OAKLAND, Calif. -- I'm walking between tunnels of grilled meat.
Moving through smoky plumes inside a string of connected tents in the parking lot outside Oakland Coliseum.
It's 9 in the morning, but it might as well be 1:22 a.m. at the Whisky a Go Go from this vantage point. Drinks flowing, music pulsing. Two miles away, I imagine an elderly couple sipping lavender tea by the sea, but here -- on the lip of the Black Hole -- the vibe is bedlam. A Raiders tailgate supreme. The final one of all, unfolding under the Californian sun. An amped-up tent-city of Raiders loyalists preparing their bodies and minds for Sunday's inevitable destruction of the hapless Jaguars.
Twelve Darth Vaders roam the terrain.
I encounter three hearty women sipping on massive syringes filled with a glowing yellow goo. One tells me the tubes are stuffed with Jell-O -- Jell-O with a bite. The chef of said delicacies, Ms. Myra, approaches to lay out the ingredients: 190 proof Everclear. Ms. Myra has prepared no less than 300 of these pulse-pounders for a tent crowd of 25 humans. Perhaps they should pen this essay.
I move deeper into the fury to a swath of bright blue Corona-themed tents, where the founders and denizens of The Black Hole, Oakland's beautifully infamous end-zone fan throng, gather pregame. This is the epicenter. A sea of madmen and dames clutching huge beers, eating dead animals on sticks and finding each other along the way to embrace and say farewell.
"One last time," a fellow in metal armor and a robber's ski mask says to a gentleman in a silver sombrero. "One last time in Oakland."
Against perception of the Silver and Black's so-called tug toward thuggery, men and women put hands on shoulders, smile together, say "excuse me" when they collide and exude care for each other. Beneath the tents, decked-out ladies bop and fly to Aretha Franklin's Respect while men huddle over morning beers.
While I record this action in a yellow notepad borrowed from the airport motel, a human dressed as a clown and wielding a bloody axe slow dances with himself through the wonder.
At the edge of this human swell, a grill-man cooks another wave of flanked meat for a taco spread open to all. Large coolers packed with beer. Two women beside me hoist fat goblets of white wine and bounce to So Ruff, So Tuff (Wicked Mix).
"Oakland is a great football city. You think of the Raiders, you think of the ocean. You think of the pirate. We belong near the beach," an adult male using the alias of Skullator tells me beside the grill. "We pillage the land. We live off the land. It's going to be sad to leave. These fans are working-class Americans. They work hard every day, and they give everything to their team. That's why we expect the best."
I am soon approached by Victor Danhi, one of the tailgate's organizers and a 20-year member of The Black Hole, who seems curious about the nerdling jotting notes amid the unfolding chaos. Once it's understood I'm not a plainclothes member of the heat, Danhi happily dishes history about The Black Hole movement and club president, Rob Rivera.
"Rivera and about five of his friends were getting together when they heard the Raiders were coming back from L.A. (in 1995)," Danhi tells me. "They were getting together in a garage of one of these guys, and they were trying to figure out how they can do something, kind of the way (Cleveland's) Dawg Pound was back then, and they threw a bunch of names out, and somehow, The Black Hole came up during that conversation and stuck. All those guys bought tickets in Row 105 because they wanted to be in the front row right behind where the Raiders goal line was, and they just wanted to bring all the passion they had for the team coming back. It just grew and grew."
This is a community being torn apart. Frame the shift to Las Vegas for the 2020 season however you want, but it doesn't change how the Oakland morning sun shines, stark and ultra-bright and unforgivingly upon a man dressed as Thanos -- Black Thanos, per his title -- who works the crowd with his arm around a woman in camo pants.
I've never seen anything like this in sports.
Heavy drum beats from all angles. You completely forget eight early pro football games are unfolding in other cities as you wind through the carnival. Folding chairs, more beer cans, a table flush with hot sauce containers and thick bottles of tequila. A man lodged into an easy chair sporting a snowy white beard at least 14 inches in length. He speaks with a small boy dressed in black on black on black.
