In "Badasses," author Peter Richmond chronicles the whiskey-drinking, horse-stealing, panty-poaching lunacy that surrounded John Madden's Oakland Raiders.
This is an excerpt from the "Summer Camp" chapter of "Badasses."
The El Rancho Tropicana Hotel. It sounds like the fall-back plan on a family vacation, the resort of last resort, or a likely place to find a talking corpse in a David Lynch film. It most definitely doesn't sound like a professional football team's training quarters. But there it was-the Raiders' long-vanished shrine to summer madness, 60 miles north of Oakland. The team's arrival in 1963 represented a typical Raider out-of-the-box move. Everyone else trained on college campuses. Davis chose to inhabit a grade-C tourist motel. El Rancho exists today only in lovingly tended Badass memories.
The site of the old motel now hosts a line of Costco gas pumps. Across a hundred yards of parking spaces, where the practice fields once lay, now sprawls the Santa Rosa Marketplace mall: Office Depot, Best Buy, Target, Old Navy, Trader Joe's. The only archaeological vestige of a prior civilization is the Villa Trailer Park, directly across from the mall, announcing itself with distinctly '50s lettering on the sign. You'd think there'd be an historic marker somewhere in the vicinity or, at the very least, a plaque. "There's definitely some ghosts around there," Fred Biletnikoff observes. "The grounds seeped beer."
"Of course we stayed at the El Rancho," says Dave Rowe. "Nobody stays at something like that. Football teams stay in dormitories. We stayed at the El Rancho."
The El Rancho complex actually consisted of several buildings: a normal motel, where visitors to the town stayed; an office building with a restaurant; and a square one-story motel annex that stood alone, out in the back, with a courtyard in the middle: "the Zoo," which housed the Raiders and the Raider offices.
"They wouldn't let the other people near us," Pete Banaszak recalls with a certain amount of pride. The tourist building boasted a pool. The motel owners discouraged the Raiders from using that pool, but with little success; you never knew what scantily clad women you might meet there. "One of the reporters stayed over there," remembers one player, who requested anonymity in exchange for the recollection. "I remember him leaving his room, and he didn't shut his door. That was a convenient room to use one time, after I met a lady at the pool."
Today the vineyards have made Santa Rosa and Sonoma County into a destination. The highways into town are flanked by perfect, undulating rows of grapevines, the leaves twittering in the breeze dotted by billboards advertising casinos (and, with half a shout-out to the old days, a number to call to obtain medical marijuana). Santa Rosa has become a town of sushi and Supercuts, bars with names like the Russian River Brewing Company, a place where you can get good Ethiopian food, a town so perfectly nouveau Californian that the prevalent downtown sound is the endless, high-pitched ping of the pedestrian crosswalk lights, counting down the seconds until you're allowed to cross the street. No one disobeys the crossing signs. There's not a trace of anarchy to be found anywhere. Not a note of country or rock blaring from a Raider car radio. But back then there was hardly any traffic, and no need to monitor pedestrians, only to warn them to look both ways on nights when the Raiders were speeding through town
to make the 11 o'clock curfew, or leaving El Rancho again after a cursory bed check. Or returning quietly, sufficiently lubricated in the much later way-after-curfew hours. Back then, Santa Rosa was a country town, and for several dozen men enduring a full two-month training camp through July and August, pinot noir was not the beverage of choice. "You were in the middle of frickin' nowhere," says the Chronicle's Betty Cuniberti, who spent time in El Rancho. "You would no more go to Santa Rosa back then for a leisurely weekend than the corn country of Kansas. This was a redneck town. There was nothing going on."
But it was the perfect frontier town for the perfect outlaw team.
"When we started going up there the people of Santa Rosa just embraced having a pro team," says Herrera, who helped find the sanctuary for Davis, miles from any scrutiny, behind which he could build his practice fields. "It wasn't just any team, of course. It was the Raiders-a character-driven team whose characters on the team got out into the community on a regular basis. These guys couldn't wait to get out. Every single night. What town is not going to embrace that?" And what cluster of taverns, bars, and restaurants isn't going to embrace the summer circus that gave Santa Rosa an identity? For eight weeks every year, the little country town took on a whole new vibe. And a little extra income.
