John Herrera was just 16 years old when he went to work for Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders.
It was 1963, and Davis, the Raiders’ general manager and head coach at the time, put Herrera to work at the team’s summer training camp at the El Rancho Tropicana in Santa Rosa.
Herrera spent most of July and August with the Raiders, doing a little bit of everything. A junior at Skyline High School in Oakland, he worked in the office with just one other person — Ron Wolf, who headed up the player personnel department and was the team’s training camp coordinator.
“It was an amazing thing,” Herrera recalled Monday. “We were the first team in pro football to have such luxury housing. That was a bold, new concept, to put a team in a hotel environment for training camp.”
Herrera, now a senior executive in football administration with the Raiders, has his father, Andy Herrera, to thank for arranging a meeting with Davis years ago.
Andy Herrera owned a car dealership in Oakland, Herrera Buick, and entered into a business relationship with Davis.
“They also became pretty good friends,” said Herrera. “My father asked him if he would meet me. Al agreed to, and he put me to work.”
Herrera is now in his 35th year with the Raiders, who begin camp in Napa this week. Players under contract will begin arriving at the Napa Valley Marriott today in advance of Wednesday’s required reporting date.
The first practice for the Silver and Black will take place Thursday morning at 8:30 a.m. at the adjacent Redwood Middle School complex, which has 21⁄2 fields and a fieldhouse. The Raiders, in town for the 15th straight year, will break camp in late August.
Coming to Napa
It was Herrera — who has worked in public relations, marketing, business, player personnel, special projects and handling travel arrangements for the organization — who discovered the five-acre Napa site back in 1996. The Raiders were on their way back to Northern California from Los Angeles, and Herrera’s orders were to find a location for camp.
Herrera’s vision and work with the Napa Valley Unified School District, city of Napa, Marriott and the Redwood Raiders Field Project Coalition resulted in one of the NFL’s top facilities for summer camp.
“People are still amazed, 15 years later, that we were able to pull it all together so fast, because Napa was one of the last places I looked at,” Herrera said. “It was really just kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing. I hadn’t even really thought about Napa.”
He had already looked at 60 potential sites, even before taking a look at the Napa Valley Unified School District property. But to make anything work, a hotel that was big enough to accommodate players, coaches, staff and front office personnel needed to be next door.
“It was an amazing accomplishment to pull it all together that fast,” said Herrera. “By the time we had our first practice, we were operational — set and ready to go.”
Today, it’s one of the top facilities in the National Football League. With the fields and hotel in such close proximity, players don’t have to walk far at all, whether to the meeting room, their hotel room or the fieldhouse. Yesterday, a worker was lining the fields and all the weightlifting apparatus was on the porch of the fieldhouse. Blocking sleds, tackling dummies and other football equipment are on the field.
There will be at least one practice on most days during camp, with certain days slated for two practice sessions. The Raiders have two-a-day practices Thursday through Sunday, starting at 8:30 a.m. and 4:20 p.m., to start Week 1 of camp. It’s here, where players will put on pads and battle for roster spots in preparation for the preseason and regular season.
In a lot of ways, Napa has become the Raiders’ second home.
“It’s my home away from home,” said Herrera. “Every year when I come back to Napa, I have to get things organized and the infrastructure settled, finished and wrapped up for the upcoming camp. It’s always exciting, always a lot of work, but a lot of fun, too, because I love this environment, love the people. The end result is we have one of the best camps in all of pro sports.”
Working for Al Davis
Rather than staying at their year-round facility in Alameda for camp, the Raiders’ philosophy is to get out of town and away from any distractions. They trained in Santa Rosa for 22 years (1963-1984) and also in Oxnard.
Herrera and Dick Romanski, who works in the equipment department, are the only employees still with the Raiders since 1963. Herrera gave up playing high school football in order to spend his summers with the Raiders.
He recalled his first meeting with Davis yesterday.
