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A journey into New York City’s Black Hole of Raiders fans

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Fan passion transcends geographic boundaries.

Past the car dealerships, past Paco’s Tequila Bar, past the hundreds of trophies on display at Rhythm Central Dance and Fitness Center, past Advance Lock & Key (Sandy’s Gone. We’re Not!) and the Tanning Loft -- that’s where you’ll find the Staten Island headquarters of the Oakland Raiders’ New York City fan club, where few of the fans have ever been to Oakland and where all of the fans think leaving Oakland would be a disaster.

The meetings are hard to miss. An SUV with the Raiders shield on its hood sits parked in front of the club’s bar headquarters, a Raiders flag hanging from each window. Above it is a New York City street sign -- "THE BLACK HOLE NYC" -- installed by one of the chapter’s members, a Department of Transportation employee. Outside the front door, two women in silver and black hug one another: How are you, sweetie?

Inside, they roar: ONE, TWO, THREE, TOUCHDOWN!

A year ago, I wrote about my attempt to join Raider Nation. I had moved back to the Bay Area after the better part of a decade away, and with my football allegiance undeclared, decided to throw my hat in with the Bay Area’s uglier, meaner, worse team in a historically bad season. The Raiders went 3–13, a whole calendar year stretching between their final win of 2013 and their first of 2014. When the article was reprinted this autumn, an email landed in my inbox.

"Good evening Ms. McNear," it began. "My name is J.T., I am the president of the NYC Black Hole Chapter."

J.T. wrote to invite me to join New York City’s Black Hole Chapter to watch a game. Come out to Staten Island sometime, he said.

"Obviously you can bring anyone you want (just have them wear black) lol," he wrote.

* * *

The Black Hole, of course, is Raider Nation’s diehards. When you think of Raiders fans, these are the ones you imagine: dressed in black and caked in silver face paint, with spikes and chains fastened to every available surface. They rule a section of seats behind the O.co Coliseum’s southern end zone, twirling plastic battle-axes and howling at the opposing team as they crush cans on foreheads and body-slam one another for sport. Just win, baby, or else.

Since 2010, the New York City Black Hole Chapter has met on Sundays in Staten Island, 2,552 miles from the Coliseum’s entry gates. The group was co-founded by J.T. Tragares, a Staten Island native, and his father, Chris. Chris Tragares grew up in Brooklyn, and after he saw the Raiders play the Jets at Shea Stadium in 1969, he knew it was the team for him.

"I met my husband and he said, ‘If this is going to work, you’re going to have to change over,’" said Irene Tragares, J.T.’s mother, who grew up a Kansas City Chiefs fan. "I thought Len Dawson was cute, but I thought my husband was cuter."

J.T. inherited Raiders fandom as a badge of ancestral pride.

For years, J.T. has been going to Oakland every year for the home opener. Six years ago, while he was there with his dad and brother, he met some members of the Black Hole. You know, one said to him, we don’t have anyone doing anything out in New York yet.

Since then, the New York City Black Hole Chapter has convened at a bar in Great Kills, Staten Island, draping the walls in Raiders flags and tuning a half-dozen TVs to the game, every game -- whoever they play, however bad their record. Dozens of people pour in, some 40 or more on a typical Sunday: men, women, children, grandparents, most of whom have been coming for years.

All of them, naturally, are wearing black: the littler ones in jerseys that read Carr and Mack; the older members in Plunkett and Stabler and Villapiano. A couple years ago, the bar changed ownership and the new owners tried to get the Staten Island Black Hole to keep it down, or at least to close the door of the room they watch games in, but that was never going to work. How else could they draw people in, welcome them to the Nation? The door stays open.

On a Sunday in November, long tables were piled with plates of cookies, platters of homemade sausage and peppers, visors signed by former players, hand-painted helmets and old Raiders Starting Lineup figurines. It was a particularly busy day for the Staten Island club: they were hosting the Jersey Shore Raiders Booster Club and another group of Raiders fans from Pennsylvania, bringing their number to well over 100.

