By Jenny Neyman
Kenai’s John Kruger spent much of Super Bowl Sunday like more than 100 million other Americans — in front of a TV watching football.
But not quite. At kickoff for Super Bowl XLV, Kruger’s eyes were taking in sunlight, rather than the glow from a flat screen.
“It’s a nice time for a walk. The streets are nice and quiet in town,” Kruger said.
When he did settle in to watch two teams face off at the line of scrimmage, the colors on his set didn’t jibe with what most viewers in America were watching. There was black, all right, but not the black and gold of the Pittsburgh Steelers, as they sparred with the Green Bay Packers.
His set showed the black and silver of the Oakland Raiders. When it comes to football, those are the only colors Kruger is interested in seeing.
“People either love the Raiders or they hate them. Either you’re a Raiders fan or you’re not a Raiders fan. I am a Raiders fan,” said Kruger, a juvenile justice unit supervisor at the Kenai Youth Facility.
“Fan” describes Kruger’s devotion to his team about as well as saying football-watching Americans “like” the Super Bowl. That doesn’t even begin to cover it.
He can rattle off Raiders facts, trivia and history as easily as the names of his kids or the places he’s lived. He knows the names, years with the team and contributions of not only the big-name players, but the second-tier ones, too, as well as the coaches and assistant coaches — even the team’s equipment manager.
“Run Run Jones. He died about four years ago. He was a really big Roller Derby guy in the ’50s and ’60s. He sponsored a lot of charities. Was a really good guy,” Kruger said.
With the exception of the Kenai Central High School Kardinals, which his sons play for, the Raiders are the only football team he’ll watch, even if their games aren’t broadcast much on network TV these days.
“The fact that they’ve been having kind of a bad streak for the last nine years, they’re not on TV a lot. But I’ve got a whole bunch of games on videotape, probably close to 100, that I’ll watch if I’m bored,” he said. “Typically on Super Bowl Sunday if the Raiders aren’t playing I’ll put in an old Raiders Super Bowl game and watch that. I haven’t watched the actual Super Bowl in nine years, since the Raiders lost. I put on my Raiders jacket and take a walk.”
When he gets home, to assuage his feelings that the universe is unjustly lacking in attention to his team, he need only head downstairs to the family room to revel in the black-and-silver glory of the only team that matters in Kruger’s world.
“This is the Raiders Room,” Kruger said, leading the way into the space that holds his collection of Oakland Raiders memorabilia.
Again, “room” doesn’t cut it, sounding like there are some team posters on the wall, an autographed ball or two, and maybe some throw pillows. This is more like the stock room of a gift shop, or a Raiders museum, paying homage to every player, every game, every piece of team equipment, memorabilia, news coverage and knickknack bric-a-brac Kruger can find.
The walls are covered with game-day jerseys, posters, newspaper covers and autographed photos. Shelves ring the room, holding autographed helmets, game-day shoes, trading cards and figurines. Freestanding shelving units bisect the room, holding every kind of Raiders-themed merchandise imaginable — glasses, mugs and Slurpee cups, toys, pins, bobble heads and Wheaties boxes — and then some.
Not even Kruger knows how much stuff he has in there.
“I have no idea. Let’s put it this way, when we moved from Bethel we had 192 boxes, and 101 of them were Raiders stuff. I kept telling Susan (his wife), ‘Let’s get rid of this other stuff.’ It’s embarrassing now that I look back,” Kruger said.
Kruger’s memorabilia goes back to the start of the franchise in 1960, when Minneapolis opted for a National Football League team over the newly formed American Football League, leaving a spot open for Oakland, Calif. Game programs, newspaper stories and a commemorative Wheaties Box chronicle the team’s move to Los Angeles in 1982 and its return to Oakland in 1995. The original team colors were black and gold, which explains a helmet deviating from the room’s otherwise solid black-and-silver color scheme.
The only other deviations are a splash of red on a few signs cheering his sons’ football team, in what
has been dubbed “the Kardinals Corner.” And the carpet, a reddish-gold throwback to the 1970s. Kruger has plans for that, too.
“What I’d like to do is get some small rugs with the 31 other NFL teams so everybody could walk on them. I thought that would be fitting,” he said.
