Oakland Raiders: How Bo Jackson Turned a Canadian Into Raider Fan!
Justin Smith – Jul 12, 2012
Growing up in Canada, my sporting life was defined from a young age. Hockey Night in Canada, the rink, vulcanized rubber, canteen swamp water and the smell of Freon in an enclosed space all combined to infuse my Canadian blood with a love of hockey from day one.
My brother and step-brother were both excellent hockey players, all-stars from an early age. My dad was a coach in the mould of Torts, in that he felt everything that ever happened on the ice ever was an injustice to his team and didn’t hesitate to voice that opinion to the refs, crowd, and various parking lot stragglers after the game.
I, however, couldn’t skate to save my life. I know hockey still lags far behind baseball, football, basketball, tether ball, red rover, and numerous other sports in the American pantheon; but trust me, if you can’t skate, you can’t play hockey. So at a young age I had to redefine my sports identity as the sport I loved cruelly didn’t love me back – an unfortunate theme that carried over into my dating life later on – and in Canada in the mid 1980’s there weren’t a lot of options.
NFL football was a novelty that was shown on Monday nights and during the Super Bowl. That was it. No Sunday Ticket; no NFL Red Zone. No Internet. One game a week. That’s all. Suffice it to say, the NFL’s popularity in the 1980’s didn’t approach the outer stratosphere of where it is at now, and living in Eastern Ontario, the Buffalo Bills were the closest thing to a home team and a few years away from their epic run of four straight Super Bowl losses.
The NFL was about as popular in my hometown as hockey was across the United States.
At the same time this was happening - around 1986 - I had a burst of genetics that rounded me from a lithe, thin, lighting-quick waterbug type into a slow, plodding, chubby kid that still loved sports but suddenly found himself far less able to play them well with all the extra fat I’d acquired and constantly saddened by that fact.
What does a short, chubby Canadian kid who can’t skate but loves sports do? I turned to baseball. It was that choice, basically thrust upon me by my lack of hockey skill and body type that led me to one of my most satisfying relationships: my love of the Raiders.
How, you may ask, does a kid living in Eastern Ontario between Montreal and Toronto end up liking a team as far removed - literally - as the Raiders? After all, as of today according to Google Maps it is 2784 miles from my house to Oakland; just slightly less to LA. So not exactly a “local” team.
And what does baseball have to do with any of this anyway? If you haven’t already figured it out by the timeframe, sport, and team, I can sum it up in three words – Vincent BO Jackson. But it wasn’t until 1989, when I was 12, that I truly fell in love. That’s when I started playing baseball; and that’s when I truly appreciated Bo.
Like any other young kid at the time who loved baseball, I was absolutely taken with Bo Jackson. The speed, the power, the intensity, the bat snappage; the guy was a beast that was the epitome of fun to watch on the field.
Around this time my older brother was in high school and getting better at football. You see, in my hometown football wasn’t available at all until you went into freshman year – or what we call Grade 9. At that point most kids had no idea about NFL rules and were thrown full force into the fire from their first practice. My brother loved it. He started pushing me to get into football; but at 12 years old I was still two years away from being able to play and had little interest in the game.
Until I realized my sporting idol, Bo, also played football. The fact that he played both sports at the same time was just too much for a young kid, and I began reading, watching, and absorbing anything I could about my sports idol.
Naturally that meant absorbing the Raiders and Raider Nation. At the time, as a young 12 year old living in a place where football was an afterthought and cheering for a team 3000 miles away, it was exceedingly difficult to obtain anything Raider-related here in my hometown. What was fantastic, though, was that my older brother loved the Denver Broncos. So my love of Bo Jackson combined with a sibling-level hatred of everything my brother holds dear made the Denver Broncos and John Elway’s teeth easily the most hated sporting entities I’d seen to date.
That still holds dear today. Elway's teeth holds a slight lead over the overall franchise.
Around this time N.W.A was gaining notoriety in the hip hop world, and they brought Raider memorabilia to the mainstream. This allowed me to get hats, shirts, clothes; but still no Raider games on television on a regular basis. The Internet was still over five years away from personal, in-home usage, and in the early 1990’s there simply wasn’t the availability of anything media-related that there is today.
Fortunately, Bo was good television, so the Raiders began getting more play Nationally, despite the fact that Bo only played a little over half of the football season due to his baseball obligations. This allowed me to see my idol more often, and fall in love with other players like Marcus Allen, Howie Long, Greg Townsend, Jay Schroeder, Tim Brown, and the like.
That allowed me to grow my love for the Raiders while my brother’s continued obnoxiousness related to all things football and Elway’s teeth grew my hatred for the Denver Broncos. My football fandom was taking shape.
My welcome to the NFL moment, the one that hooked me and made me a fan for life, was Bo’s epic touchdown run against those hated Broncos during which he sped, juked, and ran over the middle linebacker on route to a spectacular touchdown. It was the football equivalent of snapping a bat over his knee; he simply snapped the entire Bronco’s defense instead. They were like a child’s toy in his hands; and he did whatever he wanted with it.
His subsequent de-cleating of Brian Bosworth, his three-mile epic turn back, turn back again, turn back a third time, then turn upfield run against the Bengals, and his Tecmo-bowl prowess simply cemented him in my eyes as the greatest athlete of all-time, and when he retired, I actually cried a little bit.
I have been a card-carrying, hold my head high regardless of circumstances, proud and loud member of Raider Nation ever since Vincent Edward ‘Bo’ Jackson showed me just how amazing the savage pageantry of the NFL really is, and just how special - and frankly, how cool - wearing the Silver & Black is.
Al Davis, “Just Win Baby”, a commitment to excellence, Tim Brown, Rich Gannon, Greg Townsend, Charles Woodson, and the overall Raider Nation attitude and mystique deepened my sporting heart to a healthy silver & black, and there was no turning back.
I almost lost my job as a DJ at a local club when, during the Snow Job, I simply lost it and began berating every new patron that entered the club with my colourful opinion of the play and how I "mildly" disagreed with the outcome. My passion has only deepened since and continues to grow daily.
I don’t think people who grow up in theUnited States can truly appreciate or understand just how little sports coverage we in Canada received back in the days before mass media and satellite television on every roof, because of course it is different culture. And, therefore, how rare it is to find a true Raider fan in my geograpical area.
In theUnited States sports is very highly prioritized almost everywhere; various regions have their favorite sports, but sport in general, is paramount.
In Canada when I was growing up it was almost exclusively about hockey in any town, anywhere. Football, basketball, and even baseball were considered fringe sports, and if you were in to one of these sports and wanted to talk turkey, you probably needed to go across the border to do it.
The point is that as a Canadian insulated and isolated from the NFL world, Bo Jackson opened my eyes to the special nature of being a Raider fan, to the tradition, excellence, and iconic vision that the franchise represents, and for that I thank him.
As a Canadian kid looking for some kind of identity during my personal weight struggles and coming-of age pre-pubescent garbage we all have to deal with – and who couldn’t skate and suffered the stigma that carries as a Canadian child who likes sports – I needed to find a niche in sport where I could throw my unbridled passion forward unabated. Where it would be accepted; nurtured; encouraged; loved.
Raider Nation has always been that place; and always will be.
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