It was supposed to rain on Christmas Eve in Oakland. I know because I frantically checked the forecast throughout the week and prepared for the worst when the day finally came. I packed a poncho, a beanie, a sweater and a few undershirts to fight the weather.
Somehow, after I was told there was a 90 percent chance of showers all week, once the San Diego Charger kicked off to the Oakland Raiders at the O.Co Coliseum, there was no rain. Not one drop.
Mother Nature can be poetic in that way, and her decision to dry the skies and spare the 54,400 fans in the O.Co the conditions was like a metaphor come to life. There was supposed to be a dark cloud hanging over the game between the Raiders and the Chargers and just moments before kickoff, it dissipated and all was well.
THE WOODSON DISTRACTION
The story to start the week was that this could possibly — or probably, depending on who you asked — be the last Raiders game in Oakland, ever. Like Mother Nature before the game, another supernatural force decided to remove the dark cloud hanging over the organization’s head when Charles Woodson announced his retirement on Monday, thus changing the game’s narrative in an instant. Now, instead of gloom and dreariness, there was melancholy and glee. One of the very best football players of this generation was suiting up for the last time in front of the home fans and they were prepared to give him the send off he deserved.
But even Woodson knew that cloud still hung over the team, saying in his retirement press conference, “It will be sad for the fans. They love this team. They love the Raiders.” Woodson has spent 11 of his 18 years as a pro in the Bay Area, and his Silver and Black 24 jersey has permeated the culture of the region, just as the team has, a phenomenon with which the future Hall of Famer is familiar.
“They identify with the Oakland Raiders. It’s happened to them before. It would be tough to actually have that happen a second time around. Yeah, definitely.”
And the Raiders identify with the city. Before each game, the cheerleaders dance to a routine that begins with the sounds of local legend Mac Dre. The crowd sings in unison whenever MC Hammer’s “Oaktown” is blared through the Coliseum speakers, and the gameday soundtrack features more homegrown acts like Too Short and even newcomer Nef The Pharaoh.
STAY IN OAKLAND
With Woodson’s swan song underway, the narrative had shifted, but that doesn’t mean the potential relocation wasn’t on anybody’s mind. Guillermo Ybarra, a Raider fan since 1960 and a season ticket holder for 20 years, said if the team left again, they’d lose him as a fan. “One time? Yeah. They leave again, that’s it.”
It presents an interesting dilemma for Raiders fans, especially those within the region. It becomes especially unique when you consider this is the second time many of those fans have to make that same decision. It’s rare enough that a team relocates, it’s even more of a rarity for that team to leave the city a second time.
As a member of Forever Oakland, “a dedicated movement supporting all parties in securing a new stadium deal for the Raiders in Oakland,” Ybarra was busy passing out “Stay In Oakland” signs throughout the stadium just 45 minutes before kickoff. They didn’t make it onto the stadium’s big screen, nor the national broadcast on NFL Network, but they were prevalent throughout the stands.
Forever Oakland’s co-founder is a 28-year-old season ticket holder outfitted in facepaint, shoulder pads, and blades protruding through a helmet that many know as Dr. Death. He’s been attending games for more than 20 years and has been in full-on regalia for the past six. Despite his roots in Sacramento, he said he’d abandon the team, as well, even if they moved to Sacramento rather than Los Angeles or Carson.
“Let’s say your wife left you, and you reconcile and your wife leaves you again for the same man. Are you going to stay with her?” he said over the phone. “I will not follow the Raiders to LA. I’m not a Raider fan, I’m a Raider. This is bigger than football, and for them to leave us, it would be disrespectful to us. I would never pick up another team. I would be done with the NFL. This is not football to me, it’s a way of life.”
For many Raiders fans, it’s just that: life. The Raider tradition is passed down generations like a family heirloom, and carried with pride in each iteration. My dad loved the Raiders, therefore I do, as well. I took my son and daughter to separate games throughout the season, and thus the cycle is continuing.
The threat of relocation has loomed all year, and even before the “Stay In Oakland” signs began sprinkling the stands, there was plenty of protesting. Earlier in the year, during a preseason game against the Cardinals, two fans were brought on the field to participate in a trivia challenge for a small prize. Given whiteboards to write their answers, the fans instead wrote “Stay In Oakland,” and were quickly whisked away and taken off the stadium’s big screens. For the rest of the year, the whiteboards were removed from the equations, and fans either picked up large letters to answer the question or voiced them to former Raiders lineman Lincoln Kennedy.
It’s hard to tell if that’s the opinion of the majority, though, or just the vocal minority. Los Angeles is just a five-hour drive from Oakland, and Carson just a few miles more. Many fans of my generation, born in the mid to late ’80s, grew up with the Los Angeles Raiders before they came back to Northern California. The move can’t be that bad, right?
One of the more renown Raiders fans Gorilla Rilla was adamant. “Of course [I’ll still be a fan]. I haven’t missed a game in 20 years, it makes no difference to me. Oakland, LA, either way. I’m a Raider.” He was jovial in his usual Gorilla costume planted in the famed Black Hole; he even wore a full Santa suit for the occasion.
When the nearby Sacramento Kings were in danger of relocating, it consumed the city and the fan base. The Here We Stay movement was massive, they protested and chanted the name of the city during games. The Kings’ announcers openly wept and gave a teary-eyed goodbye to the city during the would be final broadcast from Sacramento. Ultimately, the Kings did stay, saved by Vivek Ranadive and a plan to build a new arena that will see the city cover almost half the bill.
The city of Oakland doesn’t have that luxury. While Raiders owner Mark Davis has put together $500 million for a stadium with the help of the NFL, he’s still asking the city for $400 million, something they have outright refused to do. Oakland’s mayor Libby Schaaf countered that proposal by stating, “We don’t have $400 million lying around.”
Despite ongoing gentrification throughout the Bay Area, Oakland is a city with a massive deficit and problems that extend beyond building a new stadium for the Raiders and MLB’s Oakland A’s. In the past decade, the city has mulled bankruptcy, and when the Warriors needed a new arena, they privately funded its construction and even went so far as to move the team across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco.
There were no teary-eyed goodbyes in Oakland last Thursday, or chants of the city’s name. In fact, the mood at the Coliseum was jovial thanks to Woodson’s sudden announcement. The night became his celebration, not Oakland’s funeral, and after a nearly four-hour marathon of a game, the Raiders were victors, 23-20. Woodson soaked in every moment, from waiting an extra beat to emerge from the fog after he was introduced to the crowd, to the Gatorade shower after the game, followed by his address to the 54,400 fans in attendance. That’s how it should be, too. He deserved that much.
— OAKLAND RAIDERS (@RAIDERS) December 25, 2015
But it many ways, it was the distraction that the Raiders and their fans needed. The end of a season that showed promise for the future needn’t be dragged down by the overwhelming potential of unforgiving tragedy. It didn’t rain in Oakland on Christmas Eve, both literally and metaphorically. It might in the near future, but for one night, the sky cleared and the Raiders had won, even if it was the last time in Oakland.