I am standing below a loosely realistic, inflatable version of Lord Vader atop a tent housing a big screen showing the Seahawks up 20-7 over the Panthers. To my right, a man hits the gas on a blender mixing Madden Margaritas. To my left, a young woman sips on a joint, the exhaled smoke whirling out over my world and my notebook. Everywhere, there are girls, families, brothers and sisters and elderly biker-type dudes with ponytails and leather coats bedazzled with diamond studs in the shape of a pirate.
* * * * *
Thirty minutes later, I'm on the grass of the Oakland Coliseum. A woman in sunglasses holds a baby, a precious, half-awake being with no knowledge these are the final hours of football in Oakland. I realize now this is quarterback Derek Carr's child, as two other small boys wearing No. 4 "DADDY" jerseys sit nearby.
Vera Crosby, the mother of rookie pass rusher Maxx Crosby, roams the pregame sidelines with a professional-grade camera and lens, capturing the day.
"My mission in life was to take photos of my son playing in the NFL, and I've shot him since he was a little baby," Vera says. "It's exciting and surreal for me. Maxx is so happy right now. This is all he's ever wanted to do since he was a baby. And these fans are the best fans I've ever come across. Very welcoming. They look kind of crazy, but I like that -- because I'm a little crazy. They're so warm and loving. I'm going to miss them."
Everyone is here. Hall of FameRaiders running back Marcus Allen marches out of the tunnel flocked by cameras and scribes and followers. And suddenly, there he is: head coach Jon Gruden. Amid a crowd. Taking photo after photo with loyalists and ex-players and sideline hangers on. No request is too small. Gruden gives his time to everyone on this final Sunday.
Jacksonville quarterback Gardner Minshew II whips out of the tunnel, chestnut hair ablaze, to a smattering of jeers. Jaguars co-owner and executive Tony Khan walks by with general manager David Caldwell. Lovely men, but the Jaguars don't exist in this world. Insane afterthoughts in this building. A mere nuisance --Raiders fans hope.
The stadium explodes as the deity-level voice of John Facenda towers over the loudspeaker:
The Autumn Wind is a pirate
Blustering in from sea,
With a rollicking song, he sweeps along,
Facenda's voice cuts out, replaced by legendary Raiders center Jim Otto on the big screen finishing Steve Sabol's poetry.
The Raiders will not lose today, I think to myself. You can bet your house, your bike, your toaster, your daughter Betty.
The Raiderettes swing it at midfield in a routine set to Metallica, speaking to this crowd: Exit light/Enter night/Take my hand/We're off to never-never land.
I agree with how Raiders icon Art Shell described this Coliseum home to me: cozy. The fans are right on top of you, draped over the tunnel, within earshot of every coach and player. Three feet away, Raiders assistants mill about; a B-list reality star whose name I don't know is chewing gum; WAGs waft by in bunches. The cops on hand wear a grin: This is the top beat in town.
* * * * *
I spend the first quarter couched in the stands with fans above the 50 in one of the few empty seats. The house is alive. A sweet, ancient peanut vendor is screaming at the top of his lungs and cannot be heard by a soul. A lady nearby sports blood-red-dyed hair and a black Santa hat. She chugs a 40-ounce betwixt two beefy bros in leather jackets.
Another woman tells me I must chat with her father, 88-year-old Loren Piper, a Raiders fan of five-plus decades.
"Since 1963, I've missed one game. Preseason against Seattle because I went to get my Masonic degree," Piper tells me, proving himself as a raging completist -- but one who sees a different Raiders future than most.
"I don't think they're going to leave," Piper says. "There's a big movement. See this cap here (pointing to his hat, which reads FOREVER OAKLAND)?"
Piper dishes on a grassroots campaign to prevent the move, but we are soon strolling again through the memory banks as he talks about the seagulls outnumbering the fans at old Kezar Stadium, where the Raiders toiled in near-bankruptcy before the Coliseum was raised.
We are jolted from conversation by wideout Tyrell Williams taking a Derek Carr lob 40 yards to the end zone on Oakland's first drive to carve out a 7-0 lead. The building is burning. My brain pounds amid the noise. This wonderful man of history forgets all about my tape recorder and annoying questions. His dear Raiders have stuck a knife in the Jaguars.
