Sunday, October 01, 2006
A Tale Of Two Football Teams
When I was a kid, I used to be a huge football fan. In fact, I loved football even more than baseball, and followed it with a passion. I collected football cards with all of the players' names on them the way kids collect baseball cards today. (Only my love for "Star Wars" cards exceeded my obsession with football cards.) I knew every major player on my favorite team, the Oakland Raiders: Ken "The Snake" Stabler, Dave Casper, Cliff Branch, Fred Biletnikoff, Mark van Eeghen, Ted "The Mad Stork" Hendricks, Lester Hayes, Gene Upshaw, Clarence Davis, Art Shell, Pete Banaszak, John Matuszak, George Atkinson, Willie Brown, and last, but certainly not least, Jack "They Call Me Assassin" Tatum, to name a few. Dave Casper, No. 87, the tight end of the Raiders, was my favorite player. (I still have the plastic Dave Casper coffee cup that I made in the third grade, which featured Casper's name and a hand-drawn Raider helmet.)
Since I never managed to collect a complete set of football cards for the entire Raider team on my own, I would survey my friends, cousins, and adult strangers in cars to see if I could work a trade for those that still eluded me. When this proved fruitless, I relentlessly whined to my father to drive me to "Handy Dan's," a convenience store in the next town -- the only place nearby where they sold these fucking things -- to buy me some new bubble gum packs in the hope that I would magically open one to find a critical, missing Raider or a dupe of Dave Casper or Ken Stabler. Of course Dad could have saved himself a lot of trips to Handy Dan's if he just would have broken down and bought me the whole fucking NFL set for a lousy $25. But Dad was, and still is, how do you say, "frugal."
This may all sound silly in the age of eBay, but kids, back then, we didn't HAVE eBay. There WAS no Internet. We had to get by on sheer pluck, our wits, and pure serendipity, to survive. I don't know how we did it. We were like 17th Century fur traders. It was the barter system, and we were on the frontier. I was the only Raider fan in my 4th grade class, so during recess and sometimes even in class, I would aggressively negotiate with all the pathetic Patriots fans (of which there were many) for the outstanding Raider cards that I needed. This was our eBay, and you had to act fast or someone else would horn in on your trades. When weather permitted, we gathered outside during recess, on the schoolyard blacktop and jockeyed trades like jaded Wall Street brokers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange:
"Hey Lee, I'll give you a Steve Grogan for a Ken Stabler -- do you have one?"
"I don't know, I have a couple Stablers, but I'm really looking for a Stanley Morgan -- do you have one of those?"
"No.... damnit. I just traded him to Mike for a Franco Harris, and then traded Franco Harris to Tom for a Steve Grogan, which is what I thought you wanted, because Matt told me you already had three Stanley Morgans and needed a Grogan."
"No buddy, you got some bad information. You should have come right to me -- I already have plenty of Grogans. I need a Stanley Morgan."
"Shit. I'm going to kill Matt."
This is how it went, the entire fall and into winter, and the same was true for baseball cards and Star Wars cards. Speaking of winter, the coolest thing for boys to wear on the grade-school catwalk during the wintertime was a jacket, hat, or gloves -- or preferably all three -- emblazoned with the logo of your favorite football team. These winter clothes were everywhere, and all the young, cool dudes wore them, straight from that bastion of cutting edge, designer chic for the elementary school set: the Sears catalogue. It was as if we were all members of a bizarre football cult. The coolest color -- a neon acqua blue and orange -- belonged to the Miami Dolphins, and there was always some freak, outlier fan of the Dolphins who, nonetheless, looked quite smart in his acqua/orange ensemble. I envied the look, but would not sacrifice my intense loyalty to the Raiders just to accommodate my fashion sense.
