LAS VEGAS — As Mark Davis lorded over the scene — assembled players, coaches and staff members scattered about the natural grass playing surface, with their ears tuned in — the Las Vegas Raiders owner took the mic.
The centerpiece of the $1.9 billion, 65,000-seat, state-of-art, domed stadium with a translucent roof loomed over his shoulder: the imposing, 95-foot Al Davis Memorial Torch, with sliding lanai doors behind it that open to the Las Vegas Strip.
It was impressive. It was also the epitome of bittersweet.
Sure, the Raiders had their long-dreamed-for palace. It’s a football oasis that not even Bugsy-Siegel-as-played-by-Warren-Beatty would dare dream about (Allegiant Stadium is less than 3 miles from the Flamingo, the real-life Siegel’s creation). But the real world intruded upon the Raiders’ first-world dream, with a havoc-wreaking pandemic that, besides the losses in lives and economic stability, cost the Raiders fans in their first season in their new home.
Davis read a prepared statement that day, Aug. 21, when the Raiders broke in their new yard with a training camp practice, calling it their field of dreams and reminding them of the legacy they were not only representing but also building and of the importance of teamwork.
“Welcome,” Davis said, “to the Death Star, where our opponents’ dreams come to die.”
Nearly three weeks later, in an interview with ESPN, Davis was reminded that the Death Stars of the Star Wars franchise was actually destroyed — not once but twice. Davis laughed.
“Yeah,” he said, “that was their Death Star. Not ours. Ours was built to sustain.”
A great kind of ‘different’
Now, it is bad form to speak ill of the dearly departed, and Raiders coach Jon Gruden was respectful of the Raiders’ most recent home, the 54-year-old Oakland Coliseum, and its constant, often losing battle with sewage issues. Hey, there was once a dead rat in the press box fountain drink dispenser.
Sure, it was a dump, but it was their dump. The home to the derisively named Mt. Davis was also the lone remaining stadium to house both NFL and MLB teams. Who can forget Randy Moss essentially refusing to run routes across the baseball dirt infield in August, September and, if the A’s went on a postseason run, October? Or routine field goal attempts becoming wild adventures with kickers slipping on the dirt? Or nasty strawberries on the arms and legs of players?
“I had guys from other teams come in and be like, ‘This is kind of, like, mediocre a little bit,'” running back Jalen Richard said.
Still, the Coliseum saw some of the most memorable moments in NFL and franchise history, from the Heidi Game to the Sea of Hands to the 1980 AFC wild-card game to the 2002 AFC title game to last year’s finale, when fans littered the Black Hole’s end zone with nachos, cookies and assorted trash in anger after a loss.
Allegiant Stadium, though?
“The bright lights, the natural grass, in a dome stadium …” Gruden raved. “It’s got everything you could imagine, and I can’t wait to share it with our fans. Like I said, people around the world, entertainers, are going to be here, and it’s going to be the hot spot, if you ask me. It’s the coolest place I’ve seen.
“[The players] were starstruck. They were really excited to see their lockers, see their nameplate. It’s a lot different than Alameda. No disrespect to the old stadium, but it’s a lot different, when we say it like that.”
Gruden’s favorite part of the Raiders’ new home is driving to it. It is across Interstate 15 from the Excalibur, Luxor and Mandalay Bay resorts.
“Seeing the beautiful casinos, seeing just this facility that we get a chance to play in,” Gruden said. “And when you walk in, you won’t believe the locker room.”
Or the field.
Davis tipped his cap to the Arizona Cardinals for the idea to slide a grass field tray into the closed-roof facility, as they do in Glendale, Arizona, (UNLV will play on an artificial turf surface when the Rebels are cleared to play).
The lanai doors with the torch and concourse? Those were inspired by the peristyle end of another of the Raiders’ former homes, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which Davis first spent time in at 3 years old, when his father was an assistant at USC. The Raiders were in L.A. from 1982 through 1994.