Many of Kruger’s most-prized possessions are the ones bearing autographs. He’s got 80 autographed footballs, and he-doesn’t-even-know-how-many signed hats, jerseys, photos and cards. There’s a golf ball with quarterback George Blanda’s signature in black Sharpie, and a plastic hotdog-looking figurine from when kicker Jeff Jaeger opened a Wiener schnitzel franchise in Ohio.
He’s got a row of signed game-use shoes. One pair, worn by coach Terry Robiskie, still has stadium grass clinging to the cleats. He’s got game-use pants, wristbands, even a pair of socks. His favorite item is autographed shoulder pads worn by quarterback Kenny King in two Super Bowls, complete with a handwritten note from King on plain, lined paper: “These are the actual shoulder pads worn in Super Bowls 15 and 18, worn by me, Kenny King.”
The big-name Raiders are well-represented in the collection — John Madden pictures, video games
and news stories, signed jerseys, balls, helmets and other items from Howie Long, Ken Stabler, Jeff Barnes and Jerry Rice. But Kruger is just as proud of items representing what others may consider to be lesser players, especially an autographed ball and card from Cotton Davidson, a quarterback in the 1960s, with a note to Kruger, “‘To John, best of wishes to a Raiders fan.’ He appreciated that someone would take the time to look up someone who very few people, even Raiders fans, know who he is,” Kruger said.
Anyone wearing black and silver is worthy of Kruger’s respect.
“I like to collect anything Raiders. I don’t care if the player was a great player or a run-of-the-mill player,” Kruger said. “I still want a Marc Wilson autographed football. That’s the only major Raider quarterback I don’t have a ball from. I have everybody going back to 1960, but for whatever reason, I can never find Wilson on eBay.”
And anything related to the Raiders is worthy of Kruger’s collection. Much of the items are sports-collection staples, but there are some oddities. He’s got a sheaf of faxes used by the offensive and defensive coaches to plan play strategies, left on the field after a game. There’s a seat from Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, and a Raiders team travel itinerary — “Oakland to Cincinnati, Nov. 13, 1978. At 9 p.m. it says ‘we go to war.’ I think that’s kind of cool,” Kruger said.
He’s got a rack full of black-and-silver T-shirts, which may not be noteworthy in and of itself, except for how religiously he wore them.
“Every day for six or seven years. Once I became a ‘professional’ I had to wear a button shirt,” Kruger said. “I used to wear a Mohawk, too, but my boss put the kibosh on the Mohawk when I became somebody important, I guess.”
There’s an attaché case with a matching notebook and press documentation from a reporter covering the Raiders’ 1976 Super Bowl, a Raiders Christmas card sent out to 1978 season ticket holders and a watch given to trainer George Anderson in 1974 for the Raiders winning the Western Division of the AFC.
A lot of the collection is as much a history of merchandising strategies as it is the Raiders team. There are dishes and glassware, buttons, a Christmas stocking, a piggy bank that plays the team anthem — “Autumn Wind” — games, decorations and figurines.
“I get a hard time from some of my buddies at work, ‘Man, you’re collecting toys.’ No I’m not, they’re sports figurines. I don’t play with them, they sit down here,” Kruger said.
He’s got an empty carton of skim milk with a picture of running back Marcus Allen next to one of several Raiders-themed Wheaties boxes. Pepsi and RC cola cans, a Dreyer’s ice cream container, beer bottles and Slurpee cups sport the pirate insignia. There’s a foam brick to throw at the TV when officials make a bad call — which is a frequent occurrence, in Kruger’s opinion, especially the infamous “tuck rule” in the 2002 AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Patriots.
“Tom Brady had fumbled the ball and there was this long pause while the referees sorted it all out and they decided he didn’t actually fumble the ball. It’s just another in the long history of how the Raiders have been treated badly by the league,” Kruger said. “He did fumble the ball. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
The sheer volume of it all is difficult to take in. There’s so much stuff that much of it has to be stacked and layered to make room for it all.
“If you don’t knock anything down you’re not looking close enough, so don’t worry about that,” Kruger said. “I could fill up the entire house if I could display everything the way I would like to display it.”
Still, it’s all carefully organized, archived, plastic-protected and labeled.
“My parents were avid collectors of rocks, minerals and fossils, so that’s where the collecting gene comes from, I guess. My parents owned a rock and fossil shop in Florida. I used to love going down there and setting things up. I guess in some other life I might have been an interior decorator,” Kruger said.