One might wonder how a small-town boy from New Hampshire became a Raider fan in the heart of Patriot country. Well, boys and girls, it began like this. In the fall of 1976, I, like my father, was a Patriot fan. Not an avid fan, mind you. In fact, before my football flame grew into a bonfire, I did not follow the sport or the Patriots with any passion at all; I was just rooting for my father's team, with half-hearted interest. It was all I knew. One reason that I was not feeling the love for the Patriots was their lousy uniforms, and in particular, their helmets. The Patriots' home uniforms were a combination of bright, crimson red jerseys, with nautical blue highlights, and white pants, with red and blue stripes. Not so bad -- similar to the Red Sox actually -- very patriotic.
But the Patriots' helmets were another story. They were all white, and on each side there was a Minuteman, Patriot, or colonialist -- whatever you want to call him -- who wore a three-point revolutionary hat, blue, dandy waistcoat with huge, fancy white, rolled cuffs, and bright red boots. Macho, yes? To make matters worse, Mr. Patriot was presented leaning forward, legs spread wide, with his right hand resting on a football on the ground. Wait, we're not done. Inexplicably, Mr. Patriot wore this pinched, wincing grimace on his face. He looked somewhat aggressive -- almost angry -- but at the same time, he seemed to be cracking a smile, as if he were kind of enjoying himself. Anticipating something. Something nice. As he was bending forward at the waist. Expectantly. Get my drift? If you don't believe this homo-erotic imagery, judge for yourself:
See what I mean?
There was just something wrong about Mr. Patriot, and needless to say, he did not generate much enthusiasm from an 8 year-old realist like myself, who believed a football mascot should be tough and a little bad-ass. This was fucking football, not a damn history lesson! Mr. Patriot was too effeminate for my taste. He looked ready for a gay porn movie set in 1776, not football. So, while I followed the Patriots with some enthusiasm, I never developed a real passion for the team. I was looking for a reason to cheat. And in December 1976, the Oakland Raiders gave me one.
To a young Patriots fan in 1976, the Raiders were a sexy, attractive, dangerous, slightly crazy girl from the wrong side of the tracks. They tempted me with their gangster image, their bad-ass uniforms, and their renegade players, who were always getting into trouble. I couldn't stop thinking about them. I knew it was wrong. I knew that I shouldn’t. But I couldn’t help myself. They were everything that the Patriots were not. They had balls. Moxie. While the Patriots never made the playoffs and perpetually lost games they were meant to win (much like the Red Sox), the Raiders were different. Led by coach John Madden and southpaw quarterback Kenny Stabler, with his long hair, moustache, and beard:
the Raiders miraculously pulled out wins when all seemed lost. Indeed, the Raiders often won in ridiculous, controversial, fashion.
Case in point: In one legendary game in 1978 against the San Diego Chargers, later dubbed the “Holy Roller” game, the Raiders were losing 20-14, with 10 seconds left to play in the game. They had the ball on the Charger 14-yard line and needed a touchdown to win. Kenny Stabler, who was about as mobile as an 80 year-old with gout, took the snap and was about to be sacked by a Chargers player on the 24-yard line. Stabler was quite wily, however, and he knew he was a dead duck. So he intentionally “fumbled” the football towards the Charger goal line. Running back Pete Banaszak “tried” to recover the ball on the 12-yard line, but he um, lost his footing, and sort of pushed the ball forward even closer to the end zone. Dave Casper was the next player who "tried" to recover the ball, but he just wasn't able to get a grip on it until he had batted and kicked it into the Charger end zone, where he jumped on it for the game-winning touchdown as time ran out. Miraculously, the Raiders kicked the extra point, and took home a 21-20 win. The game officials ruled that Banaszak and Casper's actions were legal because it was impossible to determine if they intentionally batted the ball forward, which would have been ruled a penalty. The NFL backed up the official’s call that Stabler had fumbled the ball instead of throwing a forward pass.
