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NAPA

If you lived in Santa Rosa between 1963 and 1984, chances are you have a Raiders story. Maybe you met linebacker Ted Hendricks and his occasional escort, a blow-up doll named Molly. Maybe you partied with the Tooz. Perhaps you were present when defensive tackle Art Thoms impersonated a minister and performed a bogus wedding ceremony at the Bamboo Room.

For 21 years, the Raiders were as much a Santa Rosa summer tradition as horse racing at the Sonoma County Fair, and it's amazing the town ever recovered.

Just about every pro football team at that time trained at a small college, bunking in dorms and eating in the cafeteria. But Al Davis, Oakland's new 33-year-old coach and general manager in 1963, had a vision. He wanted to take his team away from Oakland, but set up shop in a private hotel. Driving north on Highway 101 one day, he spotted the El Rancho Tropicana Hotel and knew he had found the perfect spot.

Long before the era of strip malls and big-box stores, El Rancho was considered the jewel of south Santa Rosa Avenue. It was a tidy, low-slung horseshoe of a place that grew from 25 rooms to 275 (many of them to accommodate the Raiders), with a restaurant/bar and multiple pools. When a football team wasn't staying there, it hosted garden shows, boxing matches and musical acts ranging from Van Morrison to the Blue Oyster Cult. This became the Raiders' home away from home.

John Madden, who spent 12 years with the Raiders, 10 as head coach, pointed out that the team staged mini-camps at the El Rancho, too. And training camp lasted a couple of months in those days, long enough to prepare for and play six exhibition games.

"We were in Santa Rosa three months out of the year," Madden said. "You think of that, and how we practiced then, and they'd probably throw us in jail today."

El Rancho was team's hub

The club planted a couple of practice fields behind the hotel, and built a field house that served as locker room and minimalist weight room. The Raiders had meetings and film sessions in El Rancho's conference rooms, and ate all their meals in the restaurant. The Raiders have a similar arrangement in Napa, and after a recent press conference at the Napa Valley Marriott, Davis said he sees the two training-camp experiences as quite similar. They are -- generally speaking.

But the Marriott has an air of luxury that no one expected in 1970. The Raiders didn't tend the El Rancho fields year-round, and they looked a little shabby for camp. And whereas players can choose among a variety of three-star entrees at dinner in Napa, they got whatever the El Rancho cooks decided to prepare in Santa Rosa.

Perfect working environment

Still, Ron Wolf, who spent 24 years with the Raiders in two separate stints and generally ran the Santa Rosa camp, called the El Rancho a "perfect" working environment.

"We had our own locker room. It was almost right out the back door of your room to the locker room, then right out to the practice field," he said.

The players loved it because they had phones and TV in their rooms, unheard-of frills in typical college settings of the day. They didn't mind being crammed two or three to a room, four or five to a suite. Madden liked the weather. He'd install the running game in the marine layer of the morning, then sweat his players in the afternoon. At night, it was pleasant enough to sleep.

"I figure weather that's good for growing grapes is good for training camp," Madden said. "Cool in the morning, hot in the afternoon, cool at night."

Those old camps were grueling nonetheless. Practices were nearly always twice a day, and the meetings were endless. So in contrast to modern-day NFL camps, the players were allowed to leave campus during an afternoon break, and then again before 11 p.m. curfew. Many would return for bed check and sneak out again.

Hence the now-legendary carousing of the Raiders in Santa Rosa, a phenomenon celebrated most prominently in Ken Stabler's autobiography, "Snake."

While the team flavored much of the city's night life, the action tended to be concentrated in three bars: the Bamboo Room (right next to El Rancho), the Music Box and Melendy's Cocktail Lounge. Melendy's was the scene of the famed annual air-hockey tournament. Phil Villapiano had won an air-hockey set by beating fellow linebacker Isaiah Robertson in a miniature bicycle race at a charity basketball game, and he installed it at Melendy's. The night would often end with dancing atop the jet-cooled table.

Mixing with common folk

This was an era when pro athletes mixed freely with the common folk. As a result, Santa Rosans saw much more of the Raiders -- good and bad -- than Napans do today. But the legend of that era probably outpaces the reality by a good margin. It's not that the Raiders didn't enjoy more than their share of booze and women during camp. They did. But the wild scenes were little islands in a sea of monotony.

For every Stabler and John Matuszak painting the town, there were tight end Dave Casper and fullback Mark van Eeghen working on paint-by-numbers at the hotel. Or quarterback Larry Lawrence beating everyone at chess. Or even, gulp, backgammon.

"We'd watch 'The Honeymooners' in the evening and soaps in the afternoon," Casper said.

Not everyone caroused

If fines for violating curfew and a 7 a.m. wake-up call weren't much of a deterrent, a couple of other factors were. First, the players back then were generally broke. More significant, these guys were tired. They practiced twice a day and went over strategy for hours. Only the Stablers and the Matuszaks could top it off with debauchery.

In fact, some Raiders hardly saw the town during those summers.

"People around Santa Rosa always talked about Wine Country," Casper said. "I didn't know what they were talking about. I knew how to get from my room to the practice field, I knew how to get from Alameda to Santa Rosa, I knew how to get from my room to the Bamboo Room, and from the hotel to the Music Box. It was like these little ant trails."

The beginning of the end came in 1981, when Davis announced he was moving the Raiders to Los Angeles. The team trained in Santa Rosa for three years even after the move, until it developed a site in Oxnard.

When the Raiders returned to Oakland in 1995, Davis looked first to Santa Rosa. But the El Rancho had been torn down just months before, and the team couldn't locate another suitable site. Instead, the Raiders wound up in Napa. Today, a Starbucks stands in the place of the El Rancho, right next to Home Depot. Melendy's has given way to a Chevron.

Those days are not forgotten, though.

The year before the move back to Oakland, Madden went to Santa Rosa to film a nostalgic, "this-was-training-camp" segment for Fox network. The El Rancho was empty and destined for demolition. The TV crew, searching for football props, found a rusty seven-man blocking sled behind the hotel and got a few shots with it.

Madden's sled unearthed

The unit wrapped production, and Madden went home. That night, he couldn't get it out of his mind. They had unearthed his old seven-man sled! Madden always favored the linemen, and this was his most beloved tool. He would ride atop the sled like Santa Claus as approximately 1,750 pounds of beef pushed it across the field.

"The wrecking ball was coming," Madden said. "I had so many memories of Santa Rosa, and (the sled) was about right where we'd finish at practice. We'd just push it off to the side. Weeds were growing around it."

Madden made a few calls, and to this day the seven-man sled resides at his office in Pleasanton. It's his memento of the Raiders' reign in Santa Rosa. A lot of people have one.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 526-8672 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.