The Raiders fans will assemble Sunday as they have for the better part of 53 years.
The game between the Raiders and the Jacksonville Jaguars marks the final appearance in Oakland, California, for the Silver and Black before they move to Las Vegas to start the next chapter in their vagabond existence.
But there’s plenty of time for that later.
This day will be about the people of Raider Nation and their relationship with their team and the place it started calling home in 1966, Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
“When it opened, that was a dream come true for us, because we were nomads, playing in three different stadiums,” said Super Bowl-winning coach Tom Flores, 82, a Fresno native.
Once the Big O opened, it seemed like the iconic moments just wouldn’t stop. The team went 13-1 in its second season there but fell to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl II. The Raiders made the postseason in 10 of their first 12 seasons in that stadium. There was the Heidi Game in 1968. Beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1976 in their first Super Bowl win. Rich Gannon beating the Tennessee Titans to return to the Super Bowl. The Black Hole — as unique a fan section as you’ll find in NFL history.
John Madden roamed those sidelines. Green Bay’s Brett Favre played the game of his life there while mourning his father’s death. Jim Otto, George Blanda, Willie Brown, Gene Upshaw, Fred Biletnikoff, Art Shell, Ted Hendricks, Howie Long, Marcus Allen, Tim Brown and Kenny Stabler bled between the lines before finding immortality in Canton.
“I remember looking at the program and you’d say, ‘Man, that guy played for the Raiders? That guy played for the Raiders? That guy too?’ ” said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a San Mateo native. “It just has an incredible history. Yeah, I’m sure those fans are going to miss them.”
And, of course, there was Al Davis. You can almost see him roaming the field before the game or sitting in his box during it. His presence around the Raiders and the stadium has hardly waned after his passing.
His pride in the organization and its fans — that’s what started all this. It was more than a team. It was more than a stadium. The Raiders in Oakland were a way of life, part of the fabric of the community.
“Those fans were and are like family to us,” Biletnikoff said.
Saying goodbye will be a communal experience.
“I’m going to the last game because I was at the first one,” said Barbara Johnson, an 85-year-old Oakland native who has made an annual pilgrimage from Maryland for 35 years. “I saw them come, and I have to see them go. I love them.”
Here’s a collection of memories, stories and feelings from those who called Oakland-Alameda home, and those who were forever changed by their visits there.
Fred Biletnikoff, Raiders Hall of Fame receiver (1965-78), assistant coach (1989-2006)
“Everybody wants to live in the past, which has been a great past with the Raiders. When I was just a kid and we moved into that place in 1966, (it was) the state-of-the-art place to play, so many great games. So many games that made everybody in that area in Oakland latch onto the Raiders, and that was their team, their kids and that’s how they were brought up in Oakland.
“I saw one of the current Raiders players called it a blue-collar area. It’s not blue-collar. These are people who battled on a daily basis to just live life and just wanted things to hold on to. One of things they wanted to hold on to was this football team. That’s what they have held onto all these years. It’s sad that they’re losing this.”
Tom Flores, Raiders quarterback, assistant coach and head coach (1979-87)
“When you think back, which I’ve had a chance to do here, Raiders Nation is a pretty tight group. How did that happen? Well, we started out as a tiny group in San Francisco, then Oakland and then the Coliseum. That small group, which was like a family, just kept growing. And I think that’s why the Raider Nation is so strong today. That’s the way they grew.”
Rich Gannon, Raiders quarterback (1999-2004)
“One of my first memories was going there as a Chief … It was a very difficult place to play,” said Gannon, who will be calling the game Sunday for CBS. “And it’s not just in the stadium. It starts when you arrive on the bus in the parking lot. They’re heckling you as you come in on the bus through the parking lot with the tailgaters. Then you deal with the crappy locker rooms and the baseball infield. All that stuff, it’s just different. It can certainly throw you off your game.”
“The culmination was winning that AFC Championship Game at home and unfortunately not finishing the job in the Super Bowl. I think that was certainly a pretty exciting day for a lot of Raiders fans. Jon (Gruden) had left and it was was a challenging year. … Basically the whole game was called at the line of scrimmage because they gave us so many looks defensively. So much blitz and pressure and exotic overloads. It was a unique day.”
Mark Davis, Raiders owner
“There’s just so many great Raiders games back in the day. Most recently, that Thursday night game against the Chiefs (a 24-20 win in 2014). We were 0-10 and it was pouring rain and the fans showed up. … I think that’s the greatest thing about the Oakland Coliseum and the Bay Area — the fans. There’s absolutely no question about it. They’re the most passionate fans. There’s nothing like them.”