“He said, ‘If I invite you to come to training camp to help us, I’m not looking for just a kid to come up and shag balls and pick up laundry in the fieldhouse. I want you to have some skills. What can you do in the office? I’ve only got one other guy that’s going to be in the office. Can you type? Do you have good phone presence? Can you drive?’”
Herrera got the job, and he was working around the clock, running players in and out of camp on a regular basis. Davis was going about turning over a team that was 1-13 the year before. The ’63 team featured Clem Daniels, Art Powell, Tom Flores, Jim Otto, Wayne Hawkins, Cotton Davidson and Ollie Spencer.
“He was looking to bring in as many players as possible that could help,” said Herrera. “We were running a pretty solid shuttle service in and out of camp in that first year.”
Herrera had a love for sports, even before going to work for the Raiders. He ran cross country and track in high school. As a walk-on, he not only made the football team at UC Davis, but was a starting wide receiver and caught eight passes in a game against San Francisco State.
“I had to be able to type so I could help type game plans. I had to be able to handle myself on the phone,” he said. “And I had to have my (driver’s) license, so that I could help get players into camp and out of camp, and also run errands in Santa Rosa. I could do all those three, so he hired me.
“Of course, the other question was, are you willing to work day and night at camp, because that’s what it takes. I said, of course. I’ll work. I don’t need to sleep. Ron and I didn’t — we worked day and night. We had to, and we absolutely loved it.”
A long career in football
Herrera was hired as a full-time administrative assistant in 1968, after graduating with a degree from Davis in history.
“We had very small front-office staffs in those days, so people wore a lot of hats, which helped me a lot later on by the way, because I’ve worn just about every hat there is to wear here over the course of my career,” Herrera said.
“I learned very early on that you have to be versatile and you have to be able to do a lot of different things and be willing to take on a lot of different things and learn about areas that you didn’t really know too much about. You have to learn fast on how to deal with some issues in different areas that you really didn’t think you’d be involved with.
“The versatility has been a big factor in me being able to sustain a long career here. I’m still involved in a lot of other areas as well. I’m happy to do it. I enjoy doing it. I’ll be forever grateful to the boss, Al Davis, for allowing me to participate and having the confidence in me to be involved in so many different areas over the years — stadium issues and putting together training camps, player personnel issues, all the things that he’s brought me into.”
Herrera left the Raiders to go into the music business, working for United Artists and London Records for five years in promotion and sales. But he soon found himself back in football, going to Tampa Bay, an expansion team, to work in player personnel with Wolf, the team’s general manager.
Later on, Herrera was a scout for the Buccaneers.
From there, he joined the Washington Redskins as a scout. Herrera was there for a year and returned to the Raiders in 1978. He has a world championship ring from Oakland’s 27–10 win over Philadelphia, coached by Calistoga native Dick Vermeil, in Super Bowl XV in 1981 in New Orleans.
“After that game I got a tremendous offer to go to the Canadian Football League,” said Herrera, who joined the B.C. Lions as director of player personnel, then the Saskatchewan Rough Riders as GM.
After four years in Canada, he returned to the NFL, going back to work for Davis and the Raiders in 1985.
“Those early days were invaluable, because they taught me the value of being versatile, of doing a lot of things,” he said.
Herrera, 63, founded the training camp site for the Raiders in Oxnard. This year, the Dallas Cowboys are training there.
The Napa Valley camp offers the best of both worlds. Yes, it’s summer time and there can be warm days, but there’s not the humidity or oppressive heat that other towns experience. Secondly, staying in a hotel offers all the amenities and comforts.
“Coaches who come here from other teams, they can’t believe it,” said Herrera. “They just say that it’s unbelievable here, because they’ve all been exposed to the dormitory. I can’t imagine there’s another training camp that has the ideal climate that we have here.”
He is grateful to Davis for giving him an opportunity as a teenager, and then welcoming him back to the organization later on.
“To bring in somebody that young was obviously a leap of faith on Al Davis’ part. Because he gave me that opportunity, I was able to have a wonderful career here and a couple of other opportunities. Al has done that for a lot of people. He’s given a lot of people opportunities that they would never have had.”