70 Days Across America
I hadn’t been home to Oakland, California, in 15 years. To celebrate a milestone birthday, I decided give myself the trip of a lifetime – a 70-day trip across the United States, which I was dubbing “70 Days Across America”.
As a charter member of the Raider Nation, would I be able to attend an Oakland Raiders game at the Oakland Coliseum during this trip?
My trip to the United States was not well planned. With the exception of a few “must dos”, I had left most of the planning to serendipity. And some of the best moments turned out to be those moments that happened by happenstance.
Foremost among those serendipitous occurrences would have to be driving from Southern California to Northern California to attend an Oakland Raiders game at the Oakland Coliseum in the final two weeks of my trip.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this football season could very well be the last time the Oakland Raiders play at the Oakland Coliseum.
A lawsuit by the city of Oakland has sent the Raiders scrambling for a new stadium to play in, in 2019 before moving to Las Vegas in 2020.
Could it be Reno, San Diego, Santa Clara, San Francisco, San Antonio – or possibly London?
A Fan Since 1960
The cap says it all. I’ve been an Oakland Raiders fan since the team was founded in 1960.
As fate would have it, however, I hadn’t set foot in the Oakland Coliseum in 15 years.
What would it be like attending a game there, knowing that it might be the last time I ever see the team I had followed since junior high school play a game at the Oakland Coliseum?
The Trip from Southern California to the Oakland Coliseum
Waiting in the lobby of my hotel for my chauffeur to arrive.
Posing with Chris Stashik (left) behind her Snakemobile before departing on our epic six-hour journey North to the Black Hole.
Posing with Ricky (second from left) at the eponymous Ricky’s Sports Theatre and Grill the night before the game.
Donning my vintage Oakland Raiders tank top in front of Oaktown’s notorious Black Hole.
Tailgating in the parking lot (part one) …
Tailgating in the parking lot (part two).
Entering the stadium … How will I feel?
1960 – the Birth of a Nation
As the Oakland Raiders get set to take to the field for what might be the last time at the Oakland Coliseum, I can’t help to think back to that warm September morning in 1960 when my family piled into our 1956 Chevrolet station wagon and made the journey from our home in the bucolic Oakland Hills to that sophisticated city across the bay.
Trips to San Francisco were few and far between, but they were always exciting. There was Playland at the Beach, Golden Gate Park, and Fleishhaker Zoo.
A few times we ventured into the icy waters at Ocean Beach. Other times we dined at the Cliff House.
But usually we had lunch in Chinatown and dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf – or vice versa.
This trip to San Francisco was different. Instead of heading to one of our more traditional haunts, we were going to a place we had never been to before: Kezar Stadium, former home of the San Francisco 49ers .
Oakland had been awarded a franchise in the newly launched American Football League, and we were going to watch it play. The Raiders were playing in San Francisco because there hadn’t been enough time to built a facility in Oakland.
We were four of the 12,703 fans that watched the Raiders lose to the Houston Oilers by a score of 37 to 22. With a 6 and 8 record, the Silver and Black finished their premier season in third place among four teams in the Western Division of the AFL.
As a friend so apply put it many years later, “None of us knew anything about football back then. We became football fans because Oakland had a football team.”
1962 – Frank Youell Field
After playing their first four games at Kezar Stadium, the Raiders moved to wind-swept Candlestick Park, also in San Francisco, where they finished their first season and played the entire following season.
In 1962, a temporary stadium called Frank Youell Field was completed near Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland.
The facility was named after a local politician, who was also a ardent sports fan. Somewhat bizarrely, he was also an undertaker at the Chapel of the Oaks. Was that some kind of omen?
1966 – the Oakland Coliseum
I graduated from high school in June of 1966, and the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, as it is officially known, opened in September of the same year.
Before the first game was played there, an open day was held to allow taxpayers a chance to see what their tax dollars had paid for. My father and I went there to check the place out.
I’ll never forget the look on daddy’s face when he surveyed the stadium, which in those days was considered something pretty spectacular.
“I can’t believe this is in Oakland!” he said proudly.
The Raiders first season at the Oakland Coliseum coincided with my landing my first job. For the first time in my life, I therefore had a disposable income of my own – even if it was a bit limited. I was earning minimum wage.
Working two hours a day at a hospital after classes brought in enough money, however, for me to buy textbooks, put gas in my car, pay for my lunch in the college cafeteria, put clothes on my back – and buy tickets to root for the Oakland Raiders at the Oakland Coliseum.
