Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr sits in front of a small group of reporters and Hard Knocks cameras after a preseason practice, squinting into the early-August sun and flashing a self-deprecating smile. “I’m not the artist kinda type,” Carr says, explaining the vague direction he tends to give Bob Romanski, the Raiders’ longtime equipment manager, anytime Carr commissions a new pair of Romanski’s signature bespoke airbrushed cleats.
Romanski, 57, first learned the craft decades ago when his then-teen brother received but never opened an airbrushing kit for his birthday, and he has been painting everything from go-kart helmets to customized shoes ever since. When the NFL started an initiative in 2016 called “My Cause, My Cleats” that invited players to sport their own designs for a week, Romanski got a whole lot busier. He went from painting four or five pairs of cleats a season as a fun novelty to turning around, by his estimate, 30-something pairs last year. And while Carr may share only the foggiest of visions when it comes to the color and content of his desired footwear, Romanski always delivers the goods.
“Every time I open the box,” Carr says, “I’m like, ‘Bro, that is unbelievable.’”
Like Carr, Romanski claims a lack of creative talent, and yet there is an actual heap of evidence to the contrary piled right there in front of him. “I don’t consider myself an artist,” he says, with a quiet voice, as he stands in the equipment room at the Raiders’ preseason facility on the grounds of a middle school in Napa, pawing through a box of his creations. (While he talks, a young equipment intern runs into the room yelling, “I need duct tape!” with the urgency of a surgeon seeking a scalpel.) “I just kind of look at an idea and I try to copy it,” Romanski says with a shrug.
This is technically true: One of Romanski’s favorite things to do is airbrush a football cleat to look like some other iconic shoe, like a Converse All Star high-top or a shiny black-and-white wingtip. (He hasn’t done a Timberland yet.) But there’s no question that Romanski is an artist, just as there’s no question that he’s a construction worker, and a tailor, and a shop teacher, and a logistics engineer, and a total MacGyver. One of the longest-tenured and most well-respected equipment managers in the NFL, and a guy who has worked for the team since 1980 and has been hanging around even longer than that, Romanski has a daily job description that encompasses all of the above, often all at once. “You gave him a rubber band and a screwdriver,” says Danny Molina, an assistant equipment manager who has worked alongside Romanski for decades, “he’ll fix anything.”
To some players, equipment is an afterthought; to others, it is a crucial extension of their godly form. To Romanski, it’s not only a career but a birthright: Ever since 1963, when Al Davis took over as head coach of a floundering fledgling American Football League franchise called the Oakland Raiders, the organization has employed just two head equipment managers: Bob, and before that his late, great father, Dick, who met Davis in the Army in the ’50s and then worked for the Raiders until his death at age 86 in 2015. “He’s a big part of our organization,” says head coach Jon Gruden of the younger Romanski, speaking with reporters after practice and adding, with an extremely Gruden smirk, “and that’s why we pay him more than any other equipment man in the history of football.”
With its closely held ties to the eccentric Davis clan and its idiosyncratic, skull-loving fan base, the Raiders organization tends to pride itself on being a family, even if, from the outside, it’s an objectively dysfunctional one. The Oakland Raiders have a vibrant, rude history, with three Super Bowl wins (and one Gruden Bowl loss) and a franchise relocation south to Los Angeles and back north to Oakland again and another upcoming move, this time to Las Vegas, and one Tuck Rule disaster and 20 head coaches and one decade-long playoff drought and two arbitration hearings about Antonio Brown’s helmets and $30 million of contractual obligations rendered void by Brown’s subsequent disgruntled behavior. It’s enough to blow the whole house down, but through it all, the Romanskis have been a Raiders tentpole, a proud if understated parallel to the Davis family, and a throwback to the kind of organization the team forever wishes it can be.
There are 53 players on an NFL roster, and a lot more than that during the preseason, and they all need cleats and T-shirts and cold-weather gear just in case and mouth guards and practice jerseys and game jerseys and an extra football they can sign for their sponsor’s CFO’s kid and a Sharpie with which to sign it. They need just a little bit of extra foam here, or they need help because something is rubbing them the wrong way there. If they are Brown—who was released by the Raiders this weekend following a several-weeks saga between him and the franchise that at numerous points involved a stubborn standoff over a helmet—it’s unclear exactly what they need.
