In the mid-1970s, the sports editor at the Colorado Springs Sun assigned five would-be freelance sportswriters to cover Friday night football games in a tryout for a gig that paid the princely sum of $5 per week (that’s $22 in today’s money).
It snowed. It was Colorado. It snowed a lot: more than a foot. Four of the five would-be newspapermen stayed home. The fifth went out and froze his ass and turned in some copy. “I got the job by default,” recalls Charles William “C.W.” Nevius.
It’s a long way from the frozen tundra of Colorado Springs to beneath the limelight in a compact upstairs theater in The Marsh on Valencia Street — both physically and metaphysically. Nevius’ one-man show, The Oakland Raiders, True Crime & Coming of Age in San Francisco takes viewers along for a stroll to some of the places he’s visited in-between; it opens Friday and runs until Dec. 15.
Nevius, 68, retired as a San Francisco Chronicle thrice-a-week (!) political columnist in 2016. Younger readers may not even remember his 20 years in the sports department or an era when the Oakland Raiders’ slogan “Commitment to Excellence” wasn’t a cruel hoax.
But such a time did exist, and Nevius, then 30, was along to document it. The Raiders’ magical run to the 1980 Super Bowl title, as witnessed through the eyes of a young writer and new Bay Area resident, forms the crux of Nevius’ show at The Marsh. He also manages to weave in his not-quite concurrent work exposing the sexual assault scandal and cover-up attempt that sank the University of San Francisco men’s basketball program.
That’s a sports-heavy lineup. But the gameplay is a relatively minor element. Rather, Nevius’ 80-minute show is much more about the lives of some deeply wild and crazy people and the profession of journalism (also a repository of wild and crazy people) — and the stories amassed during four decades of being paid to amass and retell those stories.
These are not mere after-hours, barroom tales. This is acting; Nevius is slipping into and out of characters: The pious Jesuit abetting the dirty sports program; the hulking lineman whose girlfriend once drove her car onto a practice field in an attempt to run him down; the chain-smoking, polyester-clad editor; the Tourettes-like bursts of a defensive savant known for applying enough stick-um to his body to serve as a human flytrap.
At one point, Nevius emphatically re-creates the snow shovel-on-frozen pavement sound of Raiders safety Mike Davis’ body sliding over the icy Cleveland turf after he sealed a playoff win with an interception in the end zone.
“I try to think of this as a column with sound effects,” says Nevius following a recent rehearsal. That’s a good line, but the analogy breaks down a bit with analysis. Nevius, coming from the crucible of sports coverage, shifted into the grueling three-a-week news slot. This show, on the other hand, required damn near two years of workshopping.
“Oh, I was such an idiot,” Nevius said (a statement that might be seconded by area homeless and affordability activists). “I had put together four 15-minute stories for readings and I figured I’d put them together, do a tap-dance in-between, and I’d have a show! I’d get it done in a week! Well, none of those stories are in there now. There is so much more to it than I thought.”
Playing characters, for one thing. This is something Nevius initially told his director, David Ford, he was not comfortable with. Okay, Ford responded. If you can’t make that level of commitment (to excellence), then I can’t be your director. “So,” Nevius says, “I’m doing characters.”
It’s an unusual career trajectory to go from teaching high school (as Nevius did) to freelance high-school sports reporting to covering a Super Bowl team to writing Page One news columns — to the stage. “No one is going to come up to you and say, ‘you should do a one-man show,’” Nevius observes, accurately. “But it’s worth a try. I’m retired. I don’t want to take up woodworking. Why not do this?”
The Oakland Raiders, True Crime & Coming of Age in San Francisco runs from Nov. 16 to Dec. 15 at The Marsh Theatre, 1062 Valencia. Info: TheMarsh.org