Party like it's 1994: For one preseason game, Raiders retake L.A.

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES -- Marc Badain, the Oakland Raiders' president, was walking the grounds outside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum’s peristyle end late Saturday morning. It was about two hours before kickoff for an exhibition game -- the Raiders’ first appearance in the historic stadium they called home for 13 seasons since Christmas Eve 1994 -- when a fan sporting a clever, black T-shirt caught Badain’s eye.

It read "WE RUN LA" in silver, with the Raiders shield serving as the "U" and the Dodgers’ interlocked LA logo completing the look.

“Where’d you get that shirt? I like it,” said Badain, whose career with the Raiders began as an intern in 1991 and included such tasks as parking Todd Marinovich’s white Toyota Land Cruiser, with the surfboard still wet and strapped to the roof, after he roared into the team’s El Segundo complex for 8 a.m. meetings.

“I’m sure it’s licensed,” Badain laughed.

“Got it from a guy,” said the suddenly nervous fan, picking up his walking pace. “A guy in Lynwood.”

People from Lynwood, the South Bay, the Valley, East L.A., Colton, even Barstow, descended upon the Coliseum in droves to celebrate the return of their Raiders to Southern California for one afternoon of practice football. It was enough to make it feel like a Raiders home game, even if the Rams were technically the hosts.

As the Raiders called it, it was a road trip back in time. The ghosts of Tom Flores patrolling the sideline as coach, Marcus Allen going over the pile for a TD, Bo Jackson running over and by anyone and everyone, and Howie Long and Lyle Alzado punishing quarterbacks seemed to dance in the SoCal sunshine. No, that was not the specter of Al Davis, it was Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, complete with a white jacket and toting a white towel, akin to the late iconoclast owner’s L.A. look. And McKenzie, as he stared at the massive bowl, was himself transported back to his rookie season and the 17-tackle game he had in a playoff loss to the New England Patriots on this field on Jan. 5, 1986.

Because while it has been almost a quarter of a century since the Raiders last called the Southland home, they remain the only team to win a Lombardi Trophy while residing in L.A, as they did in the 1983 season.

And a walk through the tailgate area on the south side of the stadium was not only akin to strolling here between 1982 and 1994, it felt, smelled, looked and even tasted like being in the Oakland Coliseum’s parking lot before a game, with Raiders fans dominating the scene.

James Lopez, a 27-year-old truck driver, strolled the aisles waving a huge Raiders flag, eliciting the sing-song "Rai-ders" chant.

Ernesto Preciado, a non-profit worker in his 40s from East L.A., emulated the Raiders’ path to Oakland as a college student at Cal and, for one day at least, back to L.A. “I was going to follow them no matter what,” he said. “Unless they went to Texas. But Las Vegas is fine.”

Same with Justin Ruelas, a 37-year-old longshoreman from San Pedro who rocked a stark, ancient, gray "Los Angeles Raiders" T-shirt with a hole in the left armpit. His first Raiders game was in 1993; he and his father saw Jeff Hostetler outduel John Elway in overtime in the season finale and he was hooked.

“It’s a family affair now,” he said. “When they left for Oakland, it was like, 'What do we do now?' Now, I’m going to Vegas. It’s a lot closer to home.”

And Armando Vazquez, a 49-year-old deputy sheriff for Los Angeles County, said he followed the Raiders before they came to L.A. in 1982 and takes in at least one game a year in Oakland. “They could move to Hawaii and be the Hawaiian Raiders and we would not jump ship,” he said. “That’s not what a true fan does.”

Even a staple of Oakland’s Black Hole section made the trip. Yes, that was Gorilla Rilla, in full ape outfit in the heat and humidity of the day, pounding the northwest stands.

“It’s a celebration of Raider football here, where some roots were laid, brother,” he said, from beneath his mask. “Howie Long, Todd Christensen, Tim Brown. Just trying to show some respect because this is the last time we’ll be here as the Oakland Raiders. It’s special.”

Indeed, the Raiders’ move to the glitz and glamor of Las Vegas comes in 2020.

Yet the Raiders’ run in Los Angeles was marked with violence in the stands and gangs affiliating themselves with the team’s colors, thanks to seminal rap group NWA. In fact, the NFL hired a crisis P.R. firm when Raiders gear became so affiliated with gangs and rap culture.

