OAKLAND -- Dr. Skull Rock told me I looked cold.
The die-hard Raiders fan, clad in a top hat (with a skull on it), skeleton costume, chains (with skulls on them) and a jersey bearing that name, diagnosed me as he walked by. I was standing along the rail splitting Sections 104 and 105 of Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, trying to take in my surroundings while he was headed to the concourse.
It was halftime of the Raiders’ Christmas Eve win over the Denver Broncos, and I was in the Black Hole, one of the NFL's most notoriously rabid fan sections. Or, a place where a fan dressed as a skeleton ribbing someone who is not is perfectly normal.
This was no perfectly normal night at the Coliseum, though, as it might have been the Raiders’ final game in Oakland. Their lease with the facility ends following this season, and the city’s lawsuit against the team and the NFL over the Raiders’ 2020 move to Las Vegas means their future in the East Bay is murky at best.
The skies seemed to be aware of this, as a pregame downpour ended about an hour before kickoff. There would be no rain on this parade.
The fans in the Black Hole knew what Monday meant, too. They stood long before the first whistle, and were still standing long after.
After all, they might not be here again.
“It’s like attending a funeral,” Raiders superfan Thomas Brannon (aka Grim Raider) told me at halftime. “It’s the end of an era today.”
Monday night certainly had some of the hallmarks of a wake. There were heartfelt hugs and handshakes, as longtime fans reunited and reminisced. A mother, father and their daughter sitting a handful of rows in front of me seemed to entertain old friends every time the ball changed hands, while fellow fans -- in and out of costume -- stopped by to say hello.
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Not that everything was somber. There was still a football game to be played, after all.
The Black Hole roared when Dwayne Harris capitalized on the Broncos’ botched punt coverage for a 99-yard touchdown return -- and arguably was louder when the call was upheld after review.
The Raiders jumped out to a 17-point lead before the half was over, and beat the Broncos by two possessions. It was by no means a classic in the rivalry's rich history, but the significance of the contest as perhaps the Coliseum’s last was enough for plenty in the Black Hole.
James Godley traveled from North Carolina, and broke out his spiked (and skulled) shoulder pads, silver-and-black hard hat, and skull mask for the occasion. “Destruction” sat in the Black Hole, perhaps one last time, thanks to a fellow fan who bought him a ticket in the section.
“I made it known my last game was gonna be last week in Cincinnati,” Godley said during the third quarter. “And when the news came out about Oakland suing and [the Raiders] possibly leaving, all the fans that knew me over the years begged me to come out. I was given free seats, all that stuff, and here I am.”
Moments after I spoke with Godley, Jim Gomez tapped my shoulder and caught my attention. The 10-year season-ticket holder wanted to make clear just how special the Coliseum was to him and his wife, Diane.
“Today breaks my heart,” he said.
He became emotional while speaking about how much it meant to him sharing his Raiders fandom with his children and grandchildren, and specifically how they were able to watch games together in Oakland. They, like the group of fans sitting directly behind them, would not be happy to see the team leave for Las Vegas. That fondness made me particularly surprised that the couple commuted to home games ... from about an hour outside of Los Angeles.
What made Oakland so special?
“You feel the love no matter where you go,” Diane said.
Fans in the Black Hole wanted to feel that love one last time, and for as long as they could.
The game went final around 8:15 p.m., but the Black Hole remained in place. Linebacker Marquel Lee and safety Erik Harris leapt into the crowd. Coach Jon Gruden made a point of stopping by, as did linebacker Kyle Wilber. Quarterback Derek Carr’s lap of the stadium began in front of the Black Hole.
The Coliseum continued to celebrate, as some danced to Mac Dre on top of the dugouts. A few fans ran onto the field, but fewer managed to evade a large presence of on-field security for more than a handful of seconds. Fans eventually started to trickle out of the Black Hole once the speakers went quiet and the video board shut off at around 8:30.
A security guard asked everyone to clear out five minutes later, and a dressed-as-Santa-Claus Gorilla Rilla led the exodus. A supervisor directed traffic, while two security guards flanked him, and Raiders fans shook his hand and took selfies on their way out of the stadium.
It was genuinely heartfelt, even if the image of a Raiders fan dressed as a gorilla dressed as Jolly Old St. Nick was a bit confusing.
But after spending time in and around the Black Hole, it made all the sense in the world.