Vella proves once a Raider, always a Raider
By Charles Whisnand
Appeal Sports Editor
John Vella lives and dies with the Oakland Raiders just like the rest of the team’s avid fans. As a former player of the team, he understands the devotion of Raider fans.
Now as a fan, he also understands the frustration the rest of the faithful have been feeling through another disappointing season as he feels it himself.
“This game is so disappointing,” Vella said on Sunday while watching the Raiders suffer another close loss, this time 29-22 to the Minnesota Vikings. “I’m the typical fan.”
Vella was at Q’s Restaurant on Sunday to help support the Carson City Raiders Booster Club’s Commitment to Fund-Raiser event, which supports several charities in the community.
Despite the disappointing result, Vella still enjoyed the experience being with the Carson boosters. “It’s fun to watch a game in this atmosphere,” he said.
And there are no fans like Raider fans, Vella said. “There’s a lot of great fans in a lot of different cities,” he said. “But Raider fans are special.”
Vella admittedly is having a hard time with a Raiders team that has just two wins this year. It’s understandable since Vella played with the Raiders during their glory years. His eight-year tenure with the Raiders lasted from 1972-1979.
He was a starting offensive lineman for one of the greatest offensive lines in NFL history. Actually, the 1976 Raiders offensive line was voted the greatest in NFL history.
“Even though we get absolutely nothing for it except recognition it’s probably the biggest award I’ll ever have,” Vella said.
Art Shell and Gene Upshaw, who lined up on one side, are the two most famous members of that line. They were the only two members of the line informed of the honor.
The other three members – center Dave Dalby, George Beuhler and Vella weren’t told. Vella found out about the honor when it was featured on a show on ESPN.
“A friend called,” he said. “The three of us found out by watching on TV. It’s definitely an honor.”
The Raiders went on to rout the Vikings 32-14 in the Super Bowl that season. The offensive line manhandled a Vikings defensive line that featured Jim Marsall, Carl Eller and Alan Page.
“The way we played the Super Bowl was definitely a big factor,” said Vella about why the 1976 line has been named the greatest of all time.
But Vella also stressed the honor came because of the way the line played the whole season.
Vella noted that the Vikings defensive line was toward the end of its career in that Super Bowl.
“I’m glad I didn’t have to face Carl Eller when he was 25,” Vella said. “Because he was still a very good player at 37 or 38.”
But Vella also said just as sweet as the Super Bowl win was the 24-7 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game that year. “I can probably say that because we won the Super Bowl,” he said.
In Vella’s first five years from 1972-76, the Raiders and Steelers met in the playoffs every year and almost every year in the regular season as well.
Vella remembers his first start against L.C. Greenwood, Joe Green and the Steelers. On obvious downs, Green would let Vella and Beuhler know that he and Greenwood would be coming on a stunt in an attempt to intimidate them. “I’ll never forget that,” he said.
During those years, the Steelers caused a great deal of heartache for the Raiders, including the 1972 playoff game in which Pittsburgh won 13-7 on Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception.
Many of the Raider players from that time believe they should have had at least a couple more wins over the Steelers in the playoffs those years.
“I feel the say way,” Vella said. “I would necessarily say we should have beaten them because they’re a great team. I say we could have beaten them. There was no disgrace to lose to the Steelers. I couldn’t say that about any other team. They were definitely our nemesis. It was a great, great rivalry.”
While he can’t remember hardly any other defensive players he faced, Vella said he can still remember all 11 starters on the Steelers defense.
Vella said this year’s team just has to learn how to win the close games. He said there’s not much of a difference between the Raiders and the San Diego Chargers, who lead the AFC West, but lost again on Sunday to fall to 5-5. “They easily could be tied for first place in the AFC West,” said Vella about the Raiders.
Part of the reason why the Raiders can’t win close games is stats like nine illegal procedure penalties on offensive lineman Robert Gallery, which Vella doesn’t understand. Vella said all it takes to avoid those penalties is knowing the snap count. “You don’t have to have talent to know the snap count,” Vella said.
Vella said the entire 1976 Raiders offensive line may have had nine illegal procedure penalties the entire season.
Vella’s interest in the Raiders isn’t just as a fan. Vella owns a Raiders memorabilia store in Casto Valley, Calif., and much of the success of his business depends on the success of the team.
“My business goes as the Raiders goes,” Vella said. “A win on Sunday means business on Monday.”
When he’s asked if he ever bets on the Raiders, Vella says he doesn’t have to. “My whole business is bet on the Raiders,” he said.