How I came to love the Raider Nation and sleep on planes again.
-From a 49er fan
It was early December in 2003 and I was living in Los Angeles. I would try to go up to Northern California every eight weeks or so to see my family and friends. Sometimes I’d drive, and sometimes I’d fly. If it was a Sunday and the Niners were playing, I would usually fly so I could make sure I made it to my folks’ family room in time for the 1 p.m. game. After 9/11, this became very difficult. Just like many people I know, I developed an extreme fear of flying after those attacks. I avoided airports for a quite a few months, and when I had to fly, it was VERY nerve racking. I was the nervous guy eyeballing everybody in the waiting area. It was like being addicted to "Where’s Waldo?" but Waldo was a scheming jihadist. When I got on the plane I would scan every seat, wondering who was going to blow up the plane and who the Marshall was that would hopefully save us all. After locking my seat belt and listening to the flight attendants babble on about vests (how ‘bout some instructions on kick-ass Karate moves?), I’d look around at the faces of the people in my row and give over to the fact that today, I’m dying with these total strangers. Secretly, I’d wish a pretty girl would sit next to me so I could hold her hand as the plane went down… maybe sneak a kiss. In reality, I would stay awake the entire flight waiting for someone to unleash the mayhem. I’d get up to go to the bathroom and have at least three suspects in my head by the time I got back to my seat. Before 9/11, I had no problem snoozing away on a flight, but those days were long gone and now, flying was exhausting. Especially going across the country.
So, at 8:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning in December of 2003, I arrive at the Burbank airport. I’m nervous, of course. I have a rolling piece of luggage and my old backpack. The airport is mostly deserted. Not a lot of police. Hmm…perfect for some crazy ass terrorists to creep around. I make my way to the counter and check my bag. The counter clerk asks me if I’m alright. "Yes," I say. "Why?" "You look nervous," she says. I confess, "I am nervous, I’m not a big fan of flying lately." "Oh you’ll be alright, it’s a short flight to Oakland." "Thanks," I say. I leave the counter with my backpack over my shoulder thinking, "easy for you to say lady, you’re not getting on a flight from an airport where most of the security are probably across the street having Sunday morning pancakes at McDonalds. I’ll be thinking of you, ma’am, when I’m pummeling to earth from 37,000 feet, in a cabin full of screaming, crying people, hopefully holding the hand of a that really pretty girl."
I make my way through security. It’s there that I see these two heavyset guys, wearing all black and Raider jackets, getting the extra pat down. They both have beards and look like motorcycle gang members. One has a silver bandana around his head. In my state I’m thinking, "What a perfect disguise for a terrorist. I’m watching you, Waldo, I am watching you!" I go through security, and as I’m putting my Converse on at the bench, I notice both of them walking away from the screening area toward the gates… but neither one of them has any luggage. Nothing. Red flag! The Jack Bauer in me freaks out and I’m thinking, "What the hell is going on here?! Something is up. Something is going down today! Do I turn around now? Get out of the airport? I could go rent a car, but I would be way late for the Niners game at my folks place. Two guys, no luggage! Two guys (terrorists in Raider jackets), no luggage! Shady at best." I attempt to reassure my crazy self that it must be okay because security (the ones not across the street having fluffy pancakes) spent extra time with both of them. I finish tying my shoes and slowly meander toward my gate, palms sweating and mouth dry.
As I pass Gate A, I start to hear this humming sound that gets louder and louder. It quickly turns into sounds of commotion and some yelling. I’m on edge, thinking, I should have turned around, I should have gotten the hell out of here! As I approach my gate the sound quickly escalates to deafening. And then somewhere in the thundering sound I hear some laughing. A huge raucous laugh. As I slowly approach the deli/bar area directly across from my gate, I see the two bearded Raiders fans hugging a couple of other people dressed in black. They break apart and as I come into full view of the bar area, I see the source of all the commotion, yelling, and laughing. The bar is jam-packed with Raider fans: standing, drinking, talking, yelling and eating breakfast. High-fives, fist bumps, backslaps. Packed like I’ve never seen it before. A sea of silver and black, Bloody Mary’s in hand, pints of beers, margaritas. You name it, it’s being poured. I don’t bother to enter the area because there is no room, so I simply take a seat across the way. There’s this vivacious, live energy that’s fantastic. Mesmerizing. Men, women, kids, Mexican, black, white, long hair, short hair and every walk of life, all in this bar in the Burbank airport. It completely takes me out of my world. People have on different Raider Jerseys from the past to the present: Stabler, Hayes, Plunkett, Upshaw, Long, Woodson, Allen, Gannon. People are yelling over each other, "Janikowski is going to be the best in history!!!" "Just give Vargas a couple of years and his running game is going to dominate!!" "I bet you two beers you can’t even spell Tuiasosopo!!" Everyone busting out in laughter. It’s electrifying. I’ve never seen anything like it. Soon the gate attendant comes over the PA and makes the announcement that Flight 537 from Burbank to Oakland is now beginning to board. The bar goes wild with screams and cheers of excitement. I glance down at my watch and it’s 8:50 am.
I’m one of the first on the plane because the Raider fans are busy finishing their drinks and carousing. When I sit down in my seat I ask the flight attendant, "What’s up with all the Raider fans this early in the morning?" "Oh," she says, "It’s the Raider Nation, they take the first 3 flights to Oakland and the last 3 flights back every home game. They are the diehards! It’s been that way since Davis took the team back up north from L.A." "Wow, that’s dedication," I say. "It’s love," she responds.
The fans start piling into the plane, still yelling and laughing at each other. It’s weird to see so many people get on a plane with no luggage. Nothing. 90 percent of the bins are empty when the flight attendants close them before take off. As the flight attendants give their speeches and demos I’m distracted and fascinated by the joy and enthusiasm on the plane. It is completely packed with Raider fans. I look to my right and in the window seat is a middle-aged woman with her face painted silver and black yelling to someone nine rows up. "I’ll be in the middle of The Black Hole." In between us is a tough-looking Latino guy in a Bo Jackson jersey reading a Raider program. To my left across the aisle are the two bearded guys I saw at security, laughing and comparing the best defensive lines in Raiders history. Up the aisle I see more tattoos than I’ve seen at Silver Lake street fair. Looking around the cabin, I realize I haven’t done the one thing that has consumed me in airplanes since 9/11. I’m not looking for that out of place person…Waldo. I’m not looking for a savior. I’m not scared. I feel safer than I’ve ever been. I am in the middle of the Raider Nation, NOBODY is taking this plane down! They’re tougher than Con Air. I take a huge breath, close my eyes and awaken to the wheels of our plane touching down in Oakland and the roar of some of the greatest fans in NFL football.
Joshua Farrell is the author of "The Sonoma Police Report: funny, odd tales from the wine country."