The Jersey Shore group is an official Raiders booster club, one of 56 around the world: everywhere from Tyndall, S.D., to Davie, Fla., to Liverpool, England.

The booster clubs, which have names like "D.F.W. Raiders 4 Life" and "One Nation Commitment to the Silver & Black," pay dues to the team, authorizing them to use the team logo, and are required to do charity work. For now, the New York City Black Hole Chapter is unofficial -- but J.T. is looking to get team recognition soon.

On the walls hung the chapter’s logo: the Statue of Liberty recast as a smirking skull with an eye patch.

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Here is a fact about Raiders fandom: if you wear anything with the Raiders logo on it, you will be stopped by strangers. It doesn’t matter if you’re on Telegraph Avenue or in Chicago or Charlotte or Great Kills: if you wear the shield in public, people will come up to you and say, "Oaktown." They will say Davis, AC/DC, Raider Nation, baby. They don’t want to talk, really -- they just want to say the name, Raiders. They want to draw out every letter: Rrrraaaaaiiiiiidddddeeeeerrrrrssss.

"You go to a Raider game, you wear that silver and black -- whether you just met them or you’ve known them all your life, it’s your family," said Chris Jurgeleit, the Staten Island club's 39-year-old sergeant-at-arms. "You’re in. That’s it. We got your back, you got our back. Whatever you need, Raider Nation’s there for you no matter what."

"No other team in the NFL has that camaraderie the way we do," said Jurgeleit, whose 7-year-old son Niko paced back and forth under a projector screen, holding his head in dismay when Derek Carr threw an incomplete pass. "It’s just a beautiful thing, and that’s why my kids are Raider fans. I started them young, and they’ll pass it on from generation to generation."

* * *

It would be reasonable to think that these people -- a continent away from the crumbling old stadium, from the bursting sewage pipes and the leaky ceilings and the many people trying their damnedest to get the team out of there -- wouldn’t care much if the Raiders moved out of Oakland. That, of course, is what a lot of people involved with the team and with the NFL want them to do: go back to Los Angeles, the team’s home from 1982-94.

The Coliseum is nearing the end of its austere, concrete life, and if Oakland won’t pay to build the Raiders a new stadium, why not L.A.? Poor, woebegone Oakland, always second fiddle to San Francisco -- why not head south again to where the team still has many fans, and let a new city -- a bigger market -- have a crack at it?

"What’s going to happen is if they move to L.A., everybody’s going to get priced out," said Tony "Enz" Benevento, 37, the Black Hole chapter’s vice president, who has the Raiders pirate tattooed on his left fist. On his right is the Yankees logo. "It’s the same thing that happened with the Yankees. Yankee Stadium moved across the street, and regular fans could barely afford to go to a game. Same thing will happen to the Raiders if they move to LA."

"Stay in Oakland where you belong," he said. "They belong in Oakland. They belong in Oakland. Oakland’s working-class."

"The real fans would not be able to sit front row behind the end zone," said J.T. of a new stadium in L.A. "Those tickets would be gone. Those are going to be P.S.L. seats. They won’t be able to afford even the parking."

And yet: J.T. and his vice president were two of the only people present who had ever been to the O.co Coliseum. Many of the attendees, in fact -- including almost all of the 103-person Jersey Shore booster club -- had never been to Oakland at all.

"I get questioned a lot," said Terri Russell, 46, the president of the Jersey Shore club and a resident of Brick, N.J. "‘You live in New Jersey! You should be rooting for the Giants or the Jets!’ And I’m like, well, they call themselves the New York Giants and the New York Jets, but they play in Jersey. And I pay taxes in Jersey. Change your name, maybe I’ll like you!"

"But I’ll never jump ship from my Raiders," she said.

