OAKLAND – Fred Biletnikoff sat back on the Raiders bench, surveying the football field before him. Active players were scattered across the grass, preparing for an important Week 14 clash with the Tennessee Titans on the same plot where Biletnikoff earned a gold jacket.
The Hall of Fame receiver eventually shifts his focus toward Oakland Coliseum’s south end zone, where his pregame routine was conducted decades before the Black Hole was born, when this aging venue was considered state-of-the-art.
Biletnikoff would go through fundamental work, isolating and executing the proper technique required to do his job at an elite level. Then came catching drills, repped over and over and again for a half-hour before team warmups even started.
“It’s a good review of everything,” Biletnikoff said. “I had a good routine. It was fun, and it would get me locked in and ready to go.”
Few were better than Biletnikoff when he was locked in. Surgical route running, an instinct for creating space and some of the best hands football has ever seen made up for any lacking physical gifts, allowing him to thrive over 14 professional seasons.
All of them were spent in silver and black. All of them here in Oakland.
The Raiders played at Frank Youell Field during his rookie season. Oakland Coliseum was home, sweet home after that.
It still is, now 40 years after his last professional game, and he has the keys to the castle. Biletnikoff is Raiders royalty, with an all-access pass earned with 589 receptions, 8,974 yards, 76 touchdowns and a Super Bowl championship. He certainly can bring me beyond media boundaries without issue, offer a seat on the bench and talk about the sacred ground beneath our feet.
“Coming here is still a big, emotional thing,” Biletnikoff said. “It feels exactly the same every time I come to a game. And that’s great, because it shows how much this place meant to me. We carved out our careers here. This place was it.”
Oakland Coliseum now is well past its prime, at the end of its life cycle as an NFL host. The Raiders will be done here following Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, with two regular-season road games remaining before a scheduled (and permanent) relocation to Las Vegas in 2020.
Biletnikoff wasn’t ready to ponder all that, even with the ending so near.
The organization is thrilled to be rid of this dump, with its infield dirt and sewage leaks and lack of modern revenue streams.
Many Raiders Immortals aren’t as ready to cut this connection to the past. It’s rare in this modern era for alumni of any team to walk on a field they once roamed and ponder glory days gone by.
Even if the stadium around us is falling apart, the plain itself must be respected. After all, this field belongs to Ken Stabler and Daryle Lamonica, Gene Upshaw, Jim Otto and Art Shell, Jack Tatum and George Atkinson, George Blanda and Willie Brown, Raymond Chester, Clem Daniels and Mark Van Eeghen, Warren Wells, Cliff Branch and, of course, Biletnikoff.
Returning to the Coliseum is a pilgrimage for Raiders alumni of any era, a luxury afforded to former players all these years since the Silver and Black moved back from Los Angeles in 1995. It’s one those still with us don’t take for granted.
“You go over all the games you played here in your mind, and you think about how your career went and all the great guys you played with,” Biletnikoff said. “It’s just awesome. I got to see a great stretch of Raiders history with my own eyes, working with players who starred in different areas of time.
“When we were going great, people treated us like rock stars. It was amazing.”
Biletnikoff had an amazing run on the field he sat next to last week. Images of him, a skinny kid with a two-bar facemask and shaggy blond hair coming out of his helmet, athletic tape wrapped from elbow to wrist and grass stains (and a whole lot of Stickum) adhered to his pants streaking down the sideline are easily conjured in this environment.
The 76-year old could identify the spots near the sideline where he and Stabler would sit on their helmets and watch the Raiders defense work. Triggers are everywhere around that stadium, bringing back great memories of the team’s early days, when an upstart franchise without a home became a juggernaut beloved by the town it grew up in.
“There’s no time to sit back and appreciate all you did and who you played with when you’re in the middle playing and then coaching,” Biletnikoff said. “When you look back and think about it now, it’s f--king incredible.”
Al Davis with Raiders players at their home practice facility in 1063 (via AP)
The Raiders spent their early days as a traveling band searching for shelter. The Silver and Black played their first season at Kezar Stadium, their second at Candlestick Park and the next four at Frank Youell Field, a temporary facility erected near Laney College. The Raiders had to stomach it while Oakland Coliseum was being built.
Players got ready for games in Quonset huts. They practiced on subpar fields, impatiently biding time until their new stadium was completed in 1966.
There were only three players who stuck with the Raiders through all that transition. Quarterback Tom Flores, center Jim Otto and guard Wayne Hawkins were on the 1960 roster and retained employment through the entire journey, so their elation was unmatched when the Raiders finally moved into a permanent home.
“It was beyond believable for us,” Flores said. “For the first time we were in a real, bona fide, brand new football stadium. It was first class all the way.”
