Evil monster within roots for bad-boy Raiders

January 12, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

THE RAVENS play the Raiders Sunday for the American Football Conference championship, and, while I'll be rooting for Baltimore big-time, in the deep recesses of my soul a demented Other likes the team from Oakland. I checked again last night, and, unfortunately, the monster is not dead. Somewhere inside a mad scientist is yelling, "It's alive! It's alive!"

Please, before you gather the torches and pitchforks and start hunting me down, allow an explanation. What I have - a lingering, juvenile affection for the bad-boy Oakland Raiders that goes back to the second Super Bowl - is something that afflicts a lot of guys my age. Ask around, and you'll find plenty of baby boomers who got attached to the Raiders back in the 1960s and 1970s - despite having a home team to root for - and who still think they're way cool, in an evil sort of way.

I don't think this happened much around Baltimore. Everyone worshipped the Colts here and, in time, came to hate the Raiders.

I came into this differently. Growing up, I admired the Colts, but from a distance of about 400 miles. I had respect for Unitas & Co., but not passion. (Can I say that without getting torched?) My father was a bigger fan. The smartest kid in my school, Madelyn DeLorenzo, started talking about Johnny Unitas in 1964, and she did not stop until after high school graduation. Any guy who wanted to be Madelyn's boyfriend had to join her Johnny Unitas fan club and watch the Colts on TV with her, and they weren't allowed to make out with her during a game.

No one I knew cared too much for the weak New England entry in the American Football League - the Boston Patriots. They had Italian guys - Buoniconti, Parilli, Cappelletti - but not even that appealed to my mother, the former Rose Popolo, who likes professional football on television. (Don't worry. I got her signed up to root for the Ravens this weekend.)

So, you see, I grew up with this void. Loved football, didn't have any allegiance to any particular team. I thought the NFL was kind of black-and-white and stodgy.

And then the Raiders came along, in full-color broadcasts on NBC-TV with Curt Gowdy and Al DeRogatis at the mike, and it was almost love at first bite. I've analyzed my thing for the Raiders, this monster that lingers inside, the way a shrink might analyze someone with multiple-personality disorder.

Here's what it's about:

1. Cool uniforms. In silver and black, the Raiders looked like a motorcycle gang. They were Darth Vader-like before Darth Vader was, like, anything. And with that pirate logo, they appealed to a kid's instinct for evil adventure. A secret affection for the Raiders meant that, deep down, you had a sentimental spot for the bad guys. Rooting for them was a way of living dangerously.

2. Owner Al "Just Win, Baby" Davis - Machiavellian, eccentric, weird, street-savvy, hated by the NFL suits. There are always TV shots of him, in big gold eyeglass frames, in the owner's box. He watches his team like a Las Vegas casino owner watches the blackjack tables. He did the unconscionable and moved the team out of Oakland for a few years, then moved it back. I've never been to his house in California, but I'm thinking: Xanadu, with lots of statues around the pool. It's as if Bob Guccione owned an NFL team.

3. John Madden once coached the Raiders, and he was not the affable, avuncular, bratwurst-eating, bus-riding TV commentator he is now. He was nuts on the sidelines. He made Bill Parcells look like Mister Rogers.

4. They had Jim Otto as center forever. This guy was - what? - 60 when he finally retired? He wore No. 00 and had no neck.

5. They had George Blanda as kicker forever. This guy was - what? -70 when he retired? He could kick field goals and play quarterback, and he continued to do it as the osteoporosis set in. When they showed him on the sidelines, Blanda was always gumming gum or tobacco, like some rodeo roper chillin' between steers.

6. They gave Jim Plunkett, who grew up in poverty and whose parents were blind, a second chance. The Patriots dumped him as quarterback, the Raiders picked him up, and they won a couple of Super Bowls with him.

7. The 1967-1968 Raiders went to the Super Bowl, and they had a second-string tackle named, I believe, Richard Sligh, who was 7 feet tall and weighed 300 pounds but didn't play much. They also had a very cool defensive end named Ben Davidson who had a massive handlebar mustache and a thing for Harleys.

8. They were involved in - and ultimately won - the November 1968 "Heidi" game against the Jets. With the Raiders down by three points and marching on New York with a minute left in the game, the television network cut to the children's movie "Heidi" and drove millions of viewers on the Eastern seaboard bonkers. My brother and I were watching when the movie came on and, if my mother had had Ritalin in those days, she would have mainlined us with it.

9. They had Fred Biletnikoff, who caught a zillion passes while running pass routes like Baryshnikov. They had Cliff Branch, too, and quarterbacks Daryle Lamonica and Ken "The Snake" Stabler.

10. They had great linemen like Gene Upshaw and Art Shell, and greater runners like Hewritt Dixon, Pete Banaszak, Clarence Davis and Marcus Allen. And they had Howie Long, the flat-top dude who now gets to flirt with Teri Hatcher in those Radio Shack commercials.

Makes you sick, doesn't it?

But don't worry about all this, friends. You can put down your pitchforks. There's only one team I'll root for over the Raiders, and it's the Ravens.

I'm down with it, brothers and sisters. I'm rooting for the home team. And the 10-year-old boy and the 8-year-old girl who live in my house, born Baltimoreans, are deep into purple. Their youth is better than mine was. No confusion, no mixed football allegiances. They're clean.

Go Ravens.

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