I think the one thing that will probably take [Raiders players] by surprise is the star-like quality that Gruden has and the relationship that he had with the fan base when he was here … he’ll be the most popular guy on the sideline. It won’t be Derek Carr. It won’t be Khalil Mack. It’s going to be Jon Gruden.” – Charles Woodson

SAN LEANDRO, Calif. — At 5:12 p.m. PT Friday night, with some Raiders fans having tailgated for nearly 10 hours, Jon Gruden arrived.

Gruden, 20 years after his rookie season as an NFL head coach, 16 years after he last donned the Silver and Black, threw a raucous party for Raider Nation at Ricky’s Sports Theatre and Grill, the prodigal son not only returning to the streets of Silver and Blackdom but also footing the bill for fans while whipping them into a frenzy.

Several times.

“Life is very short,” Gruden told the crowd inside the 5,000-square foot establishment, after being introduced by Raiders tribute band RaiderHed.

“Very few times in life do you get a chance to reunite with your family and your friends like we are here tonight. Now it’s time to do something with this opportunity. All of us. We’ve got to work together. Let’s have some fun. I love you guys.”

The feeling remains mutual.

***

The connection between Gruden, whose previous four-year stint in Oakland included two playoff showings with an AFC title game appearance, and Raiders fans, who had been yearning for his return since the late Al Davis traded him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002, is palpable.

Fans arrived in Ricky’s parking lot at 7 a.m., said the establishment’s owner, Tina Ricardo. The doors did not open until 4 p.m.

“He’s like Elvis,” she said of Gruden. “He’s Elvis to them. They want to touch him, feel him, be around him.”

There was no cover charge for the event, which included live and DJ music, and Gruden paid for dinner (either a hamburger, a chicken sandwich or a shredded pork sandwich with a huge corn on the cob and a nonalcoholic drink) for every fan who came. It was a mashup of a college football pep rally, a family reunion and a backyard BBQ.

Yes, the smell from a grill can spark up nostalgia.

“The fans, the support, it’s all about Raider Nation,” said fan Keegan Matthewson, who was attending from nearby Vallejo.

When Gruden arrived he was ushered into a VIP room awash in Raiders alumni. He blew through like a silver-and-black-clad tempest, exchanging hugs and handshakes with Cliff Branch, Lester Hayes, George Atkinson, Mervyn Fernandez, Art Thoms, Raymond Chester, Jerry Robinson, Art Thomas, Charlie Smith and Kenny Shedd.

“Let’s get this party started, man,” Gruden growled as he entered the fray outside, a pseudo-amphitheater set up in the parking lot, the crowd chanting “Chu-cky, Chu-cky, Chu-cky,” while he took the stage next to his son Mike, the event’s DJ.

Outside in the heat, Gruden exhorted the crowd in a sing-song “Rai-ders, Rai-ders, Rai-ders” chant and then turned his phone on the fans, recording them so he could show to the team.

“There’s nobody like you,” Gruden told the gathering. “It’s great to be back, man.”

And while Gruden did not make any specific promises — the alumni did that for him — he did give a scouting report of his team, calling Carr “one hell of a quarterback,” saying the Raiders’ interior offensive line was “as good as there is in football,” rallying the crowd by saying, “Just to make the Kansas City Chiefs real mad, we signed Derrick Johnson” and insisting the Raiders would “find a way” to retain All-Pro edge rusher Khalil Mack, who held out of mandatory minicamp in June.

Then Gruden turned the mic over to Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, who said, “We’re going to do everything we can to give y’all what y’all want.”

Um, a Super Bowl title?

Yeah, Branch said Gruden would deliver a Lombardi Trophy to Oakland in the next “two years,” and Hayes, in his deep baritone and Southern Baptist preacher-like cadence, advised the congregation to, “Thank Jesus for Mark Davis, because he hired coach Gruden.”

When Gruden, drenched in sweat, left the stage for the sanctity of air conditioning and the VIP room, it took a while for him to get there. He signed autographs — footballs, helmets, pictures and Chucky dolls? Check. Painting of himself next to Chucky? Done. He took numerous selfies with the adoring throng before being ushered off by team security.

He would later make more rounds with the crowd, tossing T-shirts to patrons, joining the band on its stage and, yes, even introducing team owner Davis to the crowd.

The gathered fans enjoyed every bit of it, even when Gruden introduced Davis on stage.

And yet …

There was a tinge of bittersweet in the air. As exciting as the rally was, the fact the team is leaving the Bay Area for Las Vegas in 2020 hung over everything.

