When cornerback Mike Haynes joined the Los Angeles Raiders midway through this season, he was sure all those stories he had heard about his new team were exaggerated.
"I found a lot of verbal guys with short fuses," said Haynes, who had spent seven years with the New England Patriots.
The Raiders are more than a Super Bowl team. Much more.
"We're a halfway house for wayward players," said tight end Todd Christensen. "We've had plenty of people here better suited for jail than games."
The day before the American Football Conference title game against the Seattle Seahawks, Coach Tom Flores had to shorten practice. There were too many scuffles among the players and he was afraid someone was going to get hurt.
"That's the way we know we are ready," said defensive end Lyle Alzado. "What's wrong with fighting? I never knew a man I didn't want to fight."
Alzado said he was traded to the Raiders from Cleveland because the Browns thought he had a mental problem. "They were right," he said. "I don't really trust a sane person. You can never depend on them."
John Riggins dressed up in top hat and tails and made a surprise appearance last week on "Redskin Sidelines," a local television show. Alzado appeared on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" in a low-cut shirt, to show off his chest hairs, and proceeded to rip up a Redskins cap with his Paul Bunyan-size hands.
The Raiders know how to psych up Alzado for games. They feed him quotes from opposing players. By kickoff, none of his teammates are brave enough to talk to him.
"I don't know if what they tell me is true or not," Alzado said. "But I can't take a chance that they are lying to me."
Flores, the quiet man among all the chaos, tries to dismiss the halfway house image with deadpan humor. He'll recite his raw-meat story ("I toss a piece of raw meat into the team meetings before I go in the door"), though the unsaid message is that the team is not that hard to coach and its image has been blown out of proportion.
Still, there are enough Raiders players who disagree with him.
"The Raider organization is interested in what happens between the lines on Sunday," said linebacker Ted Hendricks. "Otherwise, they will leave you alone. As long as you are successful, no one should be able to say anything to you, except maybe pat you on the back."
Hendricks, who hates practice, once rode to the workout field on a charging horse, in full uniform, carrying an orange traffic cone as a lance. Other times, he has practiced with crow or ostrich feathers stuck in his helmet. One Halloween week, he substituted a pumpkin for his helmet. Another time, he put a table at midfield, set up a cafe umbrella and greeted teammates while sipping lemonade.
And by Raiders standards, Hendricks is tame.
"We have guys who are quiet who think they are loud and we have guys who are loud who think they are quiet," said linebacker Matt Millen. "We've got a good blend of youth and old guys and we've got guys from a lot of different backgrounds.
"It works because they allow you to be what you are and what you want to be. If you like to run with the guys and have fun, fine. If you don't, fine. No one says anything about it."
It's Millen who personifies what he calls the Raiders' three Ps: "Punching, pointing and pushing." On the field, he's a pugnacious, temperamental alley fighter who wouldn't back off from Andre the Giant. Take him away from Raider Mania and Millen couldn't be more pleasant: a homebody from Pennsylvania who dislikes the fast life of Southern California.
Yet Millen fits in nicely with the Raiders. Once he had a calcium deposit in his right elbow. He tried conventional treatments but the pain persisted. So he attempted some home remedies. He used weights to try to force his arm, which was locked at the elbow, to unlock. That didn't work.
Then he dipped his arm in very hot water but only burned his skin. Recalling a scene from a Three Stooges movie, he went to a high school metal shop and put his elbow in a vise while a friend attempted to straighten his arm. That didn't work.
Finally, Millen ignored medical advice and lifted a 400-pound barbell. He heard a pop and the elbow unlocked. End of pain, return of mobility. His doctors were stunned.
"No one tells you when you join this team that you are expected to be physical and tough," said defensive end Howie Long, whose arms resemble anvils and whose face resembles that of a Hollywood golden-boy idol. "There isn't a primer course on how to be nasty. They bring in players who fit the mold of what they think a Raider should be like."
Long, an outgoing man with a charming personality and a sharp sense of humor, said he plays as dirty "as I have to. I sink to the level of the opposition."
Said Christensen, a Mormon: "We're very close as a team, but that doesn't mean I necessarily ask Howie or Lyle over to dinner every night."
Yet Christensen, the team's resident philosopher, said he's more proud of being "the three-time air hockey champion in training camp" than of being named all-pro this season. All-pro, he said, "is a beauty contest."
A Raiders legend born from the boredom of training camp at Santa Rosa, Calif., the air hockey tournament has some 30 rules, including one that excludes Christensen from winning again, unless he changes religions. At the end of camp, the players hold a parade through the town, decorating their cars and selecting a queen from city residents.
"Since I've been on the team, we've had three or four strippers who have come out on the practice field during training camp to perform," Long said. "Right in the middle of practice."
On a corner of the training camp field is a facility called the "Bamboo Room." Beer is served in the Bamboo Room. Lots of beer.
"On light days, we call it a one-pitcher day, and on heavy days it's a three-pitcher day," Long said. "Yeah, we just go right from the field to the Bamboo Room. Don't even take off our pads on the bad days. It gets pretty rough in there some days."
Al Davis, the Raiders' reclusive owner, has created a refuge for the old, the rejected and, in some cases, the lame. He doesn't seemed concerned if players he acquires have reputations for being clubhouse lawyers or malingerers or malcontents. There is enough of a maverick instinct in Davis to allow him to take a chance, especially if it rubs against the conventional grain of the rest of the league.
Davis rescued Jim Plunkett from the NFL discard pile. Plunkett, a quiet, decent man who should retire the NFL comeback of the year award, has rewarded him by guiding the Raiders to two Super Bowls. Cleveland gave up on Alzado and Greg Pruitt, believing each was at career's end. Alzado, who trains as if he was competing in a triathalon but also has a reputation as the team's best barroom brawler, is the Raiders' best pass rusher; Pruitt is a Pro Bowl return man.
Dave Stalls was a free agent who had signed a USFL contract this season; Davis still asked him to play the last half of the year for the Raiders. The Patriots tired of Don Hasselbeck and Shelby Jordan and they couldn't sign Haynes; Davis traded for all three.
"Al tells us he pays us better than anyone in the league and then he shelters us from the distractions that could hurt us," Millen said. "He's created the perfect atmosphere for winning. I mean, he won even with John Matuszak."
"We've got maybe 20 guys from other teams," said Christensen, a failure as a running back both with Dallas and the New York Giants. "Those teams didn't want us anymore . . . But Al saw something in all of us. He saw that we were all a little left of center."