I attended games with my best friend and his sister (she was much older, but she liked football so much, she used to attend high school football games with us). The Raiders finished second in the American League West, with an 8 and 5 record.
1967 – the Dawning of an Era
A watershed year for the Oakland Raiders followed in 1967. The Silver and Black finished the regular season with a 13 and 1 record, defeating the Houston Oilers by a score of 40 to 7 in the AFL Championship Game on a very chilly and very windy New Year’s Eve afternoon at the Oakland Coliseum.
The Oakland Raiders were Super Bowl bound!
In early January 1968, my father and I were among several hundred Raider fans that went to Oakland International Airport to see the Raiders off as they departed on a chartered jet for Miami, Florida.
At the time, the now defunct National Airlines had the following slogan: “Is this any way to run an airline? You bet it is!”
Because the Raiders were flying to Miami on a National Airlines DC-8, I came up with the brilliant idea of making a sign that read, “Is this any way to run a football team? You bet it is!”
As we stood on the observation deck, a TV cameraman came up to me and asked if I’d pose for him holding my sign.
It was a proud moment when I saw myself that evening on the 6 o’clock news!
The city of Oakland ground to a halt on 14 January as the Oakland Raiders took to the field against Green Packers at the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida.
The San Francisco media never missed a chance to disrespect Oakland. As the Raiders ran onto the turf, the announcer asked sarcastically, “With colours like that, who needs colour TV?”
Colour TV was still relatively new, you see, and Silver and Black, well … you get the idea. The uniforms weren’t very colourful. In retrospect, I’d have to say that Oakland got the last laugh. How many other teams have adopted those self-same colours – or added black to their fan gear?
The Raiders lost Super Bowl II by a score of 33 to 14, but it didn’t matter. They were a force to be reckoned with. Even the San Francisco media started taking them seriously and stopped with the Oakland jokes – at least on Sunday afternoon during football season.
If the 1967 football season was a watershed year for the Raiders, the 1968 football season was a watershed year for my relationship with the team.
For their first two years playing at the Oakland Coliseum, I was able to purchase tickets on a game-by-game basis.
Following their success in the 1967, however, demand for seasons tickets soared. As an 18-year-old working my way through college, I didn’t have enough cash to purchase season’s tickets, and – much to my disappointment – I learned that tickets to individual games were no longer available.
I had to root for the Raiders vicariously by way of television or the radio or reading about them in the newspaper the following day.
1968 – 1981 – the Glory Years
Between 1968 and 1981, the Oakland Raiders finished first in the AFC West eight times, making it to the AFC championship game nine times (sometimes by winning wild card games), winning the AFC championship – and the Super Bowl – twice.
The Raiders’ second Super Bowl victory, however, was something of a Pyrrhic victory for Oakland fans. We won the Super Bowl, but were losing our team. Al Davis had already announced plans to move to Los Angeles.
1989 – One Moment in Time
Eight years after the Raiders broke my heart, they staged a one-day return to their roots, playing the Houston Oilers before a raucous sell-out crowd at the Oakland Coliseum.
The game had sold out in less than 30 minutes after tickets went on sale. The crowd arrived early, filling the stadium long before the opening kickoff. By the time the game got underway, we were already hoarse.
This was like no game I had ever been to before and like no game I have ever been to since. It was a silver and black love in. It was bedlam. There was ecstasy. There was this unspoken hope that if we yelled loudly enough, we might get our team back.
It was the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Fourth of July, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve wrapped into one.
The Raiders lost in the final seconds of the game. For the first time in hours, the stadium fell silent. There was stunned disbelief. But as the team ran off the field, the crowd rose silently, and with one voice, we started to chant, “Raiders! Raiders! Raiders! Raiders!”
The message was clear: the bond between the team and the town was intact. Did this presage an eventual return of the Raiders?
1995 – the Return of the Raiders
Shortly after that game in 1989, I moved overseas and lost touch with much of what was going on at home, and that included the Raiders. You have to remember, the Internet hadn’t been invented yet.
After teaching English for three years, I got a job at a newspaper, which gave me access to the wires – I could read ALL of the wire stories, not just the ones that made it into the local newspaper.
As I was scanning the headlines one morning in June 1995, I saw those words that I had been dreaming of (but feared I would never see) – the Raiders were moving back to Oakland.
As soon as the schedule was released, I informed my boss of my plans and booked a ticket to San Francisco.