"There was no recession in Santa Rosa during Raider training camp," says Banaszak, the veteran fullback who enjoyed much of the after-hours revelry for a dozen years. "The owners of the establishment were overjoyed when the Raiders were in town. We were single-handedly boosting their economy. The hookers rejoiced."
Today, training camp tediously taxes players in the NFL, the low point of their year, an exercise in monotony. So what band of loons would want to leave home early for two-a-days in a sleepy, inland country town where the temperatures could reach 115 degrees at noon? Grown men who'd never grown up, who were eager to get back to summer camp-with its many annual rituals, from the tavern tournaments to the remote-controlled toys, from the annual late-August parade of cars and pickups on Rookie Night to Pass the Pitcher Night. Eager for a two-month vacation with the family, playing a game they loved by day, playing games by night. That's who.
"It was just kids having fun and life being good," says Stabler. "We couldn't wait to get to training camp, to get away from wives and girlfriends, play some football, have a few drinks at night. An do that for eight weeks."
Yes, the daily schedule involved football. The two-a-days in Santa Rosa were the hardest practices they'd endure during the season. The players are convinced that many of their fourth-quarter comebacks were due not only to relaxed regular-season workouts but to the two-a-days in the Santa Rosa heat, which shed the offseason poundage and prepared their legs for the season to come.
"Madden worked the piss out of us in training camp," Banaszak says. "These guys today go out in their underwear and baseball caps and sunglasses and don't put pads on. We practiced twice a day in pads."
Speaking of underwear, some of the storied libidinal craziness at the El Rancho, according to Stabler's own book, took place in the quarters that he shared with Biletnikoff, Banaszak, defensive end Tony Cline, and linebacker Dan Conners: suite 147, with Stabler and Cline in one room, the other three in a second.
"The collecting of female undergarments," Stabler wrote, "became an annual rite of training camp for many of the Raiders . . . I liked to tack my collection up on the walls."
Today Stabler refuses to reaffirm the tale. Players avoid questions about panties. A few players do recall collections pinned to the wall of suite 147, but Stabler deflects queries about his own tale of collecting such artifacts, a thrice-divorced bachelor no longer eager to surf the craziness of the past.
"Hey," says Banaszak, by way of explaining his teammates' unwillingness to fork over the details. "Some of these guys got grandkids now." But "Rooster" can't forget a particular pair, draped on a lampshade: "Mesh."
But even the two-a-days were not often without some sort of diversion. Like the day Ted Hendricks set up the Cinzano umbrella on the Santa Rosa practice field, so that the post-workout refreshment could be served up in high style. "I borrowed it from one of the Italian restaurants in Santa Rosa," Hendricks recalls now. "I put it out there for the afternoon practice, right in the middle of the field. With a table and two chairs." He enlisted another player to serve as waiter, with a towel draped over his arm. But that one paled compared to Hendricks's most storied stunt.
For a break in routine, the team was practicing a few miles to the south at Sonoma State's modest football field-an idyllic, secluded natural bowl, flavored by the soft northern Californian summer air, bordered on one side by a low, grassy hill and on the other by a stand of tall, fragrant eucalyptus trees, which on this morning looked down upon a cluster of men in football uniforms, stretching at the start of the afternoon session. Madden gathered the players together to begin the practice.
"Where's Hendricks?" he asked.
He was answered by a man in a Raider uniform and pads emerging from behind one of the end zones perched astride a large roan horse and wearing a black German army helmet embellished with the Raider logo on each temple. Expertly, Hendricks galloped the horse onto the field, dismounted at the 50, and announced himself ready for practice.
"Instead of having a long spear," Monte Johnson remembers, "he had an orange traffic cone on his hand."
Madden was entirely nonplussed.
"On another team," says van Eeghen, "you start a practice like that, and someone's gonna be fined, demoted, or sent home. But it had nothing to do with lack of respect. He was on time, he practiced hard. He didn't violate anything. John loved that. You can't script stuff like that. That's what our team was about."
"It really just happened by chance," Hendricks says now, playing it all down, unsuccessfully. "A friend's daughter was taking her horse out to ride nearby. So I asked if I could borrow the horse for about 15 minutes. Madden had everyone gathered together. That's when I rode out onto the field. I galloped him up to the 50, jumped off, and said I was ready. It didn't faze the team. Or Madden."
"That's nice, Ted," Madden said. "Now get rid of the horse."
Buy "Badasses" now, if you're so inclined.