I didn't think there'd be much math at an Oakland Raiders tailgate, but there I was on Sunday, staring at a hulking dude with a silver-painted face, faded army fatigues, and a no. 95 SKULLMAN jersey, trying to mentally extrapolate how many chest bumps he's been a part of in his Mohawked life.
I had just watched him engage in at least three such collisions in the span of 30 seconds, though obviously that wouldn't be the constant rate. But even if you assumed a less frenetic pace, you could see how the chest bumps would add up. Under the right conditions — crisp Bay Area weather, an exciting Raiders team, easy traffic, the health of various underground markets — it seemed reasonable that SKULLMAN could hit four figures in a day.
He had the body for it, certainly: big and mean, looking a little bit like Spike Hammersmith from Little Giants if he grew up and decided to get back at his dad. He had football pads on his upper body, which would help take the blows. But SKULLMAN is a guy who, according to one article, "hasn't missed a game for a decade" — and that article itself was written over a decade ago. SKULLMAN, it seemed to me, was the exact type of Raiders fan I'd always heard about: intense, pretty badass, and more than a little unhinged. It was all making sense.
But then a friend of mine broke the spell. "I didn't peg SKULLMAN for a Blue Moon guy," he said, pointing out the telltale bottle that SKULLMAN was holding in his spiked-leather-gloved hand. "That doesn't seem very hard-core."
Raider Nation, as it turns out, might just be like us.
It's always fun to get a glimpse of other cultures, to learn their special customs or watch people interact in their natural habitats. You know: like going home with your college roommate for Thanksgiving dinner, or watching anything on Bravo. When it comes to the NFL, mingling with foreign fans is a similarly valuable learning experience, the lesson being this: No matter who, where, or what we are, we're all willing to make asses of ourselves for some football. It's just that some of us go to greater lengths than others.
Like all good dark kingdoms, the Oakland Coliseum (Just like the Oakland A's, I refuse to call it O.co) has an imposing façade; it looks more like a Cold War–era concrete bunker than a house of athletics and entertainment and, theoretically, joy. (Actually, what it most reminded me of was the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird in Utah; I'd love to see a meet-up between the two buildings' typical inhabitants.)
Arrive at the game via train and you're funneled through a long cage that forms a metal rainbow between the station and the Coliseum. As you near the end of the overpass, it's hard to know which detail to first behold. The curlicues of barbed wire forming a found-object Arc de Triomphe? The iconic Raiders logo that looks like it would turn into a hologram overlay of a skull and crossbones if you tilted it ever so slightly? The solemn, proto-fascist promise of a COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE?
No, what captures your eye (and holds it against its will) is the red O.co sign, tacky as a price tag left on a gift. With its strange mélange of fonts, it's hard to know whether the sign was the bland result of too many focus groups, or whether the whole thing was slapped together at the last minute by a harried marketing intern. I was mildly surprised to learn that "O.co" was neither a type of female condom nor the name of an oxygen bar (do those things still exist?) but rather last year's hip new rebrand of Overstock.com — so hip, in fact, that the world was never ready for it.
Befitting its Bay Area location, the Coliseum has seen its share of odd corporate naming-rights deals from tech and dot-com companies through the years. (I'm kind of sad "the Net" didn't last.) And this is no exception. After rolling out O.co last summer in conjunction with purchasing the naming rights to the Coliseum, Overstock.com quietly backed away from the rebranding effort by last fall; AdAge called the whole thing one of "The Biggest Follies of 2011." (One big problem: Everyone was typing in "O.com.") The arena is nevertheless still supposed to be called O.co, even though it never is. The team's lease is up in 2013; it's unclear what will happen then.
Before we parted ways to go to our seats, I asked a friend of mine who has season tickets if there were any concessions food he'd recommend. He was silent for a minute.
"Honestly, I can't think of any," he said.
Raider Nation," Hunter S. Thompson wrote before the Raiders-Buccaneers Super Bowl in January 2003, "is beyond doubt the sleaziest and rudest and most sinister mob of thugs and whackos ever assembled in such numbers under a single 'roof,' so to speak, anywhere in the English-speaking world."1 I guess he had a point: For a group of people mostly shrouded in black, their personalities are certainly colorful.
What I enjoyed most about being surrounded by the Raiders aesthetic is how inclusive it actually is. Really, one way to describe it would be to quote Principal Rooney's assistant in Ferris Bueller's Day Off: "The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads — they all adore him. They think he's a righteous dude."
In this case, though, she'd be referring to Al Davis, the fiercely love-hated godfather of the franchise2 who died last year and is remembered with an eternal flame at the Coliseum. ("Don't laugh," my Raiders season-ticket-holder friend reprimanded me when he told me about it.) This weekend, Marcus Allen helped light the torch, a classy move that ended a long-running feud between one of the franchise's greatest players and Davis, who once called him "cancer." In the season home opener, Ice Cube — whose "Raider Nation" song remains the team's fan anthem and who directed a 30 for 30 about the Raiders — did the torch-lighting honors.