In Brown’s case, a helmet was not just a helmet: It was a battering ram in an escalating conflict that culminated in his signing with the New England Patriots this weekend after his Oakland release, adding one more strange chapter to the Raiders’ voluminous history. And Brown’s new team was a particularly fitting destination, considering Brown put the low-key Raiders equipment staff in the middle of the highest-profile equipment-related football story since Deflategate.
Last month, as Brown protested the league’s helmet policy and went to arbitration twice to try to win the right to have his favored helmet grandfathered back in—and who even, at one point, showed up at practice with his old Steelers helmet crudely painted over in Raiders colors—Romanski did what he could to alleviate the situation, sourcing a sampler of helmets for Brown to try. “We lined up about eight or so different ones,” he says, “and let him try them out.” None of them were quite right. It seems increasingly apparent, in hindsight, that the helmet issue itself was a bit of a MacGuffin all along, Brown’s attempt to drive a wedge between him and a franchise he wasn’t jazzed about being traded to from the start. The sideshow had to have been annoying for Romanski, but speaking by phone on Labor Day, he sounds sanguine.
“Some guys are kinda picky in what they want,” he says, “and some are not. It’s just—it’s different all over. Some guys might be picky on their pants. Some guys might be picky on their jersey. Some guys might be picky on their shoes. And some are not; the majority are not. I understand: He’s wearing it his whole career, and then suddenly he has to change. It’s a little tough for him.” Romanski is familiar with big change, having been around the Raiders for long enough to see that it is the team’s one true constant. A week later, after a near scuffle at practice between Brown and Raiders GM Mike Mayock, as well as countless social media salvos, the Raiders released Brown, and Romanski’s equipment team set to work clearing out his locker.
Napa is quiet on a Sunday morning; many people in town must still be hidden under their covers, hungover. Fog dampens the air and the sound and the mood. But at the Raiders’ preseason facility, everything is underway and nothing is still, even though it’s not yet 7 a.m.
Security guards sit in the shade between the Redwood Middle School fields and the immediately adjacent Marriott hotel where the team lives for most of August. Beefy shirtless linemen saunter toward the pool for an early workout, trailed by a Raiders employee in a polo shirt carrying a tall stack of towels. Not far from an al fresco collection of weightlifting machines, team workers set up a hot buffet line in preparation for an annual Raiders family luncheon. And in the equipment room next to the fields, two projects are already taking place, both of them unexpected.
A day earlier, crew members from Hard Knocks had spent hours implanting tiny microphones into the players’ shoulder pads, says Romanski. But word came this morning that today’s practice would be conducted sans pads, and now an NFL production technician named Ryan is busy transferring each mic onto a practice jersey instead, slipping it in a small pocket specially sewn into the fabric for this purpose by a contractor in Alameda who altered 180 jerseys this way for the team within two weeks. The other news of the day is solemn: Overnight, word came that former Raiders wide receiver Cliff Branch died at the age of 71. Romanski, who has been working in the equipment room since Branch was winning Super Bowls with the Raiders in the ’70s and ’80s, points to a rack of black Raiders shirseys, freshly heat-pressed with Branch’s name on them in silvery letters, ready to be distributed to the families and fans on hand to watch preseason practice.
One whole wall of the big equipment room is made up of orange Nike sneaker boxes. Another wall features a workstation with a pegboard and a large collection of wrenches and screwdrivers. A hand-scrawled bracket proclaiming Carr a top seed in a pickup basketball tournament hangs nearby. This room is the beating heart of the training facility and is also Romanski’s natural habitat; his placid demeanor seems to have evolved specifically as a natural defense against his industry’s inherently hectic environment. He has the lean, strong build of a guy who wakes up before six every morning and doesn’t put up his feet until late every night. Even in the offseason, there is no downtime: The only real difference between the spring and the fall is getting weekends off.
In addition to Romanski and Molina, who goes by “Mo,” the team includes Adam Johnson, Johnny Miranda, and a bunch of young part-time employees. There is a Tupperware of cookies that one of their moms has made, next to a big box filled with one-pound bags of M&Ms that 25 Raiders rookies brought in for the equipment team. “Those guys are the first guys here and they’re probably the last guys that leave every single day,” says defensive end Josh Mauro, who signed with Oakland this offseason, about the equipment crew during a conversation with reporters after practice. “Guys like that, baby—that’s what makes the engine go!” He sounds almost like he’s doing an impression of Al Davis.
