Darkness shrouded the car as my friend Mark and I made our way from Marysville, CA, past rice fields, walnut orchards, and farms onto Interstate 505 southbound. A short stop in Winters, CA, to grab some coffee and meet up with Mark’s brother and nephew, then, we continued southbound toward Interstate 80, all the while discussing Oakland Raiders players and their potential. Mark’s attitude toward the Raiders 2013 season was much like the darkness outside. He sat there driving as I tried to convince him that the new players we have are hungry and eager to compete and win. Doubt circled his mind, but he respectfully listened to me spin my yarn.
Mark is in his 50′s, and he has bore witness to the triumphant days of the Oakland Raiders. He grew up during the time of the 60′s and 70′s when the Raiders were tough, mean, nasty, and a force to be reckoned with. It’s been very hard for him to watch the past several years. Still, Mark has maintained his season tickets. He still believes that this is the year things will change for the Raiders, but sometimes it’s hard for him to see it. This trip to the Oakland Raiders training camp facility in Napa, CA, was just what the doctor ordered.
Once we found our parking spot, we realized that we were the first ones to arrive at Redwood Middle School. We walked around and found a small two foot crack in the fence. As we approached the fence, a yellow-jacketed security guard stepped in front of the crack and told us there was no entry. As Mark conversed with the security guard, I peered over her shoulder. There on the tread mill, only 40 yards away, was the Raiders great defensive back Willie Brown. I felt the excitement of a kid who just woke up on Christmas morning to a tree full of presents. This was “Old Man Willie,” a hero to me when I was growing up in the 70′s and 80′s. The man who I witnessed make spectacular plays in the secondary for the three-time Super Bowl Champion Oakland Raiders. Here he was, dressed in silver and black Raiders attire, exercising in front of my eyes. This was the closest I have ever been to Willie Brown, and my day was just beginning. I would soon find myself even closer than this.
For about an hour, it seemed that the four of us would be the only fans at training camp. Then, around 7:45 AM, the Raider Nation faithful began to trickle in. Soon there were more than 400 fans lined up waiting to gain entry onto the practice field. At 8:20 AM, we were registered and given our wristbands, free buttons, 2013 schedules, and player roster. Then, I entered the Napa training facility for the first time in my life. I briskly walked to the 50 yard line and sat in the front row of the aluminum bleachers. The remainder of the crowd shuffled in, as I watched Sebastian Janikowski, Chris Kluwe, and Marquette King walk onto the field in their red jersey’s. The kickers began to warm up their legs as the remaining players slowly trickled onto the practice fields. As the players were entering the field, I would call out their names and numbers to Mark. He laughed at me and said, “Did you even need a roster?”
Practice began with the number one offense and defense on the practice field directly in front of us. They started with a slow choreographed walk-through. It seemed monotonous to me and Mark. However, the team hadn’t warmed up yet, nor had they stretched, and this was just the beginning of their day. It would have been boring except for the fans sitting directly behind Mark and me. There were about 4 or 5 in the group directly behind us. They were older than Mark, maybe in their 60′s, and I could tell they had a vast knowledge of the Raiders old and new. After eavesdropping on their conversation, I deduced that they were native of Oakland, CA, and they were all close friends. They poked fun at each player and made the morning warm-ups humorous to say the least. Then it happened, Willie Brown walked passed me from left to right within 5 yards of my seat. The older men were saying, “That’s Mr. Brown.” Before he got too far away from me I said, “Good Morning Mr. Brown.” He stopped, only for a second or two, turned to face me and the crowd behind me and said, “Good morning.” That made my day.
Soon, practice was in full swing, and things began to move at an accelerated pace. Players began to run plays, routes, and coverage’s full speed. The excitement of the crowd was energized when Rod Streater started making acrobatic catches. Matt Flynn, Tyler Wilson, and Matt McGloin impressed the crowd with their arm strength, tight spirals, and accurate throws. The group behind me, Mark, and myself were quite surprised at how well Matt Flynn was playing. Flynn commanded the field, the offense, and he was clearly the number one quarterback.
Hitting and blocking drills began. The crowd roared with exhilaration as wide receiver Sam McGuffie destroyed both Denarius Moore and Travionte Session in a blocking drill. As the half-way point of practice was reached, Conner Vernon made a beautiful sideline catch from Tyler Wilson only to roll his ankle in the process. It was heartbreaking to see the look of pain and dismay in Vernon’s eyes as he realized the injury would keep him out of practice. It was hard to watch someone work so hard only to have his hopes dashed by the injury. Luckily, he was able to walk off the field on his own, and maybe the injury will not ruin his chances of making the 53-man roster.
