What's Up With Craig?
A BLOG THAT DRIFTS INTO HIGH ART,
LOW HUMOR, and RANDOM OBSERVATIONS
OF THE WRITING LIFE
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It was pure happenstance that I remembered, about a week ago, that this summer marks twenty years since I reached a professional mile marker. Twenty years! For lovers of sports, nostalgia, and big, round numbers, here we go ...
Twenty years ago, I embarked on my first—and only—season as a full-time beat writer covering a professional sports team. That team: the Oakland Raiders. My assignment: Get out in the field for a season and get to know the life of a beat writer from the inside out, as opposed to the outside in, as I'd done for many previous years. It was presented to me as a bit of a cross-training exercise, in which I'd expand my professional repertoire in preparation for bigger editorial jobs to come.
Twenty years is a long time, so you're forgiven if you don't remember that particular edition of the Oakland Raiders, who aren't even the Oakland Raiders anymore, having lit out for Las Vegas a few years back.
So here's a quick refresher: The previous year's team, the 2002-03 Raiders, went to the Super Bowl in San Diego. Where their troubled star center, Barret Robbins, went missing. Where their former coach, Jon Gruden, stood on the opposite sideline with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And where the Raiders got thoroughly trounced, 48-21.
And that's as good as it got for the Raiders, Oakland or Las Vegas, for going on 21 years now ...
But when I parachuted into training camp in Napa, Calif., in July 2003, the debacle in San Diego seemed like a blip on an upward trajectory. The smart money was on either the Raiders or the Chiefs, a division rival, representing the AFC in the Super Bowl several months in the distance.
(The Raiders finished 4-12 that season, the Chiefs a highly respectable 13-3, and the New England Patriots went to the Super Bowl and won it, so give it up, everybody, for sports prognosticators!)
In short, it was an awful season for the Raiders, who unraveled amid losses, injuries, locker room insurrections, comical ineptitude, and a little thing called the Balco steroid scandal, which landed with a particular thud on Bay Area athletes (and would come to dominate the next few years of my professional life). A few quick-hit memories, through the haze of twenty years:
I remember riding the elevator down to the locker room in Detroit, after a putrid loss to a bad Lions team (is there any other kind?). Matt Millen was the GM of the Lions then, and he was well known to the Bay Area reporters on that elevator ride, having played for the Raiders and the 49ers. Someone asked Millen how he was doing. "I just watched two teams kick each other in the nuts for four quarters," he said. A columnist from a rival paper turned to me and said, "Sometimes, they just put their tongue directly in your mouth."
I remember coach Bill Callahan, after an equally putrid loss to the Jets, calling the Raiders "the dumbest team in America." Nobody could argue, of course, but if you're a coach and you say something like that, you're not long for the job you're in. Callahan was out at the end of the season, became the head coach at Nebraska for a truly forgettable stretch, then reasserted himself as one of the finer position coaches in the NFL. Some coaches are meant for the trenches, not the big time.
I remember a comical search for beer in Pittsburgh after a game (and a loss) against the Steelers. Blue laws, man.
I remember missing the second game of the season—at home against Cincinnati, one of the Raiders' four wins—because I had tickets to see R.E.M. in Las Vegas long before I took the position as beat writer. I'd make the same decision a hundred times out of a hundred. (Alas, R.E.M. is as extant as pro football in Oakland. Time doesn't stand still.)
I remember being in the stadium in Oakland for a truly transcendent night, when the Packers' Brett Favre, awash in the grief over his father's death, had one of the best games of his career. I wrote about it for The Athletic, my former employer, if you're interested. (The story is behind a paywall, but if you have a NY Times subscription, you're golden.)
I remember being sick as a dog for the last, blessed game of the season, a loss to the Chargers in San Diego. Callahan, knowing he was cooked, benched a lot of the players who had risen up against him (including Hall of Famer Charles Woodson). Afterward, the media gaggle crowded star wide receiver Tim Brown in the locker room for his take on a season gone horribly wrong. He said, "Do you guys really want to get into it?" We crowded closer. And Tim obliged us. The man had a gift for the moment.
In the video below, I talk with The Open Mic host Rich Ehisen about, well, books, but we also gab about that Raiders season. Rich, bless him, is a Raiders fan. Hold a thought for the man.
For all those memories, what I remember most fondly is the group of reporters I worked alongside every day and traveled with to Dallas (preseason), Nashville, Denver, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, San Diego, and Pittsburgh. Working a beat is immersive and endless, and you write enough words to stock a library. From July to January, I wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 stories (I used to know the exact number). I made countless trips up and down the 880. I slept on airplanes and in transit lounges. I ate sumptuous meals—come on, a month in Napa on expense account?—and enough press box hot dogs to kill a lesser man.
And those folks from other papers and media outlets, doing the same job I was doing, scrapping out coverage, were terrific and helpful and fun. So: Phil and Cork and Gregg and Wags and Nancy and Bill (RIP) and Jerry and Janie, twenty years on, I remember all of you. It was a slog. But it was also a pleasure.
(I even came away from that gig with a nickname, one only those named above are allowed to call me: Dewey. For Dewey Oxburger, John Candy's character in Stripes. Apparently, I bear a resemblance. I dunno.)
The rest of the story ...
In January 2004, after finishing up the season, then covering the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am as the reporter who writes notebooks and sidebars (the best job), I was summoned back into the office and made a deputy sports editor. A year or so later, I moved into the big chair, as sports editor of the San Jose Mercury News.
That seems a long time ago, too, because it is. In 2006, I moved to Montana. In 2008, I began writing novels. I spend way more time thinking about payment rails and art (divergent subjects, for sure) than I do thinking about sports, nostalgia aside. Another NFL season is coming, which will gain only a sliver of my attention. It's funny how something can be so central to your life for so long, then move to the background, or out of it altogether.
Life, man. It changes. We change with it. The way it goes. The way it has to be.
Craig Lancaster is an author, an editor, a publication designer, a layabout, a largely frustrated Dallas Mavericks fan, an eater of breakfast, a dreamer of dreams, a husband, a brother, a son, an uncle. And most of all, a man who values a T-shirt.
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