After the game, however, when he was asked by a radio announcer if he intentionally fumbled the football, Stabler -- who hailed from Alabama and was totally fearless -- said, “You bet your ass I did.” Banaszak and Casper also admitted that they deliberately batted the ball towards the end zone. “Just win, baby!” Here's the video, along with more commentary than I'm sure you want, from the key players involved:
You had to love these guys. They were larger than life characters who did whatever they had to do to win, even if they had to push the rules a bit. The “Holy Roller” game became so notorious that the following year, the NFL changed the rules to restrict fumble recoveries by the offense. Now, a fumble in the final two minutes of a game, or on fourth down at any time in the game, cannot be advanced by the offense beyond the spot of the fumble unless the player who fumbled recovers the ball.
Apart from their controversial ways, I loved the Raiders’ uniforms. Their jerseys and pants were a nasty silver and black, like an outlaw motorcycle gang, which is how they lived and played. Instead of an ambiguously gay Mr. Patriot, the Raiders had a logo of a pirate wearing a helmet and a black eye patch, with two swords crossing behind his head. No homo-erotic overtones here, buddy! It was the coolest helmet in football, and I loved it. Here's a closer look:
So, in December 1976, the Patriots miraculously made the playoffs (I think it may have been their first time doing so after the AFL-NFL merger, but I might be wrong), and they met the Raiders in the Divisional Playoff. The Raiders had gone 13-1 in the regular season, and they flew into the playoffs sky high, a team of destiny. My team (the Patriots) was meeting my team of temptation (the Raiders) in Oakland, California, for the ultimate showdown.
Watching the game with my father, we were pumped when the Patriots took a 21-17 lead deep into the fourth quarter, and it looked like they were going to pull off a huge upset. But I’ll admit, I was torn. With less than a minute left in the game, the Raiders moved the ball to the Patriots’ 20-yard line and needed a touchdown to win. It was third down. Stabler went back, back, back, and threw the ball. It fell incomplete. This would have made it fourth down, giving the Raiders one last chance to win. But wait. The referee called a penalty on Patriot Ray “Sugar Bear” Hamilton for “roughing the passer,” i.e., hitting Stabler late, after he had already thrown the ball. Unbelievably, the replay showed that Hamilton hadn't even touched Stabler, but there was no instant replay rule back then, so the penalty stood, and gave the Raiders an automatic first down deep in Patriots territory. My father was apoplectic. Conversely, I was strangely pleased. Two or three plays later, Stabler scrambled for the game-winning touchdown. My young heart raced.
As my father was swearing a blue streak at the referee, I found myself inexplicably excited and happy. I subconsciously had been rooting for the Raiders the entire time, and I had no idea why. I thought to myself, “These guys know how to win. They keep coming back, over and over. They are cool, the uniforms are cool, the players have personalities. That’s it. I’m done. I’m switching sides.” And that's when Anakin Skywalker took a walk on over to the Dark Side.
With the naïve, impeccable timing of an 8 year-old, as the Patriots were walking dejectedly off the field, I told my father right then and there what I was thinking.
“Daddy, you know, I kind of like the Raiders. The Patriots are losers. They don’t know how to win. I think I’m going to make the Raiders my team now.”
“What?? You can't do that, you're a Patriots fan!”
He was incredulous. But perhaps feeling a little guilty at having bequeathed me the Red Sox, and the accompanying, potentially-lifelong misery that went with my inheritance, my father ultimately relented and gave me his blessing.
"Ahh, you might as well cheer for a winner. The Patsies aren't going anywhere anytime soon." How right he was.
When the Raiders went on to win Super Bowl XI against the Vikings, their first ever Super Bowl win, my father celebrated along with me, vicariously happy and, no doubt, bemused at my first-ever taste of a championship, the direct result of an obscenely blatant bandwagon jump three weeks earlier.