“I’m heart-broken, like my mom and dad split up and I’m stuck in the middle,” said Raiders fan character Gorilla Rilla. “We’re the kid between the owner and business. My heart was broken, but I’ve got to keep moving. I’m still a Raider fan, and I’ll be pounding my chest to the beat of the Silver and Black, baby.”

It was a small sample size, but every fan ESPN spoke to insisted they would continue to follow the team after the move, some saying they had already purchased their PSLs and season tickets for the under-construction stadium south of the Vegas Strip.

“It’s an unusual combination,” said fan Mike Villa Jr., in town from southern Nevada. “I am Raider Nation and a Las Vegas native. After the Golden Knights, what they’ve done, it’s a simmering boil — everyone’s excited. Raider Nation, we’re global, so it’s a worldwide thing. The desert and the Bay, we’re related. At the end of the day, we’re all Raiders.

“I had to be here at Ricky’s. If you’re a Raider fan, you have to be here. It’s a must.”

Indeed, Ricky’s, once voted the No. 2 sports bar in the country by Sports Illustrated, is a mecca for Raiders fans with its shrine-like ambience and museum feel, with so much team memorabilia and photos, even one of President John Kennedy getting a Raiders cap in 1963, adorning every nook and cranny of the establishment, which originally opened in this location on Oct. 19, 1962, and now has more than 100 TVs.

Before DVRs and even home VCRs, Ricky Ricardo Jr., Tina’s husband, would record Raiders game on his then-state-of-the-art equipment and send the tapes to Carol Davis, Al Davis’ wife and Mark’s mother.

Otis Sistrunk and Dave Dalby were regulars at the bar, and many team members showed up a week after the Raiders’ Super Bowl XI triumph over the Minnesota Vikings to watch Ricardo’s tape of the game, with a beverage or three.

Now, you can order an Al Davis Burger, topped, of course, with NY deli pastrami and cheddar, a Freddy Biletnikoff Big Sausage, a Phil Villapiano Spaghetti Bowl, Ken “The Snake” Stabler’s steak sandwich, Rod Martin’s baby back ribs, or a Jim Plunkett Deluxe BLT.

You can sit in a booth famously reserved for years for the late Davis, or take a picture next to the director’s chair with Gruden’s name adorned on the back.

Or, if you’re feeling especially daring and, ahem, forward-thinking, you can even have a loved one sprinkle your ashes into Ricky’s parking lot garden (without the restaurant’s prior knowledge, of course). At least three Raiders fans have already had this done over the years.

Though he’d seen it all, this event brought a spark to the eyes of Ricky Ricardo, who was rocking his Gruden 317 jersey (the digits signify the time the early-rising Gruden gets up every morning, as in 3:17 a.m.).

Ricardo was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in January.

“He’s lovely,” Tina Ricardo said of Gruden. “I know he did that just because he could help out. He’s the real deal. He’s not going to bulls— you. He went in the back and took pictures with every single cook.”

And Ricky?

“He liked it a lot,” Tina said softly. “He had tears in his eyes by the end of the night. It gave him a good shot in the arm.”

***

The Raiders rookies report to Napa today, veterans on Thursday and the first training camp practice of Chucky 2.0 is Friday. The event at Ricky’s was a nod to the past, with a strong look to the future.

“It was important to reunite with the Raider fans, get in the right frame of mind before training camp starts,” Gruden told ESPN.

“I have a lot of responsibility here. I consider this a very important time in my life. And you see the legends that are here today — Lester Hayes, Cliff Branch — it’s up to us to try to establish our own tradition, and we have a lot of work to do, but it sure helps when you have support.”

And as singularly focused as Gruden is, he is not oblivious to the coming move to Las Vegas.

“We’ve got to be honest about our future,” he said. “We know what our future is, but we have two seasons left to give these [Oakland] fans what they deserve, and I’m not promising wins or championships or anything, but I do think our team should promise them extreme effort and passion when they step on the field. I think we can prove that shortly.”

Gruden spent about 2 ½ hours hosting 570 of his closest friends, family and fans and, as more than one reporter noted, if you were there and did not get a picture with or an autograph from Gruden, you simply didn’t try hard enough.

And for a brief second on this evening, Gruden wielded a huge butcher knife, looking just like the demonic doll that has become his namesake, and cut a cake made in his honor and with his snarling visage on it before serving it in the VIP room.

It read: Welcome Back, Coach … Once a Raider, Always a Raider.



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