Raiders fans reliving the Los Angeles nightmare

OAKLAND - The Raiders are considering a move to Los Angeles. The last time we reported such news was well more than 30 years ago, yet when the team’s more devoted and shall-we-say experienced fans describe the event, it sounds as though they still may be in need of family counseling.

“When the Raiders moved to Los Angeles, it was like a divorce,” Cynthia from Watsonville (speakers were not asked to spell their full names) said at a public hearing hosted by the National Football League in downtown Oakland on Nov. 12. “One parent went off to be a star. The other parent stayed here with the kids.”

“It was like watching your girlfriend dating a really good-looking guy,” said Mike Umphenour, who lives in Windsor along with his alter-ego, Dark Raider.

“I felt like a jilted lover,” admitted longtime diehard Larnell Madison.

Should they be booking another therapy session? The NFL’s bid to return to the vast metropolis of Los Angeles is complicated and fraught and fluid. What we know for sure is this: The league wants a team or two in LA. St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke drew up a plan to move his team to a site in Inglewood. The Raiders and the San Diego Chargers have teamed up to offer a competing plan for a venue in Carson. The NFL has asked the three potentially victimized cities to submit detailed proposals sweetening the pot by Dec. 28, a task that sounds all but impossible for a cash-strapped municipality like Oakland.

In the meantime, some Raiders fans are experiencing a nauseating case of déjà vu.

“I feel like I’m living the nightmare again,” said Ricky Ricardo, owner of Ricky’s Sports Theatre and Grill, for decades the undisputed war bunker of Raiders fanatics.

For a younger generation of those fans, “Los Angeles Raiders” are just words that used to be stitched onto Ice Cube’s ball caps. They may remember the team’s emotional return to Oakland in 1995, but not the original separation, an event that devastated the East Bay.

Davis announces intent

It was in 1979 that then-owner Al Davis, who had helped put Oakland on the map after taking over an obscure AFL team in 1963 and building it into an iconic brand, first announced his intent to relocate the Raiders to Los Angeles. Davis wanted a series of stadium improvements that included upgrades to the locker room, PA system and press box and, most important, the installation of luxury suites. Cost was estimated at $4-10 million.

The Coliseum Commission claimed it had no money to offer, and negotiations ended in February of 1980.

Enter the Los Angeles Coliseum, the massive and venerable stadium in South-Central LA. Recently abandoned by the Rams, who had moved down the freeway to Anaheim, the commission that oversaw that coliseum offered $18 million in improvements, plus $5 million advanced to the Raiders. Davis leaped at the offer, or tried to.

On March 10, 1980, NFL owners voted 22-0 at their annual meeting not to allow the Raiders to move, with five teams abstaining (including the 49ers and Rams) and the Raiders not participating. Davis announced he would defy the vote, pushing everyone into a legal quagmire that would take more than three years to resolve.

At one point, the move was impacted by four major lawsuits. The Los Angeles Coliseum Commission sued the NFL, charging antitrust violations. The NFL sued the Raiders for breach of contract. Raiders season ticket holders brought a class-action suit against the team. And the City of Oakland filed for eminent domain, attempting to take control of the team “in the public interest.”

Most of the press coverage focused on the legal issues, which were groundbreaking. That ignored the home front in Oakland, where disbelief gradually shifted to outrage. Raiders fans had sold out every game at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum for more than 10 years, and 9,000 of them would meet the team at the airport after it won the 1980 AFC championship game. They felt betrayed by Davis and, to a lesser extent, their city government.

Defined by Raiders

Imagine what was going through the mind of Larnell Madison, who grew up three blocks from the Oakland Coliseum on 69th Avenue - or from the wetlands on which the Coliseum would one day bloom.

“When I was a little kid, my older brothers used to go over there,” said Madison, 63, who now lives in Elk Grove and works as an anesthesia technician and transfusionist at Shriners Hospital for Children in Sacramento. “It was just marsh. There were rabbits over there. They’d go over with their dogs and hunt rabbits.”

Madison peeked through the fence to watch games at Frank Youell Field south of Lake Merritt in the Raiders’ early years, and he became a diehard fan when the Coliseum opened in 1966. He had season tickets in the Black Hole before it was called the Black Hole. In the mid-1970s Madison was drummer and lead singer for a band that played at an Oakland bar called Thorn and Thistle, and Raiders like Otis Sistrunk and Jimmy Warren used to stop in after games.

This wasn’t just Madison’s football team. The Raiders helped define him.

Umphenour feels the same way. “I don’t live silver and black, I breathe it,” he said. “My daughter Tracy, she’s worse than I am. It’s just part of me, part of my family.”