He acquired his devotion to the Raiders as a kid in Florida, as well. Being born in Massachusetts, Kruger has an affinity for the Celtics, but for some reason when it came to football, he was drawn to Oakland, even though he had never been there and had no direct connection to the area.
“When I was 7 or 8 I had eye surgery and I had to wear a patch over my eye for about a year, so maybe that did it,” since the Raiders’ insignia also wears an eyepatch, Kruger said. “That’s the only explanation I have. I just know the first time I saw them in 1970 on Monday Night Football, I was hooked.”
Kruger is like that, though — easily decisive and willing to stick with his choices. That same mentality is how he ended up in Alaska.
“I always wanted to see snow. I was an avid reader of Outdoor Life and Field and Stream magazines. On the back cartoon page it’s usually some guy in Alaska facing down a brown bear or something like that. It just intrigued me,” Kruger said.
He joined the Air Force the day after he graduated high school.
“God bless my dad. He told me when I was 12 that some birds fly out of the nest, some are kicked out. I figured I better fly out,” Kruger said.
He was stationed near his home in Florida for the first four years of his military service. Then he got a chance to be transferred to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage if he extended his service one more year. That was all it took to start his now-26 years of residency in the state. He’s been Outside only twice since moving up. Once, in 2002, to attend the only Raiders game he’s ever seen live.
“Just being there outside the stadium, throwing the football around with some people I didn’t even know. I couldn’t imagine being 12 years old again knowing that someday I would be doing that. It was neat,” Kruger said. “Then going inside the stadium and seeing all those guys who dress up in weird, wacky ways. It was like, ‘Oh my God. Finally, I’m home.’”
Home among his kind of people, perhaps, but not home in the physical sense. That has been and will remain Alaska, he said.
“I hate leaving,” Kruger said. “I knew when I was 14 I was going to live in Alaska someday. My brothers gave me a hard time about it, ‘I bet you’ll marry an Eskimo, too’ they’d say.”
He happily did — Susan, whom he met and married while working in Good News Bay. She’s the one who started his Raiders collection.
“While living in Bethel he said to me, ‘I always wanted to have a Raiders collection.’ Just out of the blue he said that — this is when he had nothing, no Raiders anything,” Susan said. “For Christmas that year I bought him an autographed Ken Stabler football. When I gave it to him I said, ‘This is my way of giving you permission to start a Raiders collection.’”
Neither realized at the time quite how extensive it would become. First it engulfed the shelves along one wall of their living room in Bethel, then the other wall. He bought items off eBay and put an ad in a collector’s digest seeking Raiders items. Through that he got in touch with a collector from Canada — “That was a good deal, I sent him $20 and he sent me a whole box full of stuff,” Kruger said.
His biggest score was a state trooper in New Jersey, who had a friend that used to work as a security guard in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. When the team moved back to Oakland they left boxes full of stuff behind for stadium staff to do with whatever they wanted.
When they moved to Kenai five years ago, one of the things that drew Kruger to the house they bought is the large family room downstairs — a veritable Raiders Room in waiting. With the economy in recession he’s stopped buying new items, and figures the value of the collection has decreased substantially. Not that the monetary value ever mattered much to Kruger.
“I’d sell it for $25,000, but I don’t think I paid that much for it. The economy being the way it is right now all collectables are down in money. But that was never my interest from the beginning,” Kruger said.
Collecting is a way to elevate his fandom to a more active level than just watching the games, to participate in a team he sees as representing more than just football.
“The individualism. To live out in Bush, Alaska, like in Bethel, you kind of want to ally yourself, I guess, with an ideal or a team that kind of represents what you are — being an individual and doing things your way,” he said.
Like longtime Raiders owner Al Davis, who was the first in the NFL to bring on a Hispanic quarterback, hire a black coach and appoint a woman to a significant position in the organization.
“What I like about the Raiders is the owner is colorblind. He gets a lot of criticism because he likes to do things his own way, but for the most part he’s done really well. He’s almost set up this utopian organization where it doesn’t matter who or what you are, so I respect that,” Kruger said.
Now if they’d only get back to winning. Kruger has a photo of Davis looking grim and unhappy set up near the door of his Raiders Room. When the team starts winning again, he’ll swap it with a photo of Davis looking happy.
Does Kruger have such a photo?
“Of course,” he said. “How many do you want to see?”