We are officially less than a month before the start of the NFL season, so it's probably time to start previewing the monster. The key to the NFL's success — other than fantasy football and gambling, of course — is the rabid nature of its fans. That is to say: You don't see a lot of people painting their faces for their favorite golfer.
We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, even a TV guy or two, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, why My Team Is Better Than Your Team. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever. We will be running two a day until the beginning of the NFL season.
Right now: the Oakland Raiders. Your author is Stephen Rodrick.
Try to sell you on the Oakland Raiders being better than your team? With Aaron Brooks as a QB? As my Australian friends say, fuck that for a joke. I'm not getting paid, so I'm not gonna get all Rumsfeld on you and sell an unwinnable war. What I can do is share the life lessons learned from the silver and black.
The Raiders taught me that big boys cry.
In 1972, when I was five, my parents would head out in my dad's MG toward Oakland-Alameda Stadium while I listened to the games on the radio back in suburban Pleasanton. I was too young to be bitter about not going and excited when they brought home pennants of the Broncos, Chargers, Chiefs and other teams that would grace my bedroom walls until I was, uh, 17.
All was bliss until December; we were spending Christmas with my uncle in Brockton, Mass. The Raiders were playing the Steelers in a divisional playoff, and I remember absolutely nothing of the game except asking my Uncle Tom to explain why everyone in Pittsburgh was so happy when it seemed like the Raiders were about to win. While Grandma cooled her heels and held supper, Uncle Tom used some blocks to diagram Bradshaw to Fuqua to Tatum to Harris. I then began a December '70s tradition: crying after a Raiders playoff loss. Rob Lytle scoring for the Broncos without the ball, Cliff Branch not getting out of bounds as the clock read 0:00 in another crushing loss to the Steelers ... they all opened up the waterworks. (Then again, I cried in 1976 when Gerald Ford accumulated the requisite number of delegates to beat the seemingly likeable Ronald Reagan. And I cried when my sister made me miss the end of the George Foreman-Jimmy Young bout so she could watch Star Trek. I mean we're fine now, but back then she was a b-i-t-c-h.).
Anyway, the upside of the Immaculate Reception was it gave me a lifetime conversation piece with my otherwise laconic uncle. Last December, I was on Cape Cod for my grandmother's funeral. Uncle Tom gave me a hug and smiled sadly. "Franco Harris, 1972, you were inconsolable." Grandma, even in her waxed state, still looked pissed.
The Raiders made me realize life really is a rainbow coalition.
In 1973, my pilot father was away on cruise, and my mom begged a neighbor to take me to a Pleasanton charity event that promised guest appearance by two Oakland Raiders.
This wasn't an easy task for Mr. Lewis. I was the mouthy kid who pestered neighbors with questions about George Blanda and taxi squads so much that garage doors magically began shutting as I headed toward them. But Mr. Lewis was cool, or a dupe, and the two guest Raiders were gentlemen named Art Shell and Gene Upshaw. They were the first black men I'd ever met in person. Shell's hand was as big as my face and him saying "Don't worry little man, I won't bite," is pretty much why I cut Al Sharpton, Jayson Blair and P-Diddy a lot of slack as an adult.
The Raiders taught me your idols are just men made of flesh, blood and quite possibly Satan's gene pool.
About six years ago, I was doing a story on the Raiders for a magazine. After a sparsely attended pre-season game, I saw Al Davis in the locker room and made the mistake of asking him if he was concerned about the team's lack of sellouts since returning from L.A. Davis stuck a bony-like-the-crazy-lady-in-Hansel-and-Gretel-finger in my face and said, "What kind of stupid fucking question is that? You think I like having empty seats? That's the stupidest question I've ever heard. Get the fuck out of here!"
Skulking out of the locker room, I was dumbstruck with dual thoughts. The first was having a moment similar to when you realize that Ayn Rand was full of proto-fascist crap and all those hours memorizing passages from The Fountainhead could have been better utilized watching "Hello Larry." The man whose 'just win baby' philosophy had become my mantra was a huge, mega prick. Bummer.
Oh, and the other thing? Sportswriting: not as much fun as I thought it would be.
The Raiders made me realize that even in my late thirties I care about a boy's game
I won't re-argue the Tuck call. OK, I will.
All you Pats fans can say this was karmic payback for the phantom roughing the passer call on Hamilton in the 1976 playoff game. I'll give you that. But if any of you say, whether or not it was the correct, strict interpretation of an asinine rule, that wasn't a bonafide, no-doubt fumble I will personally hire someone bigger than me to beat the crap out of you.
The worst part was I was living in suburban Boston and had to deal with Pats fans for days, which turned into weeks. I eventually left town for the Super Bowl. I. could. not. deal. My wife looked on in horror as I nearly got in a fistfight with the neighbor over the tuck fuck-up as we watched kids sled down a nearby hill. "How can you care so much about this?" she asked with bewilderment. "It's just a game."
At first I apologized for my jackassery behavior, but then I thought, No, it's not just a game. It's not just a game like James Salter isn't just a writer. It's not just a game like The Jam is not just a band. It matters to me; if it didn't matter, I'd just be another jag-off playing fantasy football, not caring about who won or lost. Soon, I was divorced. Coincidence? Sort of. The upside? Big! I was able to curse Rich Gannon's lady-like Super Bowl performance and throw a KFC drumstick at the television with nary a word of protest.
The 2006 Raiders make me realize some things are forever.
OK, so we got the aforementioned Brooks. I'm pretty sure Saints owner Tom Benson would argue that it's Brooks' QBing, not Katrina, that has him talking about selling. Then we got the adorable Art Shell as head coach. I love the man for telling me all about ebony and ivory, but he's a retread who couldn't get an assistant coaching job outside of Oakland. And then we have Al Davis, still owning the team, still making Steinbrenner look like Lennon in his 'War is Over, If You Want it,' phase. But then Davis and Shell hired Tom Walsh, out of the NFL since 1994 and working most recently as — true story! — the proprietor of a bed n' breakfast to be the Raiders' new offensive coordinator. You have to love a team that can generate the off-season headline "Raiders Hire An Innkeeper."
And now they hire a fourth-grade flag football coach named Jeff George. I mean, those are things your crazy might-have-fallen-asleep-in-the-garage-with-the-car-running-might-have-been-a-cry-for-help nephew might do if he was in charge of a NFL franchise. That kind of fucked-up shit is real. You can't abandon family over that.
And it matters.