Laughlin worry, maybe they’ll go back to L.A., if the team is sold or Oakland officials don’t do enough to keep the team here. “The city and county may mess it up for the fans,” he said. “I don’t trust politicians on any level.”
The City of Oakland does have a plan that could keep the team in Oakland after the lease expires. In July, city officials announced plans to build a new stadium on the parking lot of the Coliseum—now called the O.co Coliseum—that would host the Raiders and possibly the 49ers as well. The city council authorized $4 million in redevelopment funds to pay for a stadium design and environmental impact report, one of the first steps of many toward getting a stadium built. According to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, the plans call for a complete transformation of the area around the Coliseum, with new retail and hotels going up as well.
Quan said she has been told the team will remain in the Davis family, but she doesn’t believe the team’s ownership will have an effect on negotiations for a new stadium. “They’re a football franchise, they’re going to go wherever they get the best stadium,” Quan said in a phone interview. “I wish they were (committed to Oakland). We’re going to be paying for the Coliseum for quite a few years.”
Quan said she never met Davis, but because of her discussions with team CEO Amy Trask, she doesn’t think the team would leave the Bay Area. “The question is, will there be one or two stadiums” in the Bay Area, Quan said.
Opinions on the future of the Raiders were mixed among the fans at Ricky’s—some, like Laughlin, said they would remain loyal wherever the team played. Rodriguez, though, said she couldn’t bear to see the team leave again. “I’d be devastated,” she said.
The booster club meeting featured speeches from a current player Darryl Blackstock and two retired Raiders, Jeff Barnes and Rod Martin, all linebackers. Booster club president Wayne Deboe presided over the meeting, and since he had to stand, was one of the few in attendance without a drink in front of them. Deboe said he isn’t worried about the team’s future after Davis. “A real Raider fan would not be afraid of the future because they know Al was prepared for this,” said Deboe. “He knew it was coming. And there’s no other owners left like that—the strong type, ‘I’m the last word.’ He did it the Raider way, and it’s written in stone.”
Though Davis and his larger-than-life persona are not around any more, his legacy seemed intact as the Raiders supporters listened to a rousing speech by Martin. Calling Davis “a great man,” Martin closed by telling the fans how much they mean to the team, and encouraged them to join him in the team’s mantra. The 50 fans in the bar joined him by screaming loudly, “Just win, baby!”
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