Yeah, you read that right. Oakland Coliseum. First class.
At the time, the Raiders weren’t ready for such a big place. They didn’t draw well that first season despite going 8-5, but the bandwagon filled up the following year when they won an AFC title at home and played in Super Bowl II.
“We started winning and the people started coming in droves,” Biletnikoff said. “They were just hard-working people with regular, everyday jobs. They came from San Leandro and Castro Valley and right here in Oakland. They came from all over the Bay Area. They loved us and we loved them. They were with us no matter what happened. They’d be sad if we lost, but they never changed our mind about us. We went through some great times and some tough times. No matter what, this place was always packed.”
There was plenty to cheer for back then. The Raiders started an incredible run with that 1967 season, making the playoffs in 10 of 11 seasons. They won a Super Bowl during the 1976 season and, after a two-year drop-off, claimed another NFL title in the 1980 campaign.
Oakland Coliseum housed much of that outstanding play, featuring a tough, aggressive team with a town that matched its personality. Those there witnessed the Heidi Game and the Sea of Hands, the resurrection of Jim Plunkett and absolute dominance on Monday night
Al Davis was a lion running the show. John Madden and then Flores roamed the sidelines, coaching a staggering amount of on-field greatness that brought glory to a fan base who didn’t take the Raiders for granted.
“Even though we went from a starving team to an average team to a really, really good team to an outstanding team, we never lost our personality,” Flores said. “You have to attribute that to the players and Al Davis and, of course, the fans. They were so proud, and they always represented us well all over the country.”
An unsuccessful return
Al Davis celebrates with Raiders fans in the Black Hole (via Paul Sakuma/ AP)
That extended early run may have established Raider Nation before it actually was called one, but Oakland always was its capital. It remained that way through a move to Los Angeles -- where they won another ring -- and a return to the East Bay, with passionate fans welcoming the team back with open arms in 1995.
“My first game when the team came back in 1996, which was really exciting because the team had fully come back from Los Angeles,” former Raiders right tackle Lincoln Kennedy said. “I had never seen the kind of frenzy and tailgating culture surrounding a game. It was wild. Hearing about the Black Hole was nothing like seeing it. The whole stadium made me super excited to be a Raider.”
There has been little to cheer outside a short stretch of awesome initiated during Jon Gruden’s first head-coaching stint and Jack Del Rio’s playoff run in 2016, leaving a truly unique fan experience and tailgating culture to become the main attraction. The Black Hole was born during the return to Oakland. So were the elaborate costumes common throughout the stadium during this era.
The movement couldn’t hide the fact Oakland Coliseum was an outdated venue. Mount Davis and the mid-90s enhancements that came with it didn’t change that. They barely slowed the aging process.
Even hardline "Stay in Oakland-ers" understand the Raiders need a new venue. The Raiders needed some help getting one that the East Bay couldn’t offer. Nevada wrote a big, fat check to build a brand-new stadium just off the Las Vegas Strip and that was that. The Raiders chose to stay here while the new place is being built and are fortunate the paying public has forsaken anger in favor of partying until the lights go out.
Owner Mark Davis will hit the switch Sunday night. If all goes as planned constructing Allegiant Stadium, and there’s no reason to think it won’t, the Raiders never will come back.
A hard goodbye
Jon Gruden celebrates with fans after a Week 11 win over the Bengals (via USATSI)
Flores drove into Oakland Coliseum’s H Lot before the Titans game and steered toward the same spot where he always parks. There was a cone just behind it with a sign that read, “Reserved for Tom Flores.”
The former Raiders quarterback, offensive coordinator, head coach and radio color analyst knew who did it. A family that tailgates near Flores’ usual spot, which he always waves to walking inside the stadium, made sure his parking tradition was preserved for one more week.
That wasn’t the last gift they gave him.
“They brought some Cajun shrimp right to me. Oh, man was it delicious,” Flores said with a smile. “Unfortunately, I had to pass on the Bloody Mary. You know, I’m going to miss things like that. It’s just going to be different next year in Las Vegas. It’ll be great, but it’ll be different.”
That’s an absolute fact. The new Raiders venue should be awesome and modern and a true football/entertainment experience, but it won’t be the same. Simply put: the Oakland Coliseum experience can’t be duplicated. The fans are one-of-a-kind. So is the venue’s connection to the golden era of Raiders football, its traditions and those directly responsible for making made this franchise great.
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That’s what will make this goodbye so hard for so many.
“I don’t know how I’m going to feel when the curtain goes down and the lights go out,” Flores said. “It will be weird how that will just be it. I’ve had a lifetime of dreams come true, including a journey that started 60 years ago with Jim Otto and me and Wayne Hawkins. So many of them happened right here at this stadium."