I attended the first home game of the pre-season at Stanford University (the Coliseum wasn’t ready yet) and the second home game at the Oakland Coliseum. It was like a dream come true.
2002 – Just Winning, Baby!
Following a series of unsuccessful seasons, the Raiders climbed out of the basement, finishing the regular season in 2000 with a 12 to 4 record and winning their first divisional title in a decade. Unfortunately, however, they lost the AFC championship game to the Baltimore Ravens.
The Raiders won their second straight division title the following year, again losing the AFC championship.
In 2002, the Raiders won their third straight season with an 11 and 5 record, clinching the top seed in the playoffs.
2003 – Baja Oakland
One of the reasons I never flew home to root for the Raiders was I didn’t want to spend the money (and the time) to take in just one or two games. I really wanted to fit in at least three games to make it worth my while, and a combination of away games and bye weeks conspired to make that impossible – year after year.
This time, however, time was on my side. Because the Raiders had clinched the top seed in the 2002 season, the first playoff game would be held at the Oakland Coliseum. If the Raiders won, the second game would also be played at the Oakland Coliseum.
And if the Silver and Black prevailed, well, San Diego, a.k.a. “Baja Oakland”, was only a 90-minute flight away!
The Raiders took on the New York Jets on 12 January, and OMG, the Black Hole was rocking! I was seated in the upper reaches of Mount Davis, but I didn’t care. One of the things I like about sitting in nose-bleed territory is I don’t have to check the scoreboard to figure out where the ball is.
It’s not as exciting as being in the first deck because you’re further from the action. But it is, actually, much easier to follow the game.
Following a 30 to 10 victory over the Jets, it was time to take on the Tennessee Titans the following week on 19 January. This time the Raiders prevailed by a commanding score of 48 to 21.
I had always wanted to attend a Super Bowl if the Raiders were in it, but there had always been two impediments: not having enough time and not having enough money. For the first time as a Raiders fan, I had both the time and the money. What was stopping me?
Unable to find someone to go with me, I decided to go it alone. I booked a package organized by Raider Legend John Vella, which included a round trip ticket on a charter flight to San Diego, three nights at a motel in San Diego, breakfast the morning of the game, a shuttle to and from the game, and a ticket to the game.
This cost me about US$1,500, which all of my friends thought was pretty extravagant. By today’s standards – even factoring in inflation – it was a bargain!
Fast Forward to the Present
Hanging out in the parking lot before the game.
By some quirk of fate (thank you, Chris Stashik!) I got to attend an Oakland Raiders game – for the final time? – at the Oakland Coliseum this season.
I was spending the final three weeks of my epic 70 days across America in Southern California, and with fewer than two weeks left, Chris informed me that she had won two tickets in a raffle.
Would I like make the six hour drive to the Bay Area to watch the Oakland Raiders take on the Los Angeles Chargers at the Oakland Coliseum?
Was it fate? Perhaps it was inevitable.
I’ve always maintained that it was never a conscious decision on my part to become a Raider fan. I didn’t choose the team. The team chose me.
Knowing that the team was going to break my heart for the second time, I wasn’t sure who I was going to root for. Should I root for the Chargers out of spite?
Best buddies in the stands.
As I entered the Oakland Coliseum for what was probably the last time, I didn’t react the way I was expecting to react. I didn’t feel sad after all. It was not at all like attending a funeral, when you mourn someone’s death. It was more like attending a wake, when you celebrate someone’s life.
I was celebrating my love affair with the Oakland Raiders – and most of my fondest memories about the Raiders had taken place at the Oakland Coliseum, even if many of them had been vicarious.
I had heard so much about what a rundown mess the Oakland Coliseum had become. There were problems with the sewage, there were problems with the wiring, it was the last football stadium to double as a baseball stadium, blah, blah, blah …
As I made my way into those concrete passageways, I didn’t notice any of those flaws. It was just like old times. I reminisced about that storied past and listened for the echos of crowds cheering an impossible field goal that had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
I thought about the Heidi game, the Sea of Hands, the Immaculate Reception. If only that field could talk!
As I surveyed the Oakland Coliseum on that unseasonably warm autumn afternoon in 2018, it looked every bit as beautiful to me as it did on that warm summer’s afternoon in 1966, when I saw it for the first time, and my daddy said to me, “I can‘t believe this is in Oakland!”
I’m gonna miss that place, and I make NO bones about it.