OAKLAND, Calif. — They are all memories now, some for years, some for decades. Municipal Stadium in Kansas City was the first to go, in 1971, followed by Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium the next year. A grotesque baseball stadium sits where Miami’s Orange Bowl once did. The Astrodome still stands, dwarfed by Houston’s newer, gigantic football palace.
The building formerly known as Jack Murphy Stadium still is in place but its longtime tenants, the San Diego Chargers, have fled to Los Angeles. Sullivan Stadium has been replaced by Robert Kraft’s football mall in Foxborough. Shea Stadium? Gone almost a decade now. Little by little, the places where the old American Football League anchored itself in the American imagination are vanishing.
Only the Coliseum remains. That is where the final breaths take place now, before the final death rattle. A few years ago, before a Jets-Raiders playoff game, Joe Namath stood on its turf and had a good, long look around. His smile was wide, and then it wasn’t.
“Lots of memories here,” Namath said. “Not all of them so good.”
At its birth it was known as the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. At various points across the past couple decades it has been named for Network Associates, for Overstock.com, for O.co. Now, all these years later, all the corporate pirates have been laid away, and the original name has been reinstated.
The past saying hello, just as the Raiders say goodbye.
By 2019, 2020 the latest, they will be in Las Vegas. There is a small chance the Jets could be sent here before now and then, though they reside in different stratospheres within the league now, so it isn’t likely that match will happen thanks to conference parity games.
Sunday could well be the last time the Jets ever play on these grounds, which used to have a sublime view of the Oakland Hills before they were replaced by a charmless swath of grandstand — “Mount Davis” — used to lure the Raiders back here from Los Angeles. The crazed and ever-loyal Raiders fans will be there, led by Toozak and Violator and the others clad in black costumes.
“It’s a challenging place to play,” Jets head coach Todd Bowles said earlier this week, and that really only scratches the surface. The Jets are 3-11-1 at the Coliseum since Dec. 6, 1966, when Emerson Boozer took a handoff with exactly 1 minute left in the fourth quarter and scrambled 47 yards for a touchdown. When Namath found George Sauer for a two-point conversion, the Jets had salvaged a 28-28 tie in their first trek to the sparkling new coliseum.
It was their next two visits, though, that would land permanent places in the teams’ — and the AFL’s — lasting legacies.
The Jets had handed the Raiders their only AFL loss en route to the Super Bowl in October 1967, a convincing 27-13 thrashing. Two months and 10 days later, the Raiders exacted their revenge on the scoreboard and also on Namath’s face.
It was Ike Lassiter who connected with Namath, breaking his cheekbone, though that forever would be credited to Ben Davidson, a perennial Namath nemesis who did land a brutal hit on him later in the game — a game, it should be noted, Namath refused to leave. Asked about his rearranged face later on, Namath refused to give credit to his assaulters: “I had a tough steak in the pregame meal.”
For years after, Raiders boss Al Davis had an enlarged photo of the Davidson hit — which separated Namath from his helmet — mounted on the wall of the stairwell leading up to his office at the Raiders’ headquarters, not unlike a big-game hunter who displays the head of his vanquished rhinoceros on his wall.
“Just a reminder,” Davis told a visitor years later, smiling. “Of some good teams and some really good AFL football.”
Part of Namath’s legacy grew from that moment, too, as he was spotted postgame at the Jets’ hotel, the Edgewater Inn, wearing a white turtleneck shirt, French cuffs, a green blazer and gray slacks, which complemented his deep-purple jaw. Asked about his destination that night he said: “Vegas. We’re off till Tuesday.”
A year later, of course, the Jets and the Raiders would play the single-most-famous game in AFL history. The Jets took notice of the freshly-hung picture of Davidson mugging Namath and coach Weeb Ewbank went ballistic when hovering helicopters periodically interrupted a late-week practice — he was convinced the pilots were Davis spies. And Davis never denied that they were.
Jim Turner’s field goal with little over a minute gave the Jets a 32-29 lead and a few seconds later, at 7 o’clock, NBC switched from the game to its movie of the week, “Heidi.” The Raiders scored on a bomb and a kickoff fumble and won a game, 43-32, that nobody in New York saw the ending to.
Those were the high parts. That was the AFL. This is the lasting link to those days, to that league. When the Raiders leave, one more chapter of the AFL dies forever. Sunday’s game may not add another chapter to this lore but it doesn’t need to. It’s already full.
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