In ensuing years, Dad would get the Friday edition of the Boston Globe, which had in it a section called "Sports Plus," which contained a tongue-in-cheek analysis of each NFL game by Globe (and now Sports Illustrated) sportswriter Leigh Montville. Right next to Montville's analysis was a chart showing each Globe sportswriter's predictions against the spread. My Dad introduced me to gambling by patiently explaining to me what the "spread" meant. But we picked the games straight up, blindly, so that we couldn't see each other's picks. Then we wrote them onto the "Sports Plus" chart and competed against each other with our predictions each Sunday.
When I picked more winners than him, I gloated. When he won, he did. (Good sportsmanship was not our strong suit; ball-busting was.) At the end of the season, the winner got a trip to Papa Gino's, or a toy I wanted. Since I had a fairly limited income at the time, even when I lost, I won.
The Super Bowl was our season finale, and we celebrated in style in front of the t.v. with healthy fare comprised of Planter's peanuts, Fritos, and nachos with meat salsa and cheddar cheese, which my mother graciously made for us, even after we banished her from the living room. Occasionally, Dad even let me take a sip or two of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Stroh's, or Lowenbrau, whichever one of these fine brews happened to be available. (Back then, I hated the taste of beer, so a sip was all I wanted.)
Somewhere, there is a cassette tape of my Dad and I doing a "pre-game show" before Super Bowl XII between the Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys. My father speaks as the lead commentator, feeding me softball questions like they do on t.v., with an almost absurd sense of seriousness directed toward soliciting the opinions of a 9 year-old. He asks me to prognosticate the offensive and defensive matchups for the upcoming game, to predict a winner (I correctly picked Dallas -- I absolutely hated the Broncos, the Raiders' archrival), to give my views of how the season went for the Raiders, and last, but not least, how I was emotionally dealing with the Raiders' playoff loss at the hands of the Broncos. Nearly 30 years later, it is absolutely hilarious to hear myself answer my father so earnestly, in a squeaky, high-pitched, pre-pubescent voice. I took it so damn seriously.
Today of course, the world is different. Techology has advanced to the point where you can follow every football game on your computer, as I was doing at a coffee bar when I began this entry. Now you can get instantaneous updates of football scores on your cell phone on demand. If you are willing to shell out the buckaroonies, you can subscribe to watch your favorite team play every Sunday, even if they are three time zones away. Today, football is a global sport. There is a well-established league in Canada, a nascent league in Europe, they have played games in Mexico, and next year, they're going to play an exhibition game in China for the first time.
As for my Raiders, well, let's just say that the 8 or 9-year old me would not be pleased. They have sucked for years, and right now, they are the worst team in football. Today, they blew a 21-3 lead -- at home no less -- to the second worst team in football, the lowly Cleveland Browns. I don't think they will win a single game this year. Oh, where have you gone, Kenny Stabler, Dave Casper, Cliff Branch, and Lester Hayes, with all that "stickum" on your hands? Sadly, the Raider glory years are long, long gone.
Ironically, in the past four years, my personal football world has come full circle. In 2002, the Pats got their revenge on the Raiders for that bad referee call in 1976 by becoming the beneficiary of an equally atrocious referee call in the controversial "Tuck" Game in Foxboro. They went on to win their first Super Bowl that year, and eventually took home an amazing three Superbowl victories in four years. The Patriots now have as many Super Bowl wins as the Raiders. Young T. would be shocked.
This time, I'm not switching teams, even though the Patriots sweetened the pot in 1992 by dispatching their Mr. "Porno" Patriot symbol in exchange for the more modern "Patriot Elvis" logo that they wear on their helmets today:
I refuse to bite. As painful as it is, today I'm a loyal Raider fan. Having had 26 years of (extremely bloody) practice with the Red Sox, I am going to ride this shit out and wait for ancient, stubborn, micromanaging, and completely incompetent Raider owner Al Davis to (please will you fucking) retire. Maybe then, the Raiders will finally stop living in the glory of their past and start hiring people who actually know how to evaluate talent and run a football team.
Until that magical day, each fall the Raiders are going to continue to make me feel a lot like "Mr. Patriot." Bent over at the waist and flinching.