Spike more bark than bite
You won't catch Spike throwing beer bottles at the opposition. He's too busy signing autographs and taking pictures.
OAKLAND, Calif. -- It's a few minutes past 6 in the morning. The sun has yet to rise. But inside his dimly lit garage, Mark Shadinger, a man in his 40s with thinning brown hair down to the small of his back, lifts weights.
"Broncos today, baby, Broncos," he says between reps. "Man, I hate them. The best day of my life was when John Elway gave me the finger.
"Today we raise hell. Today we turn the Black Hole into an absolute jungle. No mercy today. It's the Broncos."
Seven hours later, the Oakland Raiders are about to take the field against the Denver Broncos. Every beer-chugging, street-strutting, look-at-me-the-wrong-way-and-I-might-pop-you-in-the-mouth Raiders fan is charging toward McAfee Coliseum, eager to not miss a play.
|Raider Nation photo gallery|
As is the case for most NFL games, tailgating is a big thing in Oakland. We spent the day with Spike as he got ready for the Raiders-Broncos game.
• Photo gallery
Yet, at the very edge of the stadium parking lot, in the second-to-last row, the same man from the morning, a man they call, "Spike," a member of the Visa Hall of Fans -- an exhibit at the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- is hunched over behind his black Dodge Durango, searching for fresh air.
His chain-, spike- and skull-covered shoulder pads sit next to his feet. His stud-covered arm pads sit next to that. And his sleeveless black leather trench coat is rolled into a ball on top of it all. The sweat from the mid-afternoon sun is causing his eye black to run like wet mascara.
He doesn't care. Not now. This is his time. No fans. No pictures. No autographs. Just 10 simple minutes, before he heads into the stadium, with nothing between him and a frosty cold can of Miller Lite.
Or so he thinks.
"Spike, is that you?" a stranger calls from a few feet away. "Can my daughter get a picture?"
"Sure," he replies. "Just give me a second to get my gear back on. What's her name?"
Shadinger gets re-dressed in his silver and black death-first regalia and frowns. Click. This, apparently, is raising hell. Showing no mercy.
Posing for pictures, signing autographs, passing out football cards and Raiders pennants, carrying around children's books that teach lessons about life, recruiting fans to join the Army -- this is apparently how the Black Hole turns into an absolute jungle.
One fan at a time.
There is no group of fans more polarizing in all of sports than that of the Raiders. Over the years, the stories are endless. Urinating on fans of the opposing team. Spitting on opposing players and coaches. Throwing batteries. Screaming every mom, sister, wife and daughter insult in the book.
"We're evil. We're the devils, the degenerates," says Shadinger's younger brother Eric, who dresses as "Howie" on game days. "The Raiders, man. We're the bad guys. The misfits. I watch T.O. [Terrell Owens] run his mouth off and I think to myself, 'Keep it up buddy and the sooner you'll be out here with us.' We're the guys that nobody wants their daughters to marry."
Really? Spend a day with Spike and Howie, the tag team brothers from Sacramento, sit one row behind Wayne Mabry, another Hall of Fans member known as "Violator," and beyond the skulls, spikes and decapitated rubber head inside a Broncos helmet, you realize that their bark is a whole lot louder than their bite.
Three of the most visible Raider fans out there -- the go-to guys for photographers looking for that fan reaction shot -- are more Saturday morning cartoon characters than Friday night devil worshipers. They tell you they want Mike Shanahan on a stick. That they want someone to clothesline John Lynch. But then you find a neon green children's book in the back of the Durango, complete with a pop-up rubber football that squeaks when you squeeze it.
"Oh, that's for the kids," Spike says.
The Black Hole? It's more like a pink locker room.
How else do you explain Spike, stopping for a quick picture before heading to his seats, slipping into a mini-panic when he realizes he posed with a child while holding a beer?
"I don't like posing with people when they're holding a beer," he explains, "nevertheless holding my own beer. That doesn't look right."
|“||The reputation that people hear about this place is pretty unfair. But it's not always a bad thing for people to think we're the axis of evil. ”|
|—Eric "Howie" Shadinger|
How else do you explain Howie, spotting a pair of jersey-wearing Broncos fans in the parking lot, offering a handshake, a pat on the back and a "may the best team win" comment? And how else do you explain Violator, even when his team is down three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, accommodating yet another photo request from yet another stranger?
"The first kid you turn away will be the kid that will never forget that -- the kid that will stop cheering for the Raiders," Mabry said. "And we can't have that."
Of course not. Not in the Dungeon of Doom. Not in the incubator for all that is allegedly wrong with sports in today's society.
"You see three types of people out here," Mark says. "The good, the bad and the ugly. There's plenty of bad and certainly some ugly. We just try to bring a positive image to being a Raider fan. We want to show people that cheering for the Raiders can be a fun thing."
And still -- in part -- a Raider thing.
The day starts out like any other game-day morning drive to McAfee. As the Durango reaches the top of a hill just outside Oakland, Eric sticks out his middle finger at the San Francisco skyline. "Tradition," he says. The two brothers were raised 49ers fans, but once they reached the dark side, never looked back.
Once at the stadium, the transformation begins. Howie's outfit is nothing more than an authentic Raiders football uniform -- pads included -- with a black Raiders tie and a foam Raiders hat.