Umphenour started rooting for the Raiders in the 1960s. It was in 1978 or 1979, he said, on a Halloween evening when he hatched the idea of wearing a Darth Vader mask to games. The first time, he took it into the stadium in a paper bag, had a few beers, and decided to go harass the San Diego Chicken “in the stoner bleachers.”

A legend was born. Umphenour added a sword and gloves and boots. A neighbor sewed him a cape. He would wake up at 4 a.m. on home Sundays, roam the parking lot before the game and wander the entire Coliseum while the Raiders played.

And then Al Davis announced he was taking away his team.

Some fans were irate enough to get organized. They handed out “Fan Survival Kits” at a home game against the Chargers on Nov. 9, 1980. Each kit included a postcard addressed to Davis at Raiders headquarters, politely denouncing the proposed relocation, and a card asking for participation in a mini-boycott.

On Dec. 1 of that year, thousands of fans stayed outside the Oakland Coliseum for the first five minutes of a big Monday night game against the Broncos. The Raiders tried to undermine the effort by sending cheerleaders into the parking lot to entice tailgaters with promise of a new pregame routine. It didn’t work. Some accounts noted that “almost two-thirds” of the stadium seats were empty at kickoff. At the 2-minute warnings, the crowd held up signs reading “Save Our Raiders.”

A local musician who called himself Johnny Stallion recorded a protest song, “The Team Al Davis Gave Us,” that included the lyrics, “The team Al Davis gave us is taken away.”

“One guy made a dart board, he called it a ‘Stick It to Al’ dart board,” Ricardo said, looking at one of the collectibles on the wall of his restaurant. “It has Al’s portrait on it. That kind of sums it up right there.”

Davis wins in court

Davis wasn’t in a mood to compromise. He was locked in a fierce power struggle with the league, and he was winning. A jury unanimously sided with the Raiders in May of 1982, calling the NFL’s attempt to prevent the move a violation of antitrust law, and a district court upheld the decision five weeks later. In April of 1983, another jury would award the team $35 million in damages.

By then, the Raiders had logged a full season in Los Angeles. Their next campaign would bring LA its first NFL title since 1951.

The team’s Oakland supporters had varying reactions to the move.

“As soon as they left, I bought a 15-foot satellite dish and put it on top of the house,” said Umphenour, who remained loyal to Davis throughout the Los Angeles years. “They didn’t telecast like other teams did. It was really hard to locate ’em on the dish. There was a bar in Petaluma, we’d be in contact with each other to see which could be first to find it.”

If anything, Umphenour’s devotion multiplied with the distance. He turned his Petaluma garage into a Raiders shrine, and through subsequent moves he had friends help remove an entire wall of memorabilia - power-cutting and unscrewing the drywall - and relocate it in garages in Rohnert Park and then Windsor. (Fifteen to 20 people routinely show up now to “tailgate” at Umphenour’s house for away games.) And when Davis announced he was bringing the team back to the Bay Area in the mid-1990s, Umphenour drove to the Oakland Coliseum on his own dime and helped sell personal seat licenses in the parking lot.

Madison took it more personally when that jury green-lighted the moving vans in 1982. In fact, he did the unthinkable.

“I really was upset,” Madison said. “I was actually in Los Angeles visiting my wife’s relatives when it was announced, and I bought a 49ers cap - something I wouldn’t do. That was the home team now. I became a 49ers fan.”

Or at least he divided his allegiance. When the Raiders came home in 1995, Madison returned to the fold.

Many remain optimistic

Now these devoted followers are being tested once again. If anything, the effort to keep the team seems more daunting than in 1981. Al Davis wanted only some improvements to the existing facility 35 years ago. His son, Mark Davis, wants a brand-new stadium but doesn’t have the money to finance it himself. And the A’s quest for a new ballpark further muddies the issue.

And yet many Raiders fans are optimistic things will be different this time. They feel the City of Oakland and Alameda County, backed by the NFL, were overconfident in that first confrontation. This time, many are convinced, local government is more willing to work with the team (short of paying for a new stadium development, of course). They also believe Oakland is in the early stages of an economic renaissance.

It’s also possible the NFL and Los Angeles will simply cut the Raiders out of the new deal. The league has hinted it would prefer a partnership between the Rams and Chargers in LA rather than relying on cash-poor Mark Davis.

If there is optimism, though, it is tempered by experience. The Raiders abandoned Oakland once. They could do it again. And as Dark Raider and his crazed companions now know, life will go on.

“If they should move,” Umphenour said, “I’ll just add a couple more big screens to the garage.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or

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