“It’s a bittersweet transitional year,” said Davis, who will not only stay away from home games because fans will not be in attendance but also is not sure if he will light the memorial torch for games this season. The Raiders open at home on Monday Night Football against the New Orleans Saints.
“With health issues and everything else going on in the world,” Davis said, “I’m not sure if it’s a time to be celebrating.”
Fans, who helped pay for the building courtesy of a $750 million hotel tax, might have a chance to see the inside of the stadium before next football season, as the team is hoping to use it as a polling place on election day.
‘Confluence of Raiders and Las Vegas history’
Carl Nassib is not only new to the Raiders as a free agent. The defensive end is also new to Sin City.
“Las Vegas is great. People are very nice,” he said. “I don’t know what it is about the drivers here, but I have to be like Vin Diesel in ‘The Fast and the Furious’ just to stay alive. I don’t know. It’s the craziest drivers I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
There are no tributes to Diesel here. But there is, as Davis said, “a confluence of Raiders and Las Vegas history meeting at the stadium,” which rests on the corner of the aptly named Dean Martin Drive and Al Davis Way.
That’s why there is artwork of such Vegas icons as the Rat Pack, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Evel Knievel “dressing the building,” Davis said. Included is one cross-cultural piece that has Ol’ Blue Eyes in Silver and Black, Frank Sinatra dressed up as Gruden on the sideline. Plus, in an ode to nearby Area 51, there’s a painting of an alien wearing a Raiders shirt. And no, it is not former Raiders defensive lineman Otis Sistrunk, the University of Mars’ most infamous alumnus.
The Raiders commissioned local artist Michael Godard to oversee the planning and execution of the stadium artwork.
A mural containing generations of Raiders greats such as Bo Jackson, Greg Townsend, Lester Hayes, Charles Woodson, Rod Martin, Ted Hendricks, Rich Gannon, Jim Plunkett, Jack Tatum, Howie Long, Ken Stabler, Mike Haynes, Todd Christensen, Willie Brown, Tom Flores, Gruden and Al Davis that flows together like some postmodern “Where’s Waldo” poster is especially impressive.
Then there’s the sleek look of the stadium, with black windows adorning the edifice and white, almost neon, lights circling the building. Although critics have said it looks like a giant Roomba vacuum, Richard said it mirrored a “nice limousine or a blacked-out H2 Hummer.”
“It’s just beautiful from the glass,” Richard said. “I kind of walked around before the practice today and saw the little party area, the drinks. Walked around to the club areas and stuff. There wasn’t a piece unturned. Everything was nice and finished well. I’m excited.”
Ah, yes, the clubs are on the other side of the north end zone, where couches are situated for partygoers and game attendees — and where an errant Raiders touchdown celebration might spill over.
“Foster [Moreau] and I, we … thought that would be pretty fun to spike the ball and see where it lands and go crazy over there,” fullback Alec Ingold said. “He has those huge spikes. I’m sure y’all will be able to see a few of those this year.”
Lambeau Leap, meet the Sin City Spike?
“I don’t want to hate on anything, but it’s certainly an upgrade,” Moreau said. “An upgrade definitely because we got climate control, we got a bunch of different things, and it’s beautiful in there. And all the guys loved it. The [grass] field turf is phenomenal, which is something that we’re all kind of looking forward to. It was beautiful.”
It’s a fast field, and with the Raiders having the most speed on their roster that they have had in some time, that will do just fine. Having a grass field was a must for Davis, as was establishing an identity that grows with the team’s new home. There’s a reason the seats are silver and black.
Davis has said Nevada, the Silver State, is now the Silver and Black State, complete with an imposing stadium.
It all has Davis feeling, yes, bittersweet.
“It’s pretty freaking amazing when you think about it,” Davis said. “We told Las Vegas more than four years ago, ‘Help us build it, and we’ll come.’ We’re here.”