Joe Leonor is a peaceful man. That said, if there is a “bloodbath” on Sunday — when the Raiders play the 49ers for the first time since 2011 — as Oakland defensive lineman Justin Tuck predicted, the founder of the superfan network Niner Empire will have no issue. Provided, of course, the conflict this time stays on the field.
Fights, beatings and two postgame shootings in 2011 led the 49ers to ask the NFL to cancel the annual Bay Area preseason showdown.
Fearing a repeat, “I've heard people say, 'Oh, hell no, I'm not going,'” said the Mission resident and beyond-diehard fan who runs a merchandise shop in San Carlos on top of overseeing the international network of 94 Niner Empire chapters. But he's going — it'll be his first visit to O.co Coliseum — and he's expecting no trouble.
“I'm hoping to God that people realize it's just football,” he said. “The only good that came of [the 2011 game] is that it brought to people's attention that this is about football, and not knuckleheads ruining it for the real fans.”
Despite some fistfights in the stands, the troubled game started off well, with a crowd staying late and staying interested in the action well into the fourth quarter, a rarity for the preseason, Leonor recalled. The end was violent chaos.
Two men were shot in the Candlestick Park parking lot following the game — including one who was attempting to rescue a friend from a beating — and another fan was beaten unconscious in a restroom.
Two of the wounded fans sued the NFL and the 49ers. Their case was settled out of court in 2013 before a scheduled trial.
That scene seemed to corroborate what Hall of Fame 49ers quarterback Joe Montana said was one of legendary coach Bill Walsh's many tidbits of sound advice.
Whenever the 49ers played the Raiders, Walsh would instruct the players to “tell your families to sit this one out and watch it on TV,” Montana recalled during a 2011 ESPN interview.
In reality, the two organizations have more connections than they may like to admit — and not just because the Raiders are, these days, the closest NFL franchise to the city of San Francisco.
Walsh's first job coaching in the NFL was with the Raiders — as was current 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh's, whose first boss in the NFL was legendary Raiders owner Al Davis.
As for when or how the rivalry first turned ugly, nobody can really say.
Maybe it was when years of losing seasons and plummeting ticket prices changed the demographic at Candlestick Park. Maybe it was when the Raiders returned to Oakland from Los Angeles, lost a Super Bowl and started their own recent stretch of futility — they are 1-11 this year and have not had a winning season since 2002.
It doesn't matter now, with the 49ers needing a win to stay in the playoff hunt, and the Raiders able to salvage a season's worth of pride with a win.
“It's their Super Bowl,” Leonor said.
Red and Gold or Silver and Black, the “real fans” — the ones who show up at 6 a.m. to prepare massive tailgates and whose holidays all involve kickoffs — all deplored what happened the last time and pledged to party and watch football like civilized human beings.
As civilized as you can be wearing facepaint, skull masks and a gorilla suit, anyway.
“There's a segment of fans who go for the wrong reasons,” said Rob Rivera, one of the founders of the notorious Black Hole (though he doesn't dress up, he noted). “But overall, it's a very small percentage of people” who cause trouble.
“The Black Hole was started to make the Coliseum an intimidating place, but for the other team, not for the other fans,” he noted. “I want to make one thing very clear: The Black Hole stands for nonviolence.”
So far, it seems the notions of peace and togetherness aren't empty promises: There will be a joint 49ers-Raiders tailgate put on by fan chapters from both teams out of Fresno, Leonor said.
And if that's not enough, there will also be a sizable police presence — and everybody at the game for football will welcome a zero-tolerance policy for nonsense.
“I'm 48 years old, man. I have two young daughters,” Rivera said. “The last thing I want to be a part of is a group that's going to be any sort of trouble.”
He added: “You bet your ass we're fired up. If we're able to knock the hated Santa Clara-Frisco 49ers out of the playoffs with a loss, there'll be nothing better than that. But the last thing we want is go out there with any issues — we want no part of any sort of negativity.”