The Oakland Raiders finished their home season on Christmas Eve with a win over the San Diego Chargers. The game was also a going-away party for Raider legend Charles Woodson, who has announced he's retiring at the end of the season.
Although the Raiders were eliminated from the postseason, if they win their last game they'll finish 8-8, which would be pretty good for a team that finished 3-13 last year.
But at the back of every fan's mind is the realization that this could be the last Raiders game played in Oakland. Next month, team ownership is expected to apply to relocate to Los Angeles, which hasn't hosted pro football in 20 years. Two other teams, the St. Louis Rams and the San Diego Chargers, are also interested in moving.
It's very unlikely the NFL would say yes to all three, but they could greenlight one or two relocations. Raiders majority owner Mark Davis has said his first choice is to stay in Oakland, but he wants a new stadium, and L.A. offers a better chance of getting one with less investment on his part.
That leaves Raider fans in limbo.
Still, judging by the fans I've talked with recently, they are not downhearted.
Before the Raiders played the Kansas City Chiefs on Dec. 6, I stopped by the tailgate party put on by the Bad Boyz of BBQ every home game. Actually, it's more of a banquet. Not many tailgates make it to the Food Network, but this one has.
"Kingsford” Kirk Bronsord said the tailgate started as a gathering of four friends in 1995, the first year the Raiders returned to Oakland from Los Angeles, where they played from 1982 to 1994.
“We couldn't get our season tickets fast enough,” he says. Now they feed 200-300 people a year who pay $25 a head. Even non-Raider fans are welcome, according to chef Chris Leister.
“We don't care who you are. If you're a good person, come on in, enjoy yourself. If not, well, go away,” Leister said. As proof, he introduced me to X-Factor, a Kansas City Chiefs superfan dressed head to toe in the opposing team's colors.“This is the best BBQ in the NFL, right here!” he yelled (high praise for someone from Kansas City).
Some Raider fans traveled a long way for this game, like Manuel Silveira of Myrtle Beach, S.C. He scoffed at the idea he'd ever desert the Raiders. Showing me his tattooed arms, he said, “I've got too much Raiders ink on my body not to stick with 'em.”
Silveira has no tats or gear from their L.A. period. Even though it wouldn't be any harder for him to fly to L.A. from Myrtle Beach, he doesn't want the team to move. He thinks Oakland is an essential part of what makes the Raiders the Raiders.
That's pretty much what I heard from fans at Ricky's Sports Theatre and Grill in San Leandro two Sundays later, before the game against Green Bay. Ricky's is a multi-room establishment packed with giant TVs and Raiders memorabilia. It was a pioneer among sports bars in using satellite dishes and video to show distant games to fans, back in the days when most people were limited to a few over-the-air broadcast signals.
When the Raiders played in L.A., from 1982 to 1995, Ricky's became the capital of Raiders-Nation-in-exile. Even if it would be good for business, owner Ricky Ricardo doesn't want that title back. “We went through 13 years of that,” he sighed. “I'm not looking forward to that situation, but I'll deal with it in a hopefully mature way.”
Ricky's patron Alex Hernandez lives in Los Angeles and travels to Oakland for games. It would be convenient for her if the team moved south, but she doesn't want that. “I like them being here in Oakland. It brings some type of character,” she said. “It's not a fancy stadium, but we kind of like that.”
As part of their relocation bid, the Raiders have paired with their longtime rival, the San Diego Chargers, in a proposal to build a fancy new stadium in the Los Angeles suburb of Carson. The teams have partnered with Disney executive Bob Iger, who recently suggested a move to L.A. would also be a chance to tidy up the Raiders' bad boy image.
I asked Tony de la Lama, who stopped at Ricky's on his way to the Coliseum from Santa Cruz, for his thoughts on that.
“The Raiders brand is not a brand that can be repositioned,” de la Lama said. “I've met Raider fans everywhere in the world. ... This was always a rogue team, starting with [late team owner] Al Davis. We're the outcasts and the downtrodden, but we find a way to win.”
Jim Miller agrees that it would be almost impossible to pretty up Raider fans' swagger. Miller and his wife, Kelly Mayhew, wrote the definitive study of it, "Better to Reign in Hell: Inside the Raiders Fan Empire," in 2003.
"There really is this amazing community of fans in Oakland that's unmatched anywhere, of all of the sporting events I've been to all over the United States,” he told me. “And it's not a community that the Raiders are creating or marketing. It's created by the fans themselves at tailgates, in bars like Ricky's, in living rooms, at away games. That would be the tragedy. If the Raiders left Oakland, it could kill that genuine subculture.
"At a certain level, most sports fans know that they're rooting for a corporation that's selling itself to other corporations," Miller added.
"Everyone knows it's a business. But there's a deep-rooted desire to suspend disbelief and believe that when you're rooting for a team, it's something different than that.”
That dual understanding was evident in late October, when the NFL held a town hall meeting at Oakland's Paramount Theatre. You can watch all three hours of it here. It's part of the league's relocation protocol: Give the fans who might lose their team a chance to vent, or proclaim their loyalty. And many of them did. Fred Hernandez of Concord, a Raider fan since 1964, told the NFL executives: “We waited years for our team to return. We have waited decades for a winning team to be put together. We finally are seeing success. And you want to snatch that away.”
But other fans cheerfully offered suggestions on crowdfunding a new stadium, or approaching companies like Uber for naming rights. And toward the end of the evening, nearly everyone stood up, made an “O” with their arms over their heads, and chanted along with Raider fan Chris Fry-Lopez when he invited them to recite “The Autumn Wind” by Steve Sabol, a poem that Raider Nation takes as its creed.
These Raider fans hope that next season, when the autumn wind returns, their team will be conquering -- and winning -- and doing it in Oakland.