Raiders will miss Oakland Coliseum fans, connection to glorious past

Raiders will miss Oakland Coliseum fans, connection to glorious past

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 shifted 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 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, 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.”

Nomadic Raiders

Al Davis spends time with Raiders players at their home practice facility in 1963 (via The Associated Press)

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.

Just three players 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 might 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 that 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 in Oakland 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.

Raiders 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 USA Today Sports Images)

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.

[RELATED: Carr has special connection to Coliseum, where QB grew up]

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."

Raiders' Darren Waller honors Frank Smith for unlocking true potential

Raiders' Darren Waller honors Frank Smith for unlocking true potential

Darren Waller used to hate football. With a passion.

That fact contrasts with the joy exuded while playing now as an elite NFL tight end. He loved every minute of a breakout Raiders season where he had 90 catches for 1,145 yards, but he's most proud of being consistent and, for the first time in forever, being someone you can count on.

Waller has been clean and sober more than two years now. That change has brought happiness back to his life and the game he once despised.

“I hated football from high school up until I got suspended [in 2017],” Waller said. “The sport was just a means to impress people and seem cool and cover up all these voids. I thought that, if I was successful, I could be happy. It wasn’t doing the trick, so there was a huge void in me I thought I could fill with drugs and alcohol.

“It took me having a near-death experience to question the things I was doing in my life. I stepped away from the game for a bit. If it was God’s plan for me to come back to the game, it’s now clear that it was. I came back with a new perspective and started enjoying it. I was open to coaches and have relationships with these people.”

The near-death experience came from a bad batch of pills two months after his yearlong suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy while with the Baltimore Ravens, when he sat in his car fighting to stay awake while thinking he might not make it out alive. Waller went to rehab shortly after that, a life choice he considers the foundation of all the good that has come since.

Waller’s personal life improved quickly, but his career didn’t really take off until the Raiders signed him off the Ravens practice squad late in 2018 and he started working with tight ends coach Frank Smith.

Smith challenged Waller to be great, a goal achieved in a shockingly short span. Waller’s now considered among the NFL’s elite tight ends and has become a role model for so many struggling with addiction by telling his story to anyone who will listen.

Waller believes that Smith unlocked true potential by caring about the person over the player, helping him in recovery and on the football field. That’s why Waller honored Smith at this year’s Coaching Corps’ Game Changer Awards, where athletes from different Bay Area professional sports teams honor coaches special in their lives.

Waller honored Smith at a Thursday ceremony in San Francisco, which will be broadcast Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. PT on NBC Sports Bay Area.

“I never had a relationship with a coach like I do with Frank,” Waller said. “I honestly text him more than I text my friends. We laugh every day at practice, but I seriously respect him as a teacher and a coach and an authority figure you can talk to as a friend. Nothing’s off limits. We can be real and honest with each other about everything. That’s so important to me, having him in my life.”

Smith values his relationship with Waller, which has grown over their two years working together.

“He’s an extremely intelligent person who is athletic,” Smith said. “But, if you don’t love football and give it everything you’ve got, you won’t progress. He’d be the first to tell you he wouldn’t sacrifice for the game. We weren’t seeing the best version of him. We were seeing a clouded version of himself blurred by his substance abuse. Then football was taken away, and he learned what he wanted to do.

"Now we’re seeing the full commitment, the full potential be realized.”

Smith admits that coaching Waller is different. His commitment to recovery mandates more involvement in Waller’s personal life, making sure his support system is in place. Smith took on that responsibility without hesitation, balancing his personal and professional duties while remaining an authority figure. He recognized Waller as a special case right away, that he was working with someone who could be great.

“He was humble. He was hungry to learn and hungry to work,” Smith said. “With his story, you can see every day how he cherishes life and embraces every obstacle. He never makes an excuse for anything, even with things that somebody else does. He’s the type of person who really has an effect on you, especially if you let him show you his transformative process.”

[RELATED: Carr 'looking forward' to being Raiders' QB in Vegas opener]

Waller let Smith in right away. He’s an open book about his struggles with drugs and alcohol and could tell that his position coach would help him in all aspects and stoke his passion for the game he thought he’d lost forever.

“Frank helped so much with my transition to the Raiders,” Waller said. “He has a friend that was in recovery like I am, who worked the 12-step program and went to rehab. He was able to understand me by understanding his friend. We learned a lot from each other, and he was able to welcome me in without putting too much pressure on me. But he wasn’t allowing me to be someone just happy to be there. He had me set goals, something I never did before that.

"He really opened my eyes to the fact that I could be great. I never really thought I could be great. I was too worried about all the pressure and the negative things. I never saw the game in a positive light. He helped me see that football can be so much fun if you’re not worried about things outside of what you can control.”

“Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards” presented by Levi’s airs Tuesday, January 28 at 7:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area

NFL rumors: Chargers have 'moved on' from longtime QB Philip Rivers

NFL rumors: Chargers have 'moved on' from longtime QB Philip Rivers

For 14 seasons, the Raiders and Philip Rivers have been rivals. Rivers' first NFL start fittingly came against the Raiders in 2006, his third professional season. 

That rivalry might be done, though. The Athletic's Jay Glazer said Monday on FS1's "The Herd with Colin Cowherd" that the Los Angeles Chargers have "moved on" from Rivers. 

Rivers, 38, will become a free agent this upcoming offseason. The 16-year veteran has spent his entire career for the Chargers, but it's unknown if he will continue playing in 2020. He already has moved his large family to Florida this offseason. 

The gunslinger was the No. 4 pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. He has an 18-9 career record against the Raiders with 47 touchdown passes -- his most against any opponent -- and 22 interceptions.

[RELATED: Carr 'looking forward' to being Raiders' QB in Vegas opener]

If the Chargers do move on from Rivers, they could try to grab a QB early in the 2020 draft. The Bolts own the No. 6 pick, and our own Josh Schrock has them taking Oregon's Justin Herbert in the first round. 

As the Raiders move to Las Vegas, it could be the end of an era with their Philip Rivers rivalry.