“I don’t think they were good advertising for the Raiders at that time,” former Raiders linebacker Rod Martin said on Ice Cube’s 30 for 30, "Straight Outta L.A." “We support them liking the Raiders, being a Raider fan, but we didn’t support everything they were saying. It was just too hard-core, too hard-core for my generation.”

Images of violence in the Coliseum stands were commonplace late in the Raiders’ SoCal sojourn. Even the late Christensen once lamented fearing for his family in the crowd. So when the preseason schedule was released in April showing the Silver and Black returning to South Central, security concerns were raised.

The Rams treated the exhibition as if it were “on par with a prime-time game or big, national matchup” in terms of security deployment with the Rams, NFL and USC working with city, state and federal agencies, including the LAPD, California Highway Patrol and FBI, in addition to private security firms, said Rams spokesperson Joanna Hunter.

The Rams announced 69,037 tickets had been distributed, and while the Coliseum took on a decidedly black hue, Raiders and Rams fans partied like it was 1983, rather than fought like it was 1994 ... for the most part. A league source said the number of incidents were “on par” for an average Coliseum game for the Rams, who also played here from 1946 through 1979 and returned from St. Louis in 2016 after playing there since 1995.

Maybe it was the heat that kept the crowd composed. Or it could have been the less-than-explosive game the teams gave each other, knowing they would face each other in the season opener on ESPN’s Monday Night Football in Oakland. Both teams sat a majority of their starters, with Raiders coach Jon Gruden saying he did not want the Rams to “hear our audibles and [see] our hand signals, and I don’t think they wanted us to get a feel for them either.”

It was more checkers than chess, but Raiders fans, if they squinted hard enough, could make out Jay Schroeder in Connor Cook’s uneven play under center and see a semblance of Vince Evans in EJ Manuel keeping plays alive with his legs and in a scattershot arm.

Yes, that was a "Chuc-ky, Chuc-ky" chant that broke out after Griff Whalen’s juggling, 10-yard touchdown catch got Oakland within 16-15 with less than 10 minutes to play, and you would have thought Marinovich had just hooked up with Brown in the end zone.

The coup de grace? Chris Warren III rumbling for 110 yards on the ground and scoring a 3-yard TD with 2:42 remaining in the third quarter -- the first score by a Raiders player in the Coliseum since Alexander Wright’s 65-yard catch from Evans on Dec. 24, 1994 -- while resembling and becoming the first No. 34 to score in the Coliseum for the Raiders since ... Bo Jackson.

CDub3 knows? Not quite. Not yet.

"It reminded me a lot of the Texas-OU game in Dallas,” said Warren, an undrafted rookie from Texas. “Half the stadium is for one team and half the stadium is the other. That’s what it felt like today.

“It just felt jubilant to be out here.”

Perhaps the only mistake the Rams made in playing host -- besides introducing the Raiders to The Empire Strikes Back's Imperial March, which is a compliment to Raider Nation -- was to ask a number of times, "WHOSE HOUSE?" on the big screen with the obvious answer meant to be, "Rams house." Instead, that sing-song Raiders chant drowned things out. They should have played that dreadful, Tinseltown-centric "Silver and Black Attack" video from 1986.

Derrick Johnson, new to the Raiders after 13 years in Kansas City, turned to fellow linebacker James Cowser, amazed at the turnout of Raiders fans in a “foreign” stadium.

“Dude,” Cowser assured Johnson, “it’s like this everywhere we go.”

Said Gruden: “... If you understand the Raiders, they have a history here, a championship history here. There’s still a lot of fans that remember those teams, and rightfully so.”

Hours earlier, a plane flew over the scene towing a sign that read, "YOU ARE IN RAIDER COUNTRY!!!" And Raiders owner Mark Davis admitted to feeling a twinge of nostalgia as he roamed the sideline during pregame warm-ups.

“Especially looking at the peristyle end,” Davis said, acknowledging it was the inspiration for the open-ended portion of the under-construction stadium in Las Vegas that will reveal the Strip and house the Al Davis Torch.

The only bummer, so to speak, besides a 19-15 exhibition loss?

“We’re in the visitors’ locker room,” Davis laughed. “The visitors’ locker room.”