When the NFL’s team owners held their annual meeting in March of 1981 in Hawaii, there were a number of topics up for discussion. (One of them was the definition of a catch, proving that everything old is new again.) Multiple items on the agenda had to do with the Oakland Raiders. A lawsuit stemming from Davis’s unpopular desire to relocate the team to Los Angeles was one, while another was a vote to ban a favorite new substance of Raiders equipment staff and players alike: Stickum.
Stickum, as Sports Illustrated reported in 1981, was also known as “Kwik Grip Hold Tight Paste, a substance consisting of ‘natural wood resin, Isopropyl Myristate, Encol resin, Balsam of Fir, Beeswax, lanolin, turpentine, Petrolatum and Wax Victory Amber.’” And the Raiders, spurred on by their innovative, always-seeking-an-edge equipment manager Dick Romanski, were its no. 1 fans. On cold days, according to ESPN, receiver Fred Biletnikoff stored the substance on his thighs (“but not too close to the crotch”) so that it would stay warm enough to apply to his hands during games. He smeared so much on that at halftime, Romanski had to hand-feed him sticks of gum, like a priest bestowing communion.
By 1980, safety Lester Hayes was slathering the stuff all over his person and becoming the public face of this tacky goo. He hauled in 13 interceptions that season, the last one before the NFL owners voted in Hawaii to ban Stickum. (Hayes later told the San Francisco Chronicle that he thought the ban was less about the Stickum and more about a grudge that then-commissioner Pete Rozelle had against Davis and his desire to head south to L.A.) Regardless of the real reason behind the Stickum decision, though, it was good news for Bob, who no longer had to sit around every Monday scrubbing helmets with turpentine for hours.
Romanski’s memorable dalliance with Kwik Grip was of a piece with the sort of creatively disruptive tactics that defined Davis’s football career. Davis was 24 years old and a brand-new private in the Army when he was transferred to Fort Belvoir in Virginia in 1953 to be the base’s football coach. (A football fanatic, he had for years been networking and writing articles for a publication called Scholastic Coach about football strategy, and his name had gotten around.) According to Murray Olderman’s Just Win, Baby: The Al Davis Story, Davis in turn cherry-picked players and coaches with football backgrounds, importing them from within the Army, one of whom was Dick Romanski. After playing quarterback for Davis for a season against other armed service teams, Romanski then worked as an assistant coach.
Years later, when Davis took over as Raiders head coach in 1963, Dick Romanski was among the people he asked to join him. When vision problems prevented Romanski from keeping up with the reams of game film that Davis liked to pore over, the men decided that Romanski would man the equipment room. “Thank god he did,” Bob says, “because it was a long career there. Coaching’s kind of a tough career.”
Unlike Bob, Dick didn’t grow up with a dad who ran the equipment room for an NFL team. But he did grow up, in Wisconsin, with a cobbler for a father; in some ways he went into the family business too. “His dad made all his shoes,” Bob says. “Made his football cleats and everything, in his garage. So what he gave me was the ability to know how to fix things and work on equipment.” Over the years, Dick Romanski also gave a lot to the Raiders and to the NFL; his contributions are at once utilitarian and puckish.
Even if he wasn’t on the coaching staff, Dick Romanski had lots of opinions about football players, and Davis was happy to hear them. According to Lucas Romanski, Bob’s son and Dick’s grandson, the eldest Romanski “pitched Al Davis on players all the time, and would tell me stories about the notable ones”: Ray Guy, Todd Christensen, and even Sebastian Janikowski, the kicker taken in the first round of the 2000 NFL draft—in a surprise Davis selection—who wound up playing for the team for the next 17 years. Another story Dick told his grandson was that it was his visage—a sort of scowly, large-spectacled Marty Schottenheimer look—that inspired the little pirate face on the Oakland Raiders logo. Other accounts say the logo is based on an actor named Randolph Scott; “I don’t know exactly what is the real truth of the whole thing,” Bob says. But when it comes to the Romanskis, most stories are pretty believable because so many of them turn out to be true.
