OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Their reputation is notorious, these NFL versions of hooligans, the action on the field often a sidelight to more vicious violence in the stands.
Some of them are downright scary looking, dressed in black, covered with piercings, neck and face tattoos, scowls straight off a mug shot.
But as a buddy and I waded into the depths of Oakland Coliseum’s Black Hole, a sense of camaraderie, not fear enveloped us.
“I feel comfortable here,” I said.
“These are our people,” Peter Elorduy responded.
He nailed it.
As kids, Elorduy and I rode to Raiders games with our dads to watch the Snake, the Ghost and the Mad Stork. We reconnected when Kenny Stabler died and decided to take in a game in case the Raiders do in fact move to Los Angeles.
The Black Hole was the only option.
The south end zone sections of Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum are known to have some of the rowdiest fans in American sports, face painters who dress up in evil costumes, often with spike-covered shoulder pads. They are known for hurling vitriol, sometimes other things.
Friends joked to be safe. We weren’t laughing; stabbings and beatings took place down there back in the day.
Black Hole hospitality first hit in the parking lot for the Sept. 20 game against the Baltimore Ravens. That’s where a guy in a Ravens jersey made the dubious decision to walk through a narrow tailgating alley, about a half-dozen rough-looking dudes pointing fingers in his face, shouting things unfit for print as he walked.
Inside the stadium, it felt like walking into a bug zapper. Walking through claustrophobia-inducing concourses had a mosh-pit feel, adrenaline building with each shoulder bump.
Shouts of “Rayyy-derrrs!” echoed out, answered in the distance, a football version of Marco Polo.
The Black Hole’s energy sucked us in walking to our seats. The true Black Hole is in the lower half of the section and we sat in the back row — good view, easy escape if things got ugly.
An Al Davis lookalike walked by, complete with the white sweat suit, square-rimmed glasses and gaudy jewelry. Raider Juice, the Black Hole version of Beetlejuice, sported a black-and-white striped suit and an every-direction white wig.
Another face painter added skulls dangling from hooks to his spiked shoulder pads, with the strange addition of a beret. One guy had a silver-and-black luchador mask, though I imagined his head looked like a raisin after being in the hot sun all day.
Ravens kicker Justin Tucker missed on a practice field goal in warm-ups, firing up the Black Hole venom. AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” blared for the first of at least a dozen times during introductions.
The crowd still buzzing, Oakland’s Amari Cooper broke off toward us for a long touchdown. Black Hole fans jumped up as if they had been chosen for The Price is Right, high-fiving anyone within reach.
Pandemonium followed when the Ravens lost a fumble on their first play, firing up the high-five windmills again.
A field goal made it 10-0 in the opening 4 minutes. It felt like the Black Hole fans were ready to charge the field right then.
But as the game progressed, it became apparent that Oakland’s defense could not stop the Ravens.
The Raider version of “We’re No. 1” began to wave throughout the Black Hole.
No matter how bad it got, though, the fans kept their cool — at least toward each other. Could have been the heat. Possibly because it might be the team’s last season in Oakland. Maybe the brawlers had the day off.
Whatever it was, the civility was a little surprising.
The Raiders’ offense keeping them in the game helped; none of us expected that after their opening debacle against Cincinnati.
But with Oakland leading 30-20 after three quarters, a familiar pall fell over the Black Hole.
The Ravens kicked a field goal, tied the game on a touchdown.
“We’ve seen this script before,” I leaned over and told Elorduy.
Yep. Derek Carr threw an interception, the Ravens kicked a field goal to take the lead.
Raiders fans have been beaten down over the years — this is a team that once lost because its long snapper was hurt — and we all knew there was no way they would march for a tying field goal, much less a winning touchdown.
A big play followed. Then another.
The Black Hole became frenzied, yet there still was the feeling a chicken would run onto the field and scare the Raiders into a fumble. “Just Find a Way to Lose, Baby” had become the team’s unofficial catchphrase over the years, so it was hard to blame us.
Then it happened. Receiver Seth Roberts caught a short pass over the middle and fell into the end zone.
The Black Hole pulsated. Arms flew in the air. Wild high fives followed, some off the mark in the rush of excitement.
There were even, gulp, hugs in the Hole.
Elorduy and I bailed quickly, racing to beat the crowd. Adrenaline surged as we slapped hands with fans, security guards — anyone who put a hand up.
Walking along an overpass to the BART station, a fan on the platform hung over the rail and let out a bellow: “Rayyy-derrrs!”
Of course someone answered.