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Smack is back

The Raiders have returned to the hard-hitting, trash-talking, sometimes nasty team of the past.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 19, 2003


OAKLAND, Calif. -- There's just something about it. Whether it's the uniform, the colorful storied past, the eccentric owner with the bad wardrobe. There's just something about being a Raider, something that's both blatantly obvious and hard to define.

It can grab you as a kid, like it did Rod Woodson, growing up in Indiana. Or coming out of college in Arizona, like Frank Middleton. Or as you've bounced around the league, like Bill Romanowski. Or even when you've become a legend and won three Super Bowls playing on the other side of the bay, like Jerry Rice.

"Hey, I look good in silver and black, you know what I'm saying? The Raider nation is just unbelievable," Rice said.

"I think it's all about the mystique of being a Raider. I've heard guys say, 'I'd love to be Raider.' I was one of the fortunate ones. ... I have to pinch myself. I'm like, 'I can't believe I'm wearing the silver and black.' It's an attitude, an attitude, man. I'm a whole different person now."

As football is often like life, the key to grasping the present is understanding the past. And the Raiders, with their cast of characters and catalog of success, have one like no other.

They've had more than a dozen Hall of Fame players such as Jim Otto, Willie Brown, Fred Biletnikoff, Howie Long and Art Shell. High-profile quarterbacks such as Ken Stabler, Daryle Lamonica and Jim Plunkett. An owner, Al Davis, whose antics (including ongoing legal battles with the NFL and Oakland officials) can make George Steinbrenner look downright saintly. And some rather, um, colorful players such as John Matuszak, Jack Tatum, Lester Hayes, Ted Hendricks, George Atkinson and Lyle Alzado. A collection of castoffs known for hitting hard, and sometimes late, on the field, then going hard, and staying out late, afterward. Raiders all, a bond many share to this day, staying involved with the team, showing up on the sideline. "Once you are a Raider," Shell wrote recently, "you die a Raider."

But more than the names and faces, the Raiders are about results. They may get a little excessive with the motivational phrases -- COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE, DECADES OF DOMINANCE, GREATNESS OF THE RAIDERS -- but the three Super Bowl trophies are legitimate.

"When you think of the Raiders, you think of one thing, and that's winning," said Romanowski, the 15-year veteran who claimed to know that someday he had to be a Raider. "That's all Al Davis cares about."

It hasn't always worked. The Raiders were mediocre for much of the late 1980s and 1990s, logging only two 10-win seasons as they moved from Los Angeles back to Oakland.

But Jon Gruden restored their pride with back-to-back playoff appearances, and a win over Tennessee in today's AFC Championship Game will return the Raiders to the Super Bowl for the first time in 19 years, when they beat the Redskins 38-9 in Tampa. (And that was a Los Angeles Raiders team; it's been 22 years since they've made it as an Oakland team).

The return to glory, in many ways, seems like a return to the past. These Raiders say they want their own identity -- "The old Raiders are retired and gone, let's call this the new Raiders," Middleton said -- but the way they are winning big, hitting hard, talking loud and, on occasion, throwing deep, they seem a lot like the Raiders of old.

"That's their M.O.," said Tennessee running back Eddie George, who admits he grew up a Raiders fan. "They've always been able to talk trash and back it up, so they definitely have that swagger."

What's it like to be a Raider?

You have to have a little bit of the attitude Rice was talking about. A chip on your shoulder. A dose of paranoia (because you know the league and the refs and the networks are out to get you). And it doesn't hurt to be a little nasty.

"Go ahead and hate us," Middleton said. "We're the Raiders. People are supposed to hate us."

That attitude, it turns out, is a big part of their mass appeal. "It's a toughness," said Ricky Ricardo, owner of Ricky's, a bar which plays host to weekly pregame rallies that are broadcast on the Web and feature Raiders "tribute" bands. "A toughness with a passion for the game."

The fans -- many in gothic, biker and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome dress -- respond. The Raiders sell more merchandise than any team, have fan clubs across the world, and are party to a proliferation of Web sites.

And then there are Paul and Steve Zinn, who write and record dozens of songs about the Raiders and post them on their Web site, myhairybrother.com.

A return to the Super Bowl, Paul Zinn said, would mean unbridled joy throughout Raider nation.

"When it's 'us against the world' the struggle is lonelier, but the victory is sweeter," he said.

The players, whether they've come up with the Raiders or fulfilled a dream by signing on, know it's special, too.

"It's so crazy here," said defense tackle John Parrella, another veteran free agent. "I can't even explain to you what it's like for me to come out of that tunnel before the game. It reminds me of Gladiator."

Plus, Parrella said, there's something else:

"The arms always look bigger in black. Never forget that."

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