TAMPA, FLA. — My buddy Howard is a Raiders fan, and he's always trying to get me to join him on a fall Sunday to make the Southwest flight from Burbank to Oakland to catch a home game.
I'll tag along with him sometime, although I've taken that flight dozens of times to cover games over the years, making the pilgrimage with a plane full of Raiders fans. I'm convinced that some of them would wear face paint and spiked shoulder pads if airport security would let them through.
Love them or hate them, there's an undeniable passion to Raiders fans -- and I'm not talking about the thugs and deadbeats who unfairly color the majority. That passion keeps those Southwest flights full, as Raiders fans have officially made the transition to long-suffering Raiders fans.
Eric Dickerson knows that passion. He paved his path to Canton with a spectacular career with the Los Angeles Rams, and says he'll always bleed blue and gold, but he has a real appreciation for the Raiders and their fans, even though he spent just one, nothing-special season with them in 1992.
Do the Raiders still have a footprint in L.A., despite leaving 14 years ago?
Dickerson thinks they do, even if it's a relatively small and fading one.
"As bad as the Raiders have been -- and we're talking bad, like, nasty bad -- I have to give their fans their props," he said. "I've met so many guys in Los Angeles who have said, 'Hey, I know they're sorry, but I'm a fan.' I like that."
The self-proclaimed "Team of the Decades" has become, sadly, a team of the decayed. Twenty-five years have passed since the Raiders collected their last of three Super Bowl victories -- L.A.'s only Lombardi Trophy winner -- and the Raiders have not won more than five games in any of the last six seasons. Their record over that span: 24-72.
Another friend, Derek, is an executive at Warner Bros. who grew up in Oregon and fell for the Raiders as a kid, when they beat Minnesota in Super Bowl XI. Plus, Oakland was the closest NFL city with any tradition, seeing as the Seahawks were just getting started in Seattle.
For him, the last six seasons have been one long, frustrating blur. But his attachment to the team is still there.
"Sometimes, you'll get those cracks like, 'Oh, you're a Raiders fan? That's too bad,' " he said. "But you'd hear the same thing if you were a Chargers fan 10 years ago, or a New England fan when the Patriots were bad."
Then there are those people who do a double-take when they learn that he, an upstanding member of the community, likes the Raiders.
"Even if you're a good-hearted Raiders fan, you're lumped in with the bad ones," he said.
The Raiders haven't given their fans much to cheer lately. The club has made some terrible personnel decisions in recent years, and has burned through a grab bag of coaches at an embarrassing rate. The latest, the firing of Lane Kiffin early this season, culminated with owner Al Davis holding a news conference in which he called the young coach "a flat-out liar" and said Kiffin "brought disgrace to the organization."
The rambling diatribe was a national spectacle, bolstering the argument that Davis -- certainly a pioneer of the modern NFL -- has lost it. Even some of his most ardent fans began to concede the franchise won't turn around until he steps aside. It's gotten to the point where a lot of fans don't want him doing anything more than planning the holiday party.
It's too bad the franchise has sunk so low, because Davis does have a phenomenal football mind. I got a feel for that during the five seasons I covered the team as a beat writer for the San Jose Mercury News. He often sat directly behind me in the press box on the road -- he preferred the quiet, no-cheering-allowed atmosphere -- and his observations were more astute than any TV analyst you'll ever hear.
He'd remark before the snap, for instance, that the safety was out of position by a couple of yards. And sure enough, that safety would get burned. It was almost eerie.
But Davis has made his share of bad calls too, and moving to L.A. might have been his worst. Yes, they won a Super Bowl as the L.A. Raiders, but their whole aura changed. Suddenly, when people thought Raiders, they thought gangs and fight-filled games at the L.A. Coliseum, lawsuits and places you didn't want to bring your kids.
Those memories linger like smog in the minds of many old-line NFL owners, and are part of the reason some of them are less than enthusiastic about putting a team back in the nation's second-largest market.