Dick carved a pumpkin into a helmet for the 6-foot-7 future Hall of Fame defensive end Ted Hendricks. He tinkered with the official formula for “Raiders Silver” helmet paint juuuust enough for people to notice. He had the green light to boss around Mark Davis, Al’s son, who was an assistant in the equipment room in his youth and is now the Raiders owner. In 1976, the Pittsburgh Steelers were furious when they spotted an obscenity scrawled on a football during a game against the Raiders, but as then-quarterback Ken Stabler reassured them, the message wasn’t personal: Dick Romanski, fed up with all the footballs that his players would pilfer at practice to hand off to kids, had started writing undesirable expletives on the balls to keep them in-house. One had slipped into the game.
“Do you want to tell some stories someday?” asks Gruden after a practice, referring to the lifetime of Raiders lore that Bob Romanski has witnessed firsthand. “That’s where you want to go. You know, Bobby’s been with Al Davis, he knows all the legendary players, he even paints their shoes. If we lose Bobby, we’re going to have to hope the walls can talk, to try to put the pieces together in our past.”
That would involve talking to a lot of walls. Befitting a franchise that always feels existentially in flux, the Raiders will be making their third major move in four decades when they finally make good on their longtime plans to head south to Las Vegas next season. In 1982, Davis prevailed in an antitrust lawsuit against the league that enabled him to relocate the Raiders to Los Angeles, where the team spent 13 seasons before returning to Oakland in 1995. “It was tough the first year or so,” Romanski says of L.A.: He was 19, years younger than most Raiders employees, and didn’t really know anyone. But he also has some fun memories from that time, like hanging out with the Wayne Gretzky–and–Paul Coffey–era Los Angeles Kings in the locker room with his dad after a hockey game, or meeting his future wife, Cecilia, a Southern California native who uprooted and moved to Oakland with him when the Raiders went back. Lucas Romanski was a baby at the time, and soon after the Romanskis’ daughter, Abbey, was born.
Fourteen years ago, Cecilia was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, and she has been undergoing treatment, including chemotherapy, for the cancer ever since. “And then last March,” Romanski says, “a year ago, she did a new study.” Cecilia was her doctor’s first patient to undergo CAR T-cell therapy, which involves engineering immune cells. “And now she’s cancer-free,” Romanski says. “Can’t find it. Been well over a year now.” It has given Romanski, who repeatedly refers to his wife as “awesome,” a meaningful perspective on life and family, and has informed the way he runs his business. “He knows that we have to take care of being a husband and father first,” says Adam Johnson, a longtime equipment staffer. As a result, Johnson says, “even the tough days are easy.”
Mark Davis, the Raiders owner, is a few years older than Romanski, but the two have known each other since they were kids working for Dick on the equipment staff, and have a shared history. “Dick is one of the building blocks of the franchise, along with my dad,” Davis told the San Francisco Chronicle when Dick died in 2015. His respect for Bob Romanski is clear, too: When the Raiders designed their new downtown Las Vegas stadium and their new training facility in nearby Henderson, they did so with major input from Romanski, who was empowered by the team to design his dream equipment space. It was like giving a chef free rein over a brand-new kitchen.
Romanski was prepared: He already had a book full of ideas that he wanted to bring to life, according to Johnson, and also enlisted his crew to help him literally map out his plans in life-size form. “We got made fun of,” says Johnson, “but one thing that we did is we cleared the football field and we mapped out our rooms with strings and nails.” The new place will have a room for just helmets and a room for just jerseys; the thing that Romanski is most excited for is the installation of one of those hanging garment conveyers, like at the dry cleaner. Giving Romanski so much input “goes to speak for the equity Bob has with the organization,” Johnson says. “You hear horror stories from other people that are building stadiums that they just get what’s there and don’t get an actual say.”
Lucas Romanski laughs that “I don’t have any special talents when it comes to the equipment role,” and while he has spent tons of time following his dad around over the years, he currently works at a hedge fund. His sister, Abbey, works at Disney. But even if Romanski’s kids aren’t following directly in his footsteps, Romanski has forged a lasting legacy with the Raiders. The new buildings will bear his creative imprint the same way players now rock his custom cleats. His family name will remain a pillar of the Raiders organization—perhaps not one with the flashy history of the Davis family, but one that is essential and load-bearing all the same. And through the kinship Romanski extends toward his workers, the spirit of family is strong. Molina sounds reverential when he talks about what he’s learned from both Dick and Bob Romanski: He compares them with the Gracies, a prominent Brazilian family of martial artists known as the First Family of Jiu-jitsu. “It’s like getting your black belt from a higher legacy,” Molina says. “Every day I’ve learned something new. Just when you think you’ve got something figured out, Bob comes right in and says, ‘Hey, there’s something else.’ It’s awesome.”