We are not in America. We are not in Russia. We are not upon the Earth. This is something else entirely. If extraterrestrial explorers were to land here, their entire concept of the human experience would be dangerously warped.
I check out the press box -- arguably the smallest, most crushed media space in pro sports. Scribes are shoulder to shoulder watching a game that has Oakland up 10-3 at the end of the first frame. The super-fan within compels me to sneak into the CBS booth, snapping a shot of wordsmith Kevin Harlan and Raiders great Rich Gannon calling the game. And like all football tilts, it feels fast and slow at the same time, as the second quarter drifts by and afternoon light shifts with each passing hour.
* * * * *
During halftime, Charles Woodson steals the show with a rousing speech to the people of Oakland, issuing words of appreciation for their decades of support -- and asking them to stay with the Raiders until the end of days. Fans slap hands with security guards. One daring soul wearing the jersey of Jaguars pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue is even treated with kindness. It is best described as an emotional sea. Boats of people shifting between raucous words and chants of love, with a splash of vodka thrown in.
"What's your little notebook for?" a woman asks me as I stand by an exit scribbling like a mathematical savant from the north. The shadows grow now, stretching out from the near end zone and across half the field as the minutes tick away. The game itself feels secondary to the moment and scene -- and what is vanishing. Plenty of fans are instead gathered out in stadium corridors and concourses, gripping beers and mixed drinks and singing songs in the Sunday wind.
* * * * *
As the fourth quarter begins, I climb a ramp to the Coliseum's Bulleit Bar, a sprawling circular setup packed with taps and waiters and juiced-up Raiders fans watching the game on a wall of boob tubes. A woman across the way in a boozy dress is screaming something on repeat. I can't decipher the messaging, but people are raising their glasses.
The game is suddenly closer than planned, with Oakland's 16-3 lead now just a 16-13 advantage. I ride the elevator down to field level, where I'm stopped by a pair of elderly (and hyper-serious) security guards in the cavernous underbelly of the Coliseum. They forbid me from moving on toward the field until the game expires, so I sit and watch the final minutes with these burly gents of yesteryear. We become temporary friends complaining about Oakland's inexcusable inability to zap away the final two minutes of the contest, instead handing the ball back to Minshew and Co. with 1:44 left after Raiders kicker Daniel Carlson misses a 45-yard field-goal try. Minshew and his magic wand go to work, spinning through a dazed Oakland defense on a seven-play, 65-yard drive capped by the quarterback's 4-yard touchdown dart to Chris Conley. A pair of Derek Carr Hail Marys subsequently fall to Earth, and the game -- along with this Oakland journey -- is over.
* * * * *
What happens next is understandable. A saddened, stunned crowd is forced to say goodbye. The game having collapsed into infamy, turning what should have been a celebration into something bitter. I walk the field, where safety Erik Harris and a handful of Raiders players meet with the fans, but most of the roster has bolted. Derek Carr comes out of the tunnel to a smattering of boos and cheers and boldly ignores the mixed reception to meet with fans in the Black Hole. It's a moment revealing his heart beneath the on-field critique. It would have been just as easy to stay in the locker room, but he pulls from something else within.
The crowd refuses to leave. Predictably, a few fans go overboard. One wayward fellow jumps onto the field and is mobbed by security and cops and carted away as voices from The Black Hole shower the police with jeers. Across the field, another group of fans rip up the Raiders tarp covering the dugout, screaming for Gruden to return. He makes no appearance during my minutes on the grass before media-heads are forced off the turf by staffers antsy to get cameras away from a slowly devolving scene.
In the end, though, this Raiders crowd -- terrible game conclusion noted -- mostly behaved itself and just didn't want to depart. Hanging around and showering the building with odes and words. One last time. In the old Coliseum, with all its creases and quirks and dripping water and cramped walkways and iffy grasslands. Completely imperfect, yet bursting with a charm unlike anywhere else in football.
A glowing megaplex awaits the Raiders next autumn in Las Vegas. All the amenities in the desert. Far from the sea -- and a million solar years away from this place they've called home for so long.
Oakland now rests in the rear-view, growing smaller by the minute as the light fades away.