Or ask Greg “Griz” Jones, who has made a personal crusade out of keeping the Raiders, the city’s professional football team, in Oakland. Jones loves Oakland and its Raiders in a way that, frankly, everyone deserves to be loved: madly, deeply, purely, a little irrationally, and with enough heart to fill 1,000 stadiums.
That devotion may be needed more than ever, as Griz and many other fans have spent the past few years trying to stop the Raiders from abandoning Oakland yet again. After Oakland officials balked at providing hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding for a new stadium, the team’s ownership has been lobbying the NFL for a move to LA, the latest chapter in the Raiders’ complex history. Founded in Oakland in 1960, the team played in LA from 1982 to 1994, before moving back to Oakland.
“You can’t duplicate that Raiders culture by picking them up out of Oakland and moving them someplace,” Griz said. “We learned that in the ’80s when the Raiders went to L.A. the first time and it didn’t work out.”
Known to all as “Griz” since his high school football days, when coaches were so impressed by his grizzly bear-like intensity that they started him at nose tackle despite his diminutive size, he is the leader of the 66th Avenue MOB, a group of Raiders fans who organize charity events and hold weekend-long tailgate parties sandwiched between a row of warehouses and the team’s Coliseum stadium in East Oakland. MOB stands for “Making Oakland Better.” They display their East Bay loyalty by wearing black T-shirts that read, “Forever Oakland” — the name of an offshoot group that works to keep the franchise in town.
Griz, 45, winces when he’s called a “superfan,” so perhaps he’s best described as a “preservationist.” He’s on a mission to preserve what he calls the “East Bay Mystique.”
The mystique is an almost indescribable way of life for Griz, mixing his love of the Raiders and the East Bay’s welcoming, unpretentious, and tough-but-cool vibe into one big nostalgic ball.
“The voice of [former Raiders announcer] Bill King coming from a radio and the smell of the Ghirardelli Chocolate factory near my home in San Leandro, they were always in the air,” says Griz, who has the charismatic air of a natural leader. With his stout build and dark thin mustache, he could have been cast as gunslinger in a Clint Eastwood western. “I grew up in a tough neighborhood. Back in the day, my uncle was well known on the roadster circuit and there’d be a bunch of H-A’s [Hell’s Angels] in his garage, as he worked on motorcycles. We’d watch Raiders games and, at halftime, I’d go outside and play ball, pretending to be Jack ‘The Assassin’ Tatum or Kenny ‘Snake’ Stabler until my hard-nosed Portuguese grandmother called us back in for the second half.”
He was a little boy when he attended his first Oakland home game in 1976, the year the Raiders won their first Super Bowl.
“The energy of the Coliseum, being around those fans, it felt like I was around my own family, only with 55,000 more people,” he says. “The roar of the Oakland Coliseum, it sounded like a volcano erupting.”
The fervor of Oakland fans is famous. But what makes them truly unique is their free-spirited culture, which mirrors the inspired weirdness pulsing through a city known for welcoming adventurous artists.
“Oakland has a beautiful soul,” Griz said one recent Sunday in January, as dozens of MOB members watched the NFL playoffs at a bar in the Jack London Square section of Oakland.
Long known for its mix of blue-collar industry, rebellion and political activism, almost overnight Oakland has become the Bay Area’s new capital of rapid change. Skyrocketing rents, a cool arts scene, and a growing tech sector led by Pandora and Uber have altered the face of this city. Those are big changes for a once unglamorous city that long shivered in San Francisco’s shadow.
While Oakland appears well on its way to an economic renaissance, many of its 400,000 residents fret that it will be a deal with the devil. As many San Franciscans get priced out of town and head east, can Oakland prevent displacing longtime residents and draining it of that mystique that Griz is working so hard to celebrate? After surviving decades of struggle, can Oakland handle success?
“I’m not worried because the fear of what gentrification might be won’t be the reality,” Griz said without hesitation. “More people and businesses are coming, and what’s bringing them is the soul of Oakland. The locals have to embrace it because it’s going to help the Oakland cause. A city can’t stay the same or it’s going to be stagnant.”
Amidst all that change, Oakland’s loud and loyal sports fans are a constant. Equal parts passionate, devoted and masochistic, Raiders fans (along with A’s fans — but that’s another tale for another time) just keep showing up to sell out the half-century-old Oakland Coliseum, no matter the state of their city or the Raiders franchise.
Those rugged fanatics in silver and black keep going to games, doing their level best to be the one piece of stability for a franchise that has been maddeningly unstable. When the Raiders became NFL icons in the 1970s, cultivating an image of long-haired, hard-partying rebels, Oakland fans sold out the Coliseum for thirteen straight seasons. When the franchise returned to Oakland in 1995 after breaking fans’ hearts with that regrettable move to L.A. — one MOB member calls the thirteen seasons down south, “that stupid road trip” — Oakland fans just kept showing up. When then-owner Al Davis chased away star coach Jon Gruden in 2002 and the team went into a long tailspin, Oakland fans just kept showing up. When the Raiders threatened to move again to L.A. over the past two years, as the team failed to make the playoffs for the twelfth and thirteenth consecutive years, the fans just kept showing up.
Which brings us back to Griz. As a teenager in the 1980s, he said he “was on the wrong path” and got into some trouble. One day, he decided to break off from his circle of friends and pulled himself out of a bad scene.
He got a job at a bread factory and, after his shift, began handing out free loaves to homeless people in downtown Oakland and to shelters. The fulfillment he got from helping others fed his soul, and fuels the MOB’s charity work and his sense of brotherhood with fellow fans to this day.
In early January, a week after the Raiders filed for the chance at another relocation to Los Angeles, Griz and his group flew to the NFL owners meeting in Houston, where the die-hards waved “Stay in Oakland” signs and gave media interviews outside the meeting site. Later that day, the NFL owners voted to instead send the St. Louis Rams to Los Angeles and give the San Diego Chargers an option to join them, denying the Raiders’ the chance to move down south.
“I walked down the street to step away for a minute because I had tears in my eyes,” he says.
Since then, many an unnamed source have touted several cities as possible future homes for the Raiders. San Antonio? San Diego? Timbuktu? But Griz and his cohorts hold fast to the hope that they will stay here in Oakland instead. Even after thirteen losing seasons, the Raiders remain a national brand.
“Raiders fans have been through hell — with the move to L.A., with the new threats to move, with all the losing,” he says. “But this is who I am. This is my love. Our Oakland Raiders culture is very special to us. This is why we fight for it. We fight for Oakland.”
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At the last regular season Raiders game in 2014, photographer Aaron Adler created portraits of fans in the Coliseum parking lot.
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Aaron Adler is a freelance photographer, multimedia producer based in Brooklyn, New York.
Chris De Benedetti is a former East Bay reporter and an Oakland resident.