It looks like some permutation of a screw-in-a-lightbulb joke: How many grown men does it take to get a guy into and out of his shoulder pads? Right now, as a safety named Jordan Richards attempts to try on his slim-fitting equipment, the answer is a solid two grown men, with a third ready at any moment to jump in and help too. They grunt a little and at one point Romanski basically stiff-arms Richards’s chest to get enough leverage to free him. “That’ll be the hardest thing I do today,” says Richards, kind of panting, looking at his pads. “I think these are smaller than the ones I wore when I was 10.” Romanski says that before games, this scene is multiplied: “There are probably 20 guys who need help putting it on.” (Getting the pads off after games is usually a little easier on account of all the sweat.)
Romanski apologizes: Now that his morning tasks are mostly complete, he has to run out and help with practice. During training camp, he says, there are fewer “kids,” as he calls them, around to shag balls and facilitate drills than there usually are during the season, so he sometimes gets out there to chip in. He starts jogging out toward the field, his frame looking a little bit like that of an old tennis pro, his shoulders broad but thin, like a wire hanger. A drone flies overhead; a guy named “DJ Dope Jams” spins tunes; Raiders fans peer into binoculars at third-string running backs and minor celebrity fans. Visitors on this first August weekend include California Governor Gavin Newsom, Victoria’s Secret model Josephine Skriver, and her fiancé, the musician Alexander DeLeon.
When Romanski gets out onto the field, he will act like a cutoff outfielder, catching and tossing the ball from one guy to another, mostly using an easy shoveling motion but at one point snagging the ball low and one-handed in one smooth swoop like a subscript Odell. Later, asked about the move, he will joke: “I like to show them a thing or two.” He will come back to the equipment room afterward, ready to fix what’s broken and fit what’s new, ready to mix the rote with the unexpected and the mechanical with the creative in much the same way the world’s best football players strive to do.
“Bob’s a wizard,” says Carr. “I always make fun of Bob,” says Molina, “and I always tell him, like, ‘Bobby, you ever seen that show MacGyver?’” This season, Romanski will solve some problems and preempt others, as he always does and as his father always did. He will fold and catalog and heat-press and hammer and airbrush. He will coordinate equipment for eleventh-hour signees and help pack up the lockers of all the players, like Richards, who don’t make the 53-man cut. He’ll get a head start on packing the trunks that will be sent to London for the Raiders’ visit during Week 5 and putting together a pristine inventory for Customs of every last pack of tape and box of tools.
The packing is also practice. To many fans, the team’s upcoming move feels more bitter than sweet, particularly given that another Oakland team, the Golden State Warriors, is also relocating (in GSW’s case, across the bay to San Francisco proper). Regardless, in a few months Romanski will close up shop in the East Bay and prepare to go to Vegas. This time next year, he’ll no longer be going for the same 5-mile walks with Cecilia that got them through so many tough years; they’ll have to find a new route in Nevada. He already knows that saying goodbye to the practice facility where he has spent just about every day since the team returned north in 1995 will be particularly hard. “It’s just comfortable,” he says. “You know where everything’s at. That’ll be the one that’ll be harder to leave than the stadium, for me. The stadium, you’re there one day, 10 days a year.” There may not be a garment conveyer or a stand-alone room for helmets at the old place, but there is history. All the freshly poured concrete in the world can’t build a perfect replacement for the embedded memories of the Raiders’ rich, rocky past. Mark Davis has said, however, that the team plans to keep training camp in Napa.
Before Romanski can run along and start doing all these things, he abruptly turns around and hustles back toward the equipment room, disappearing inside for a minute, emerging with a small nod and a quick explanation. Even the best equipment manager in the business, it turns out—a guy who has spent his whole life anticipating issues and setting up his players for success and organizing sneakers and filling his father’s shoes—even he forgets his sunglasses sometimes.