OAKLAND — Jon Gruden made his way onto the field he once put on the map. You couldn’t say he was greeted with a roar, because this was a preseason game and there was only a smattering of fans in the Oakland Coliseum stands.
But the ones sitting near the railing found the moment they’d been waiting for — waiting years, some of them — and they gave Gruden a hero’s welcome.
The PA system happened to be playing “Rock and Roll,” the old Led Zeppelin song.
You know the one: “Carry me back, carry me back, carry me back, baby, where I come from. It’s been a long time, been a long time, been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time.”
It really has. I mean, we’ve had relationships since Al Davis traded Gruden to Tampa Bay following the 2001 season, but they’ve been fleeting and shallow by comparison. Norv Turner, Art Shell, Dennis Allen — who were they to us, really? They never made us forget Jon Gruden, that’s for sure.
Gruden was back for the first football action of the 2018 season, and it was riveting enough to enliven even an NFL preseason game. Gruden’s presence carried us back, carried us back to the turn of the century, to the last run of sustained success for the Raiders, to those glorious days when Rich Gannon was completing passes to Hall of Famers and this stadium rocked with energy.
There was never a question about who would get star billing for this game against the Detroit Lions. It was Gruden who was announced last, and with rising inflection, during pregame introductions. And it was Gruden on the cover of the Raiders’ version of GameDay magazine, the NFL’s in-stadium publication. He was pictured in a black shirt, black visor and radio headphones. I think the photo was taken many years ago, but it’s kind of hard to tell. Gruden was wearing a similar get-up Friday, and he hasn’t aged all that much in the intervening years of Buccaneering and “Monday Night Football” analysis.
The fans showed up because they love the Raiders. But they also came to see Gruden. He’s the protagonist and the selling point right now.
One small group of tailgaters was grilling chicken and ribs in the parking lot before the game, ready to fill some corn tortillas. They had driven from Madera, and they brought with them a demonic Chucky doll wearing an angelic Derek Carr jersey. Expect to see an army of them when the regular season begins. Several fans wore Gruden T-shirts, most carrying out the Chucky theme. Funny, but I don’t remember seeing any Tom Cable T-shirts in the stands here in 2009.
When Gruden emerged from the tunnel before the game, he fist-bumped a couple fans, one of whom reacted as if he had been blessed by Pope Francis, and proceeded to find his wife and youngest sons for an on-field hug. (Gruden’s oldest son, Deuce, is a Raiders strength and conditioning assistant.) They chatted a bit, as if getting caught up.
To be fair, Cindy, Michael and Jayson Gruden reportedly had just flown out from Florida. Even if they had been living in the coach’s hotel room at the Napa Valley Marriott, though, they might not have received much of Jon Gruden’s attention lately. You’re familiar with his reputation. He goes to bed listening to old NFL Films productions and sleeps 90 minutes a night.