Bill Belichick, New England Patriots head coach
“It’s just intense. Those fans, you have to go through them the whole last mile into the stadium and they’re m-fing you the whole way. Then you get in the stadium, and it just gets worse — which is fine, it’s just the environment. It’s not like Green Bay where you drive and they’re clapping for you as the bus goes into Lambeau. It’s like night and day. In Oakland, they’re there the whole way. It was definitely unique. Yeah, it’s definitely the end of an era.”
Bob Wylie, Raiders offensive line coach (2011)
“We’d warm up in front of the Black Hole, the offensive line, so we’d get out there early. One day I came out — and they’d always invite me to Ricky’s Bar, which was a big biker bar — and we were warming up and there’s a 49ers fan. How he got a ticket in the Black Hole and he’s wearing this bright 49ers shirt in the Black Hole … I’m like, ‘You’ve got to (expletive) me.’ And then we start warming up and the guy’s heckling me and (former guard) Steve Wisniewski. I’m turned around and I hear this boom. They had thrown him out of the stands and onto the field. They said, ‘We took care of it, Coach.’ I was like, ‘Thanks!’ I looked at my players and said, ‘The fans are ready today. Are you guys ready?’ ”
Tom Brady, Patriots quarterback
“I’d go there for A’s games, but I never went to Raiders games because I was a Niners fan. But we went there in 2002 . … I just remember it being a dark stadium. It felt like the lights were half on. It was a great environment. The Black Hole was real. The fans were fired up.”
“It’s changed a lot. Things are a lot more commercial now and upgraded. That’s one of the last multi-use stadiums. Now they’re huge Taj Mahals. That was a great stadium to play in.”
Michael Lombardi, Raiders senior personnel executive (1998-2007)
“The thing you see at the Coliseum is you see jerseys from different eras. You don’t just see the current players’ jerseys. You see a Fred Biletnikoff, you see a Kenny Stabler, you’d see a Marcus Allen, a Charles Woodson, a Rich Gannon. You’d see this melting pot of the jerseys and they don’t change, and that’s powerful. … Al was a big believer in ‘The Raiders.’ He always wanted it to be deeper than just the Oakland Raiders. He wanted THE in front of Raiders. One thing about the Raiders, you can take the Oakland out of them, or the Los Angeles out of them and the memories are going to be of the LA Coliseum, of Oakland, they’re not going to change. And the jerseys are going stay the same, so no matter where they are, it’s going to be the best.”
Amy Trask, Raiders CEO (1987-2013)
“We were playing the Jets in Oakland on October 24th, 1999. The Jets were leading with very little time remaining. Then, with 35 seconds left in the game, Rich Gannon found James Jett in the back of the end zone. We won 24-23. … It was exhilarating. It was glorious. Everyone was going crazy. The stadium was cacophonous.
“My husband ran into Al (Davis) as he was headed to the locker room. My husband congratulated Al on the victory. Al responded, ‘Ah, (expletive), you’re part of this too.’
“As Al often did, he conveyed a magnificent point … that the Raider family included not only employees, but their families as well — in his special, unique way. When my husband shared that with me, my heart swelled as it is swelling now as I recall it.”
Doug Marrone, Jaguars head coach
“When I was with the Jets (as offensive line coach) and we would go out there … I had the offensive line with me and I had a bunch of veteran guys who we’d warm up in the one corner of the end zone.
“For some reason there was one guy, he was all over me. Like he was killing me, not the players, me. And the players would come up to me and go, ‘Coach, you going to take that (expletive) from that guy? Like, if he did that (expletive) to me, I would go up in the stands. You need to go up in the stands, you need to confront that.’
“And I’d be like, ‘Shut the hell up, would you? We’re just going to go ahead and play.’ ”
Barbara Johnson, who has been to at least one Oakland game every year since 1966
“When Oakland came it was a big deal for us. And I had a bet with my boss and I bet him that the first championship that came to the area would be the Raiders. And of course, I won. When we played we didn’t have a stadium. It was like we’d get thrown out of one place after another. I had my friend who had a car who took me and the kids over there. It was the most wonderful thing because it was our team. We got beat so bad one time by the Chargers but I didn’t care because we had a team. It was like nobody wanted us and I always had a chip on my shoulder about it.”
Tom Mack, Hall of Fame Rams left guard and Henderson resident
“We used to look at the Raiders fans and thought they were half goofy because they didn’t dress casually. … A lot of stadiums you don’t get the fans dressing the part. That’s the one thing Oakland fans always seemed to do — they dressed the part.”
Greg A. Bedard covers the NFL for the Review-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @GregABedard on Twitter.