Raiders fans are an eclectic bunch: You've got your garden-variety eye-patched pirates, and your little kids in jerseys. (I saw more than one young boy with his hair gelled by his parents into spikes.) You've got your cholas y sus novios, the eyebrows of one competing with the chin straps of the other for the title of Most Carefully Manicured. There are guys playing loud, table-slapping games of dominoes in the parking lot. There are families — families with matriarchs who post comments like these on the website CafeMom:
We're Raiders fans and go to games often and yeah this type of crap happens all the time. Last season I saw a two family fight. Dad vs Dad, Mom vs Mom and Teen boy vs Teen Boy, it was crazy, and one of the cops tackled one of the mom's to the ground, and I heard her skull crack … games are still fun though, even if we lose … :(
Then there are the sort of people who, with their snapback hats and snap-up Eazy-E jackets, look like they've been airlifted Straight Outta L.A., where the Raiders played (and fully developed their outlaw/gangsta image) from 1982 to 1994. There are the fanatics who, with their face paint and their snarls, remind me of the "Metallica Rules!" guys in the Any Given Sunday locker room3 (I'd put SKULLMAN in this group, actually). And then there are those whose relation to a pirate (or even a more loosely defined "raider") is tenuous at best but whose body armor and all-spiked-everythings make them look, satisfyingly, like a more monochromatic Bowser.
Oh, let's not forget the token primate: Gorilla Rilla, the "official mascot" of the south end zone section of the Coliseum that's known as the Black Hole. Gorilla Rilla is a man-beast so popular that his recent marriage warranted an article on the official Raiders team website, although I guess that shouldn't be too surprising: Not only did he wed a fellow member of Raider Nation known as Jungle Jane, he did so in front of "over 1,000 people" gathered at the 10th annual Rally in the Valley, a Raiders fan fest in Fresno put on by the "Knights of the Shield Raider Booster Club."
One of the most amazing things about Raider Nation is how well it has sustained itself through some very dark days. (The Wikipedia entry deadpans, hilariously: "Why the Oakland Raiders would have such a dedicated fan base is not clear.") The Raiders made the playoffs in 2000, 2001, and 2002 — in '02, they got spanked by the Buccaneers in the Super Bowl, 48-21 — but otherwise they've missed the postseason every year since 1993.
Given the team's sad recent history, there was an air of preemptive resignation inside the Coliseum for much of the game — reasonable, given how Carson Palmer's very first pass was intercepted, or how the Steelers straddled halftime with a field goal and a touchdown to build a 10-point lead in the third quarter, or how the Raiders just couldn't seem to get through to Ben Roethlisberger. Still, a series of four straight first-down conversions by Palmer ended the third quarter with the Raiders on the march and none of the fans in any particular rush to try to beat traffic.
Facing third-and-nine on Pittsburgh's 33-yard line at the start of the fourth quarter, Palmer threw to Darrius Heyward-Bey, who was sandwich-smashed between two Pittsburgh players and crumpled to the ground. On TV, the injury was replayed in slow-motion and clucked over and broken down while medics attended to Heyward-Bey.
Inside the Coliseum, though, from my seats on the far side from that end zone, it was almost impossible to know what was going on; the two ancient replay screens on the scoreboard failed to show what had happened (understandable but still aggravating) and cell reception was spotty.4 Competing theories floated around as to who was actually down, but everyone agreed that it was bad. When Heyward-Bey was finally carted off, strapped to a stretcher, he gave a thumbs-up as he went. The crowd roared.
The Raiders would score a touchdown on that drive, recover a Steelers fumble a few minutes later, and come back to tie the game with a field goal. They would finally sack Roethlisberger, and force Pittsburgh to punt with less than two minutes to play. They would take over possession, drive everyone bonkers with a couple dud plays (Raiders fans are good at always expecting the worst), and ultimately get into a decent enough position, 43 yards away, to give Sebastian Janikowski a shot to win the game with a kick.
When he did exactly that, the Coliseum went nuts; it was a reaction that sounded more like something out of Week 13, not Week 3. But it was an undeniably huge win for the Raiders, who know that you don't get to those important late-season situations without toughing out wins early on. It was, at the very least, a good start. And why not celebrate that?
Because no one had left the game early, it took forever for everyone to get out. I shuffled through the concourse alongside fearsome ax-wielding ghoul-men whose painted-on scowls were contorted by blissed-out, dopey grins. I could hear one jersey-popping sore winner berating a Steelers fan: "You just came to Oaktown!" he shouted, three times for good measure. "And you just got mugged!" In front of me, a woman wearing black-and-silver Mardi Gras beads was somehow holding a tiny baby without having a meltdown at all the people around us.
A guy in a "Just win, baby!" shirt staggered through, high-fiving everyone and everything in his path and nearly elbowing the kid in the head. When he realized that (a) he had just missed, and (b) I had seen the whole thing, he winked at me then whispered loudly and passionately at the child: "You're a good baby. You're a RAIDER BABY" with such beatific certainty that I expected it to be followed up with an "everything the light touches is our kingdom." (The Coliseum, unfortunately, more closely resembles the Elephant Graveyard than Pride Rock.)
A few minutes later, as we waited to squeeze onto the barbed-wire bridge that would lead us back to the train station, a Beatles sing-along broke out with the word "Raiders" in place of where "Hey Jude" should be in the chorus. It was odd, but it was also oddly touching. We might as well have linked arms and done the can-can to "Sweet Caroline."
Raider Nation may be the strangest and snarliest and scariest group of fans in the league, but really, they're no different from anyone else. They just want their team to do well. They want to go home and wipe off the makeup and actually be able to stomach watching SportsCenter for once. They want to be happy. Is that too much to ask? Even Dobermans ask for a belly rub once in a while. I assume a SKULLMAN is no different. He just wants the Raiders to win once in a blue moon. Barring that, I guess, he'll just have to stick to drinking it.