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'You knew when the Raiders were in town': The Raiders Training Camp legacy began at a Santa Rosa hotel they shaped into their own


The Raiders didn't always have a state of the art facility in Henderson, Nevada, for Training Camp practices. Nor did they always have a luxurious resort a mile away to house players.

They started out with heart, the will to win and a motel off Highway 101.

Sixty years ago, former Los Angeles Chargers wide receivers coach Al Davis was named head coach and general manager of the American Football League's Oakland Raiders. He was tasked with finding a facility where his new team could hold Training Camp. The Raiders had spent the previous three camps at Santa Cruz High School.

As legend has it, from the memory of longtime sports reporter Tom LaMarre, one day while Davis was driving up the 101 – 60 miles north of where the eventual Oakland Coliseum would be – he found what would be considered the perfect spot for his team for years to come.

He stumbled upon the El Rancho Tropicana Hotel in Santa Rosa, California, which was first opened in 1942. The 50-room motel consisted of several buildings: the head building for visitors, an office building with a restaurant and a one-story annex that stood alone in the back of the motel, with a courtyard in the middle. Practice fields, separate housing and offices were built shortly after to accommodate Davis and his team.

"El Rancho was not a luxury motel," John Rauch Jr., son of the Raiders assistant coach, recalled. "It was like a kind of Western motif, and they had three wings back in the back of the hotel. Two of those wings are where the Raiders stayed and they built a practice facility out behind the hotel. ... Probably had three football fields available to them and they built a locker room – not the greatest, but it was doable."

While it wasn't necessarily as "glamorous" as what NFL players are accustomed to in 2023, the El Rancho Tropicana had character. Going up to the motel for Training Camp became some of the players' fondest memories throughout the years. The two-a-day practices, workouts and off-the-field shenanigans have become stories of legend.

"When we trained in Santa Rosa, they had a horse show up there, where they would show horses and they had these kids that would take their horses and show them," said late Hall of Fame coach John Madden. "They would keep them at the motel there, and then they would take them out of their things that they carried them in. And so, Ted [Hendricks] got this one kid to let him ride the horse in."

A view of the El Rancho Tropicana
A view of the El Rancho Tropicana

When the team wasn't practicing, they would make their rounds around Santa Rosa to relax and get their mind off football. Team bonding activities consisted of bowling, golf, shuffleboard and the team's notorious air hockey league – started by wide receiver Mike Siani and linebacker Phil Villapiano.

"We would come up with different tournaments during the course of four to six weeks in Santa Rosa of things to do, again, just to keep us busy," Siani said. "Phil Villapiano, we were roommates, and he somehow had this air hockey table. Like a pool table-sized air hockey table delivered to our room in Santa Rosa. It was from this company called Calico and it was brand new. Air hockey was brand new. ... We start playing it, and guys start coming in. So, we decide to have an air hockey tournament."

Santa Rosa served as a model for the Raiders' future training camp locations with the idea that a hotel with an adjacent field would offer better amenities than those of a dorm. After over 20 years at the El Rancho Tropicana, the team moved camp to a Hilton in Oxnard, California, in 1985 and later held camp in Napa, California, from 1996 to 2019.

The El Rancho was eventually demolished and the Santa Rosa Marketplace, a shopping center, stands in its place.

The Silver and Black were able to capture the emotion and passion of the Santa Rosa community, and still do decades after leaving.

"You knew when the Raiders were in town," said former linebacker Jerry Robinson, who grew up in Santa Rosa. "And even if you didn't look in the newspaper to find out whenever they came, you just knew they were in town because the city was so excited. People were happy because they knew that they'd be at the El Rancho Tropicana practicing.

"[As] a little kid watching Otis Sistrunk, the Snake [Ken Stabler], the Mad Bomber [Daryle Lamonica], [John] Matuszak, [Jack] Tatum and the Mad Stork [Ted Hendricks], running around the town of Santa Rosa, man, to know that I'm part of their history, too. They were all in this together. It's just one of the greatest feelings in the world."

As the Silver and Black get ready for 2023 Training Camp, take a look back at photos from past camps.

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