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Raiders Reunion

The “once a Raider, always a Raider” team motto offers every guy who wore the jersey unrivaled treatment and respect from this franchise. Al Davis and his son Mark, the current owner, genuinely care for all who bled for them. At least among the teams I played for, the Raiders are remarkable in this regard. Each year they cover our travel and entertainment while providing valued space to reconnect. It is first class all the way, from Napa wineries to pre-season games and sessions with current coaches. Many of the earlier generations I loved to watch also show up: guys like Dave Casper, Fred Biletnikoff, Lester Hayes, and Ted “The Stork” Hendricks.

Each time I make the trek, I am reminded of how special it is to be a part of this legendary brotherhood. While there are plenty of “Raiderisms” and assorted machismo sayings, there is a distinct value system that runs back to the roots of the franchise. The first owner was a self-made man who dreamed of bringing football to the working town of Oakland. The original Raiders (first named the Senors) played on an atrocious field, making little money. They were met with an abundance of critics who doubted the team’s viability. Yet, the owner, coach, and players shared a progressive vision. They pulled up their bootstraps and sought the inclusion of all walks of life. In fact, they were among the first to recruit aggressively at historically Black colleges.

My head coach, Art Shell, was another example of how forward-leaning the Raiders could be. He was the first Black head coach in the modern era after working his way up the ladder as an outstanding player, then my offensive line coach, and ultimately the man calling all the shots. Long after these early players hung up their cleats and coaches retired, many still cleared their calendars for reunions. They would not miss an opportunity to honor and reinforce the alchemy of this community.

At the last several reunions, a few teammates and our wives slipped away for a decadent Cakebread wine tasting followed by a special evening with the full array of warriors who made the pilgrimage that year. All dressed to impress and pleasantly tipsy, we boarded the luxury bus and made our way up into the immaculately groomed hills overlooking Napa Valley. As we entered a sprawling estate, the sun shimmered down on a hillside of lush vines. It was a view straight out of Wine Spectator. The estate was spectacular. As we departed the bus, we were greeted with glasses of champagne and finely appointed servers with trays of appetizers who mingled among the guests along with photographers capturing the delight of old players reconnecting and sharing laughter, sometimes even buckling over as we recalled memorable knee slappers.

As the sun set in the distance, over one hundred former players and their guests were guided to trellis-covered reception tables for the climax of the evening. We feasted on steak and crab legs along with free-flowing wine for the next two hours. The stories continued to permeate the air along with toasts, more fits of laughter, and back slaps. If ever there was a color that represented joy, I could see it in the dusk sky that evening.

More on this story and others in my forthcoming memoir, Aggressively Human, to be released on all platforms in November 2023.


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