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The Raider Nation Perspective is a series showcasing contributions from Raider fans. Our Raider Nation perspective today comes from Mike Cordaro and gives us a glimps into the Raiders of years past. Share the Raider love & follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeCordaro1).
Whatever hijinks the Las Vegas Raiders partake in during summer training camp this year, it can never compare to the fun and frivolity of the infamous, self-proclaimed, ‘Santa Rosa Five.’
Santa Rosa was the small California city where the Oakland Raiders held pre-season practice in the 1960s and 70s. Ken Stabler penned an eponymous book called simply “Snake” and if not quite football’s version of “Ball Four”, it was an eye-opener for fans eager to know how their heroes prepared for the rigors of the long NFL season.
Stabler and his roommates, Fred Biletnikoff, Dan Conners, Tony Cline, and Pete Banaszak comprised the ‘Santa Rosa Five.’ Besides the typical late-night activities, the players were known for many unusual pranks in an attempt to break up the monotony of a 6-week, two a day practice schedule.
Players seemed to want to one-up each other in their introduction to coach John Madden and the Raiders. John Matuszak came out of the locker late for his first team workout, running full speed and screaming like a banshee at the top of his lungs.
At that moment, Al Davis asked Ted Hendricks if he had made a mistake bringing the Tooz into camp. Hendricks shrugged and simply said, “Al, what difference will one more make?”
Hendricks himself had made a memorable introduction to his teammates in 1975, riding over a hill and onto the practice field atop a galloping horse while wearing his uniform and a World War 1 style helmet adorned with Raider decals.
The good old boys on the Raiders used to love to get a rise out of coach Madden. They called him ‘Pinky’ for the way his face would become flush with anger. But Madden knew that he was riding a team of stallions, in the case of Hendricks, literally a stallion, and he needed to let them blow off steam in order to keep their competitive edge.
This was the underrated genius of Madden, more than X’s and O’s, knowing the room, and realizing that the boredom of endless meetings and exhausting practices in the summer heat required a release of the tension, even if the boss himself was occasionally the butt of the joke.
Right guard George Buehler was a mechanically inclined fellow who would often pass the time building little gadgets, toy models, and airplanes being his favorites. After Dave Casper destroyed his flying mini-plane one year in Santa Rosa because it had flown too close for Casper’s comfort, he came up with a seemingly indestructible gizmo, an army tank, armored to the hilt and ready for whatever might come its way.
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Stabler, a notorious prankster in his own right, would always bring firecrackers to camp and use them to keep people on their toes. Naturally, Snake caught sight of Beuhler’s tank and a plan was hatched. Stabler meticulously attached several low-grade fireworks, made for sound, not necessarily mayhem, to the tank.
The players then devised an elaborate fuse and, using Buehler’s remote control tank, sent it in the direction of Madden’s office. With the timing of the fuse set just right, the tank exploded in sound and fury just as it entered the coach’s office, sending him bellowing into the hallway looking for the culprits.
Stabler and Buehler simply smiled, Madden knew that he was had, and rather than mete out punishment, he resorted to wearing earplugs when he knew certain individuals were in the vicinity.
Linebacker Phil Villapiano was the unofficial emcee of Raider camp, organizing all sorts of games and activities at night to keep everyone razor-sharp for the next day’s practice.
The most anticipated was the camp-ending air hockey tournament, held at a local bar in Santa Rosa. The players would all ante up and split into two-man teams and have a real go at it. Gene Upshaw, Hendricks, Villapiano and others would participate, and the only rule was you had to be drunk to be allowed into the game.
One year Villapiano was determined to take the crown and in the finals of the annual foray, he and a teammate were matched up against Hendricks and his partner. In a spirited contest, Phil’s team came out victorious after making some spectacular saves at their end of the table, much to the consternation of the ‘Mad Stork.’
Ted, not being satisfied with the result of the last game, went back to the table after paying off the winners, and only then did he realize that Phil had put a thin piece of clear plastic tape over his goal, making it virtually impossible for the opposing team to score. This gave rise to Upshaw’s famous mantra, ‘if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying!’
Coach Jon Gruden may have had a difficult time keeping up with that cast of characters, but hopefully, his first season in the desert will yield as many wins as the Raiders of yore racked up after the ‘Santa Rosa Five’ got down to business in Oakland.