Sam Mellinger

Goodbye forever to the Oakland Coliseum: ‘The Raiders had a smell to them, too’

The familiar face will be there on the other side of the chain link fence. She always is. She wears black, of course, head to toe in Raiders gear as far as you can see. She screams.

She’s proud of her Raiders, even now that they’re ditching Oakland and the Coliseum that long ago turned into a dump. It’s a charming dump, and the dateline for some of the wildest stories in the NFL. Those stories deserve to be remembered. Like this one, about the woman in the apron.

She really is loud. She’ll grab the fence and pull it and push it and scream until you have no choice but to look over. She’s developed impeccable timing over the years, a true pro, so just when she sees enough faces the apron flies up and out pops a very, very, very large sex toy.

“A big tomahawk,” Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt said, approximating its shape.

The Chiefs will play their 43rd and final game in the old hellhole on Sunday. On account of them sharing a division with the Raiders, plus two playoff games (more on that in a minute), they’ve played there more than any other visiting team in the NFL. If they win, they will have done so more than any other opponent.

Win or lose, it will be the last NFL game played on dirt. The Raiders’ next home game is Nov. 3, and the grounds crew replaces the infield dirt with grass after baseball.

The Coliseum has gone through two iterations of the Raiders, seven names (technically, it is now RingCentral Coliseum, but come on), 321 football games, more than 4,000 baseball games, the last ever Led Zeppelin concert and more Grateful Dead shows than anywhere else on the planet.

It is the fourth-oldest stadium in the NFL, and might have more stories to tell than any of them. Some of them are directly tied to great teams and games — the Raiders have more Hall of Fame players than any team but the Bears.

Others are more about a stadium that has become one of the most colorful characters in the league — from leaky pipes to a field that smells of sewage to balloons full of urine.

The Raiders are scheduled to play their games in Las Vegas next year, next to a casino, in a $1.8 billion stadium with retractable windows facing the Strip. There will be no urine balloons, and something real will have been lost forever.

“Can’t say I’ll miss the Coliseum,” Chiefs long snapper James Winchester said. “But I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to play there.”

Middle fingers and bullet shells

The Chiefs and Raiders hate each other, always have, but more than that they love to hate each other. You probably know this if you live in Kansas City or Oakland, but you’re here already so we present a quick story from the Coliseum that encapsulates the whole thing.

The Chiefs beat the Raiders 17-7 in the AFC Championship Game after the 1969 season. It was the first time the Raiders lost a home playoff game, and it would be five years before they lost another. Even today, the Raiders have lost just three playoff games at the Coliseum.

But the win is mere setup for what Hall of Famer Len Dawson will tell you is one of the greatest moments in Chiefs history.

In those days, just one week separated the conference title games and the Super Bowl. The Raiders had beaten the Chiefs twice that season already, so the plan was to win once more, then travel directly from the Coliseum to the Super Bowl site in New Orleans.

So as the Chiefs’ bus pulled out, the players encountered a sight they wouldn’t soon forget.

“We saw them come out with their suitcases and put them in their wives’ cars,” said Jan Stenerud, the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame kicker. “Yes, I remember that very clearly.”

The Coliseum parking lot can be a bit like the Star Wars cantina scene. Fans wear helmets and face paint and spiked shoulder pads. Random hoods are pounded on, even (or perhaps especially) with drivers inside the car. Drug deals happened in broad daylight long before California legalized marijuana.

Once, a reporter from Kansas City arrived at the press box early in the second quarter. He’d come to the stadium in plenty of time but ended up having to give a statement to police about a stabbing.

You’ve probably heard about batteries being thrown from the stands — some of them D-cells. Golf balls, too. Tim Grunhard, the former Chiefs Pro Bowl center who played six times in the Coliseum, said he once was hit by a .30-06 bullet shell (at least it was thrown?).

Some players simply stop going to the bench. Better to stay near the sideline with a water bottle than hear about your mother. So many middle fingers, too, and from all shapes and ages.

Trent Green remembered a woman in her 60s or 70s who sat behind the bench and flipped off players. Grunhard remembered the same treatment from a very different set of fans.

“We can put it this way,” Grunhard said. “They weren’t going to junior high anytime soon.”

Bob Moore, then the Chiefs’ media relations man, remembered the bus passing a double-amputee in full Raiders gear one day in the 1990s. From the comfort of her wheelchair, she recognized the opposition and offered the double-bird salute.

“You know,” said Art Shell, then a Chiefs assistant and a longtime Raiders player and coach, “I don’t remember these people here when I played.”

Right. The games. The games are something else entirely.

Hell and sewage

The question came and Andy Reid had an answer right away.

What will you miss about the Coliseum?

“Well, the bathrooms flooded last year,” he said. “So I won’t miss that.”

This is how it often goes with the Coliseum. Asked for the best and worst part of playing there, two Chiefs players in separate conversations each said a version of this: Let’s start with the worst.

They play AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells as players come onto the field, and Grunhard remembers telling teammate Dave Szott: “I don’t know if this is hell, but it’s close.”

Player after player referenced the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium as the closest comparison in terms of crappy playing conditions. Cleveland took a wrecking ball to that place more than 20 years ago.

Current Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes still has not publicly said anything negative about anything, so he mentioned how cool it would be to play on the exact same field where his father once pitched. Mahomes Sr. did pitch there nine times, but it’s telling that the last time a Major League Baseball and NFL team shared a stadium was in Miami eight years ago.

Before that, it was 2003, in Philadelphia and San Diego. Mahomes turned 8 that year, and even back then the multipurpose stadium was a relic.

The Raiders and A’s have held on so long (not by choice, but still) that Mahomes will be the reigning MVP and in commercials during the broadcast of the last-ever NFL game on dirt.

We used the word “crappy” a few paragraphs earlier on purpose, by the way. The field sits below sea level, so it’s always wet, even in a drought. The moisture has a way of producing a distinct stench. The stadium has been known to have sewage backups, too, which opponents have often thought of as appropriate.

“The Raiders had a smell to them, too, that we didn’t like,” Grunhard said. “They fit their field.”

The truest thing you can say about the Coliseum is that one of the country’s first so-called cookie-cutter stadiums lasted long enough to somehow become a true original.

The Coliseum is the last building standing that an AFL team called home. In a day when stadiums are increasingly built for TV audiences and suite owners, the most famous part of the Coliseum is the south end zone section of seats known as the Black Hole.

That history will be gone soon, and it won’t ever come back.

“We’ll miss her,” Colquitt said.

(He was talking about the apron lady.)



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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.
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