Spike's setup is a little more complex. Besides the football pants and jersey, there are the spike-, sword-, chain- and skull-covered shoulder pads, an "OAKTOWN" bandanna, a plastic Raiders helmet and arm bands covered in silver studs and bullets. On one shoulder pad, a sticker reads, "If I wanted your opinion, I'd beat it out of you."
While Howie wears gym shoes, Spike wears a pair of six-inch leather boots, covered with even more studs and chains. He built the entire costume himself from head to toe 10 years ago, when the team first returned to Oakland from Los Angeles.
"I did everything but the sewing," he said. "Being a Raiders fan, I'm not allowed to use a sewing machine. It's just not manly."
Amidst the skulls, spikes and plastic sticks of dynamite, there's one part of the uniform, though, that's anything but manly: a fanny pack. They both wear them.
"Where else am I going to carry my stuff?" Spike concedes. "A fan called me on that in Cleveland once -- it bothered me for weeks. They can yell, 'you suck' all they want. But when they point out the fanny pack, that hurts."
Once they're dressed, the onslaught begins. Walking the pregame parking lot with Spike is like going to the mall the Saturday before Christmas with Santa Claus. You can't move five feet without someone mugging you for a picture.
Each and every time, Spike obliges, contorting his face into the meanest grin possible. Smiles aren't allowed. "They show weakness," Spike says. And, of course, blow the legend of doom cover.
Kids are given football cards, stickers, pennants and plastic helmets. Mark, who works 60 hours a week as a truck driver, spends his own money on the gifts -- almost as much as the $700 he spends on his second-row obstructed view seat each season.
"You get parents who will come by and say that their kid just left for college and took the pennant we gave with him," Spike says. "There are few things that can compete with that."
As the pregame tailgates continue, Spike spends the majority of his morning working at an Army recruitment booth, posing for pictures and encouraging people to join the Armed Forces. One kid comes by wearing a black T-shirt that reads, "Welcome to Hell, Bitch."
Howie, meanwhile, is making the rounds through the parking lot. After an hour of glad-handing, he returns to the Durango, takes off his shoulder pads, changes his shirt and pours handfuls of cheap grocery-store quality cologne over his body.
"Whatever it takes to cover up the smell," he concedes.
Minutes later, he spots a pair of jersey-wearing Broncos fans. But he doesn't urinate on them, pour beer on them or toss pieces of dismembered animals at their heads. Instead, after shaking their hands, he brings one of them into a makeshift cage, then closes the door and starts shaking it with the fan inside.
The guy laughs. Smiles. And yells for his friend to take some pictures. Before long, other Broncos fans want their turn.
It is this level of runaway-chainsaw-in-a-Haunted-House terror with which the habitants of the Black Hole feed.
"The whole concept of building evil is for the next generation," Howie explains. "Those 13 years we lost in Los Angeles -- we can't get those back. But we can make sure we never lose this team again."
While Mark, 41, is single, Eric, 38, is married. His wife Michelle, who grew up a 49ers fans, is the daughter of a California state patrolman. And he's a 49ers fan.
"Before we got married, he handed me a bullet," Eric said. "And he told me, 'You ever hurt my daughter, I'll put this inside you.'"
Michelle is pregnant with the couple's second child and Eric spends much of game day parading around the stadium, telling anyone who will listen that Michelle's pregnant, he's "the man" and "Daddy did his job."
Mark is holding out judgment. He's hoping for a boy. "And if you don't name that kid Howie, I'm taking away all your Raiders gear," he says.
The brothers finally reach their seats just before kickoff. "Welcome to Hell's Kitchen," Violator says from the front row. "Bring on the body bags," Spike responds.
The seats are just off the 50-yard line, next to the tunnel where the players enter and leave the field. It's half a stadium away from the heart of the Black Hole -- the section in south end zone where the heart of Raider rebellion beats -- and you can tell. At halftime, Shanahan, Lynch, Jake Plummer -- they will all be within arm's reach of Spike, Violator and Howie. Yet when both teams leave the field, Howie and Spike stand there and applaud the Raiders.
Violator, whose wife wears a jersey that reads, "Violated," is the most vile of all. But even that is nothing extraordinary. When Norv Turner elects to punt on fourth-and-1 in the second quarter, he yells, "Where's your balls?" When the public address system plays commercials on the video board during timeouts he screams, "Shut your hole." When a nearby teenager yells to quarterback Kerry Collins that he sucks, he roars his approval. "I love it. I love it," he says. "Somebody who speaks the truth around here."
It's like showing up for "Pirates of the Caribbean" and getting "It's a Small World." The action on the field isn't much better, with the Raiders losing to Denver 31-17. When it's over, Mabry says good-bye, climbs in his hearse and heads back to his dungeon in Southern California. Howie and Spike change clothes back at the Durango, leaving the dark side and transforming back into Mark and Eric for the 90-minute drive back to Sacramento.
And just like that, the Haunted House is closed.
"The reputation that people hear about this place is pretty unfair," Eric said. "But it's not always a bad thing for people to think we're the axis of evil. We aren't exactly a bunch of angels. And that can get into an opponent's head."
It could. If only it were true.
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.