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Sundays with Sacco: Tales from the Black Hole

Take a photographic trip through the series history between the Broncos and the Raiders.

Every team has its share of fans who express themselves with team colors, hats, jerseys and a fair amount of face paint.

But not many go to that extra level that reaches into emotional intimidation, and there is really only one group that has earned its way to its own nickname — "The Black Hole."

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Whether the term refers just to the tunnel area from which both teams enter the playing field at the Oakland stadium or to the total environment is debatable, but either fits perfectly.

Oakland is a tough town—there is no question about that—and the Raiders historically have been an embodiment of that. But ever since Al Davis became involved in the organization, beginning in 1963 when he was the head coach, when he adopted the silver and black, his franchise prided itself on the intimidation factor.

In those early years when Davis was the coach, the Raiders had a white road uniform with white numerals outlined in silver for a couple seasons.

It was a jersey that made it hard for fans and television announcers to distinguish numbers, but it was even worse when the weekly film exchange took place and coaches had to stare and play back the film just to see which player was which.

I suspect that, rather than any sartorial statement, was the purpose behind their jersey change to black and silver, which addressed a problem the league eventually was able to eliminate by making a rule about jerseys have contrasting numerical colors.

But the fans picked up on the theme of toughness, and over the years reveled in it.

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Those fans who dress up like—well, I don't know what, perhaps a combination of movie personas out of "Mad Max" and "The Terminator"—they have become legendary over the years.

But to combat the denizens of The Black Hole, a team has to just remember its own focus.

This was expressed most accurately by Broncos Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe when he was actually spending a couple of years with the Baltimore Ravens, whom he helped lead to a world championship.

The Ravens were heading to Oakland to play the AFC Championship Game, and many Ravens fans were more than a little nervous about the atmosphere they would face. This is exactly what the home team wants, of course.

But Shannon always has a way of getting to the point in any situation.

He said, "Yeah, they have some crazy-looking people in the stands, no question. They playing? 'Cause if they're playing, and we have to go against 20 people at a time on the field, then I am concerned. But they're not playing. They're just staying in the stands making lots of noise, like fans everywhere, actually, except minus the costumes in most places."

Sharpe continued, "But on the field, it is just us versus them, eleven against eleven at all times. So what we have to do is win the eleven on eleven battles, and not worry about how many people dressed up crazy, painted their skulls and are screaming at us."

Over the course of my nearly 40 years in the National Football League I have made more visits to play the Raiders than most employees in NFL history, and over the years one actually finds that the residents of The Black Hole are a lot like you and me. Really.

I remember one year when another longtime Bronco administrator and I were talking to a couple of the crazies (I think they would be proud of that term) dressed to the hilt in the stands above the tunnel that leads to the field.

One of them was exchanging pleasantries about family, job and NFL fandom, when suddenly a camera turned his way.

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He said something like, "Hey, a camera..." and immediately put on the most menacing face toward us, maintaining that posture until the camera turned away.

By and large, it is all part of the show, and it happens in the stands, not on the field.

Of course, there is always the other fan, the one who has had too much to drink, is boorish and maybe even throws whatever he can find. This is uncalled for, should be properly handled by authorities, has no place in any stadium but sadly exists just about everywhere.

But the Raiders fans in The Black Hole mostly provide great color and add to the game's mystique. It makes for a great show; no road game against the Raiders would be the same without it.

However, it remains up to the visiting team to remember why they came and to separate the fans wearing silver and black from the players wearing the same, as the ones on the field have the greatest say in the outcome.

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