Russell hasn’t made her pilgrimage yet: like many of her club’s members, she’s still making plans to go to the Coliseum. And when she goes, she won’t sit just anywhere: she’ll be in the Black Hole right next to Gorilla Rilla, one of the section’s more famous -- and more hairy -- residents.

"I want to go and I want to sit in the Black Hole," agreed Tina Rosado, 43, a Staten Island member. "I want to paint my face. I want to do all the crazy sh*t."

"I will die an Oakland fan," said Rosado, pulling up a pant leg to reveal a tattoo of the Raiders shield with Donald Duck in the center.

"Mine is planned!" exclaimed Russell on seeing Rosado’s work, explaining how she’s going to get a tattoo of a Raiders-style Mickey Mouse wearing a Jersey Shore Raiders Booster Club hat.

"I’m getting Raider Mickey," said Russell. "I don’t care what anybody thinks about it."

One fan told of how when his nephew, a dedicated Raiders fan, passed away a few years ago, the family asked the team for permission to use the Raiders logo on his tombstone. They'd heard a story about a guy whose family put up a San Francisco 49ers marker on a loved one's grave, only to have it ripped out when the team got wind of the unauthorized usage. But the Raiders didn't just grant approval. They paid for the tombstone themselves, a huge, carved memorial with a bench so the family could be comfortable when they visited.

Others have stories -- so many stories -- of being invited to go on the field, of being welcomed into box seats, of running into players and executives in hotels and airports and finding they were so nice, so humble, so generous. On their phones they carry pictures: them and Derek Carr, them and Mark Davis, them and the roster of retired players -- Phil Villapiano, Otis Sistrunk, Ray Guy, Tim Johnson -- who've dropped by their watch parties over the years.

"When you’re out in Oakland, it’s really a family atmosphere," said Irene Tragares. "They want you to give them your suggestions, and they open up to you. Not many clubs would do that."

Once a year, the New York City Black Hole Chapter travels to see the Raiders play -- this year, to the Bears game in Chicago. Another year during a bye week, the club held a tattoo party so some of the guys could get Raiders tattoos -- not that many of them were missing them to start with. ("No. 34?" J.T. said approvingly, pointing across the room to a man in a Bo Jackson jersey. "His whole arm is Raiders stuff.") When the Raiders aren’t playing, the club organizes other events: pumpkin picking, wine tastings, polar bear plunges on Super Bowl Sunday.

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It was a dismal Sunday for the Raiders, an 18–13 loss to the Detroit Lions. But you’d never know it from the crowd. When the Raiders did anything positive -- a field goal, a sack of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, hell, even a halfway decent pass -- the room erupted in cheers. Periodically, someone would shout, "OAKLAND!" and the whole room would answer: Ooooaklaaaand.

In a room full of people with perhaps a dozen BART rides between them, everyone had a story of how they got into the team.

"I hear a lot of people say that they like the colors," said Russell. "They like the skull thing. I know so many people who are into skulls. And our logo isn’t even really a skull. More like a pirate."

"But," she added, "I like pirates too."

"I’m from New York," said Tina Rosado. "My parents were Giants fans. But for me, it was because of Howie Long. I love him. I think he’s the hottest of hot. I was like, ‘Oh, he’s hot! What team is he on?’ That’s how I really started. Like, alright: the Raiders, wearing black, known for being aggressive and mean. That’s what drew me in. And then that’s it."

Rosado has a Howie Long autograph, a gift from a family friend who met him a few years ago. It's an 8x10 of the defensive end in a suit, and on it he wrote: "To Tina, All my love." She cried.

"I keep it hanging in my collectible room," she said.

"I get a lot of people who are into them because of the old players," said Russell. "It’s hard to explain if you’re not a Raider fan, but it’s more the camaraderie. We’re more of a family."

She hasn’t been to see them at home -- not yet. And still, she’s certain. "They’re the Oakland Raiders!" said Russell. "They belong in Oakland."