By Scott M. Johnson
There may be a few empty bar stools at Baxter’s Sports Bar in Mill Creek this evening. Jenny Hamilton, a mainstay for so many Sundays over the past six years, certainly won’t be there. Forty of her comrades will also be missing.
The Oakland Raiders are in town tonight, meaning Hamilton and the other 40 or so members of the Northwest Raiders Booster Club will be at Husky Stadium for their annual Seattle Seahawks game.
The Northwest Raiders Booster Club hasn’t missed a Seahawks home game against Oakland since the group came together in 1995. They watch most Raiders games at Baxter’s, but the highlight of their season is always the annual game when they get to see their favorite team in person.
After tonight, they’ll have to wait five more years.
The Seahawks will move to the NFC West next season, meaning tonight’s game will be the final time the Raiders will be in town for a regular-season game until 2006.
“It’s going to be real hard not having them come here,” said Hamilton, a Lake Stevens resident who grew up in the Bay Area. “It was almost like having one home game a year. We really looked forward to it.
“Now that we know (the Raiders) are not coming here anymore, we’ll just have to make plans to go down there to watch a game next season.”
The Northwest Raiders Booster Club isn’t the only group of people who will miss Raiders games. Local Seahawks fans always look forward to the annual game, which almost always sells out. (Tonight’s game fell about 2,500 tickets short of selling out, meaning television coverage will be blacked out locally.)
“It’s our biggest draw for home games,” said Chuck Arnold, the Seahawks’ director of ticket sales. “They’ve got a good following nationwide, with the whole ‘Raider Nation’ thing.”
As Seahawks rivalries go, this has been the most intense. Including preseason and playoff games, the two teams have played 53 times – the most by any Seattle opponent – and have gotten in a tussle or two along the way.
From the games at the Kingdome where local fans sported “RAIDER BUSTER” T-shirts to the Mike Holmgren-Jon Gruden battles, this rivalry has been like no other in Seahawks history.
“Right from early on, the two coaching staffs that were here a long time ago clashed,” said Seahawks assistant coach Jim Zorn, who played quarterback in Seattle from 1976-84. “For some reason, they did not like each other. As players, we sort of jumped into that too. We did not like each other. We didn’t like the way they played, and they didn’t like the way we played. It was a gang fight. It was tough.”
The quarterbacks coach isn’t supposed to show much emotion on game days, so let’s just say Zorn will be invisibly wired tonight.
“I’m not a player, so I don’t know the emotions in the locker room,” he said. “But I know I’m fired up.”
The Raiders seem to bring out that kind of fire in most opposing teams, as this rivalry is much more heated from Seattle’s viewpoint.
“Since I was a little pup, the older guys tipped me that this was the big game,” Seahawks defensive end Michael Sinclair said. “We’ve got to end it on a good note.”
The early installments of the Seahawks-Raiders rivalry included battles like Largent vs. Hayes and Nash vs. Mosebar. Then came Krieg vs. Plunkett and Bo vs. The Boz in the 1980s. The 90s have featured Steve Wisniewski vs. Cortez Kennedy; Tim Brown vs. Shawn Springs.
Anyone who even casually follows Seahawks football knows how passionate this rivalry has been.
“They’re just one of those teams,” said Seattle defensive tackle Chad Eaton, a Puyallup native who grew up a Seahawks fan. “If you’re a Raider fan, you love them. If you’re not, you hate them.”
Eaton said he gained a new perspective of the rivalry this week, as his teammates walked around the team’s Kirkland practice facility repeating the mantra: “It’s Raider Week.”
The teams will play again next year in an inter-conference game, but that will take place in Oakland. The next time the Seahawks host the Raiders, many of the current players on both teams will be out of football.
“It’s going to be different,” Seahawks cornerback Willie Williams said. “I look forward to playing against the Raiders every year.”
Seahawks players will miss it. Seattle fans will miss it. The Raider rivalry, a long time in the making, is almost a thing of the past.
“It is a wonderful rivalry and the fans will miss it,” said Mike Holmgren, who is looking for his third split against Oakland in as many seasons as the Seahawks’ head coach. “But the fans will be exposed to new great rivalries.”
That doesn’t make Jenny Hamilton and her fellow fans feel any better. But, hey, there’s always Baxter’s.