As noon approached, and the end of our time there, the offense moved the ball steadily down the field with accurate throws from Matt Flynn and powerful running by Darren McFadden and Rashad Jennings. The defense swarmed to the ball and penetrated the offensive line several times. Although the safeties were not allowed to crack a receiver, it was apparent that Charles Woodson and Tyvon Branch had their opportunities to clobber a receiver. D.J. Hayden maintained blanketed coverage on any receiver he was assigned to, and we quickly realized that he is the real deal and a true number one draft pick. David Ausberry showed that he is the front-runner for the tight end position by running quick routes, showing much improved blocking skills, and his ability to snag the ball out of the air. He caught a couple touchdown passes from Matt Flynn that were thrown beautifully. McFadden punched it through the middle to score a couple of times during red-zone drills, and Streater had his own touchdown catch on a fade route thrown by Matt Flynn that had shown how good he is at touch throws. Nick Roach commanded the defense and showed his ability to break down and diagnose the offense very well. He had great coverage skills when he needed to drop back, and he shut the door on a couple of running plays. All in all, the team performed very well.
On the last play of practice, the offense lined up for a short red-zone opportunity from about the 3 yard line. Matt Flynn dropped back and rolled to his right and threw a pass in the direction of Rod Streater near the front corner of the end zone. However, Tyvon Branch quickly diagnosed what the offense was attempting, and he jumped the route for a nice interception that he took to the house. Fans cheered and clapped as Branch trotted past the bleachers holding the ball out in front of him. What a way to end practice.
We all watched as Head Coach Dennis Allen gathered the players in front of him for a pep talk. As this occurred, the chained fencing was erected in front of the bleachers. Fans jumped up from their seats and lined the fence as they knew what was next. It was player autograph time. Coach Allen released the players and the entire starting offensive line made its way toward the awaiting crowd. Along with the offensive line, Darren McFadden, Marcel Reece, Tyvon Branch, and David Bass also came to sign autographs. I was lucky enough to get signatures from Khalif Barnes, Mike Brisiel, Jared Veldheer, Stefen Wisnewski, Jason Foster, and Tony Bergstrom.
I talked to Brisiel, Wisnewski, and Bergstrom. I asked Brisiel how his injury/surgery rehabilitation was going, and he stated, “It’s slow, but it’s coming along. I hope to get better soon, I’m trying.” Brisiel’s honesty could be seen in his eyes and it could be heard in the tone of his voice. This was a man who really wanted to get better and play right guard for the Oakland Raiders. I asked Wisnewski if he was still going to be the center for the offensive line and he stated, “I hope so, I like it there. So far so good.” Wisnewski was extremely sincere in his answer. As a side note, Wisnewski was the first player to approach the crowd to sign autographs, and he was the last player to return to the locker room. He remained to sign autographs long after he had been told several times to return to the locker room. Later, I asked Bergstrom if he was going to beat out the other players at left guard and he said, “I am working hard at it, and I hope that I can win the job.” I witnessed a very special moment for Bergstrom. A Raiders staff member told Bergstrom it was time to return to the locker room, and he turned and walked away from the crowd of fans awaiting a signature. Then, a little boys voice cried out for him to return and sign his helmet. Bergstrom turned and looked at the little boy who was young and very eager. Bergstrom had a bewildered look upon his face as he reached into a box to grab a Sharpie pen. He slowly walked to the little boy and said, “I have two young children of my own and couldn’t deny this signature.” This gave me a whole new respect for the young, second year, offensive lineman.
My time with the Oakland Raiders at their Napa training facility is one that I will cherish for ages. It is a unique experience that I wish all fans could share. I only hope that I could shed some light upon what this day meant to me as a fan. Needless to say, Mark gained a whole new excitement for the 2013 season to come. He witnessed the growth that the Raiders offense displayed, and he saw a defense that had a lot of diversity. Our day concluded with lunch in Vacaville, CA, and a not so long drive home filled with exciting Raiders talk.
Topics: Chris Kluwe, Conner Vernon, David Bass, Denarius Moore, Dennis Allen, DJ Hayden, Jason Foster, Khalif Barnes, Marquette King, Matt Flynn, Matt McGloin, Mike Brisiel, Oakland Raiders, Raider Nation, Rod Streater, Sam McGuffie, Sebastian Janikowski, Stefen Wisniewski, Tony Bergstrom, Training Camp, Travionte Session, Tyler Wilson, Tyvon Branch, Willie Brown