By Jason Keidel
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Before he became the warped man wrapped in those Member’s Only jumpsuits, before he started firing coaches at a rate that would make George Steinbrenner blush, before he started drafting players who sparkled on the outside and crumbled on the inside, before he became the football version of that crazy old man in the park with pigeons pecking at the crumbs he scattered on the sidewalk…
Before he became a caricature, Al Davis ran the most feared football team on Earth. From the late 1960s into the ‘80s, the Oakland Raiders were an asylum of violent offenders whose crimes were legal on Sundays, appearing in four Super Bowls and winning three. (His only loss was to Lombardi). Twenty years ago, half your friends were Raiders fans, and Davis was the reason why.
You could argue that the 1970s were the golden age of music, movies, and football, with overlapping dynasties fighting for Super Bowls they would easily win in today’s climate of parity, and would have won more in their heyday if they weren’t stepping over each other to get there. If not for the Raiders, how many would the Dolphins have won, and vice versa? And if not for the Steelers, how many would all of them (and the Cowboys) have won?
I, like many, project pristine qualities upon certain eras because they reflect my youth. But I’m not obscenely jaded. The NFL of the 1970s mirrored the country that couched it. Speed and painkillers were rampant. Bounties were placed on the backs of running backs and wide receivers. Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson said he stuffed his thigh pads with cocaine during a Super Bowl to keep him alert. And perhaps the bulk of my beloved black & gold jammed their bulging buttocks with syringes bubbling with steroids. One of Davis’s most prized pupils, Lyle Alzado, blamed his brain cancer on his use of the juice.
Davis wasn’t too different from his peers in deed; he was just more open about his willingness to embrace the bandit, and thus we romanticized his Raiders as these drinking, swashbuckling band of brothers, led by Ken Stabler, who shook off their hangovers long enough to pound migraines into the enemy. His savage defenses gave birth to Alligator Arms – those of wide receivers too timid to extend their hands as they ran across the middle to catch a pass, deathly afraid of the forearm about to pound their foreheads.
But Davis was more than a warden. He was a brilliant football mind who built a machine of malicious but highly skilled players who ran through walls for him. His rosters were roll calls for Canton. He picked Jim Plunkett off the scrap heap after the ’71 Heisman winner failed in New England and was rewarded with two Super Bowls. On offense he found Jim Otto, Stabler, Cliff Branch, Todd Christiensen, and Marcus Allen. On defense he had Ted Hendricks, George Atkinson, Jack Tatum, Lester Hayes, Mike Haynes and Howie Long.
What Davis did was give words to the American narrative: Just win, baby. He was not afraid to say what we thought, that winning justifies the eschewing of certain courtesies.
His verbal missives and mandates were always delivered in a hopelessly thick Brooklyn accent, giving wining a familiar syntax. NFL Films even gave them a song, appropriately billed, “The Battle Hymn of the Raider Nation.” If you’ve ever seen a slow-mo montage from the old days, you’ve surely heard it while watching Stabler or Plunkett, thigh-deep in dust, lead the Raiders to another victory.
And while you could call Al Davis many things, bigot was not one of them. Indeed, he hired Art Shell when there were nothing but white faces under coaching headsets. Thankfully, it’s now common for owners to hire black coaches, but Davis, as always, was way ahead of his peers.
Baseball’s iteration of Davis died last year: Steinbrenner. Davis wasn’t lauded like King George because he reigned in the obscurity of Oakland. Had Davis owned the Jets he’d be swathed in superlatives, bouquets dropped by his bronzed likeness. Steinbrenner wasn’t afraid to run afoul of the law and, like Al, George knew the bottom line was paved with championships.
The Raiders had a brief revival a decade ago, losing a Super Bowl to Tampa Bay, and were a Tuck Rule away from playing in another. After that the team tumbled into the gutter. Some pundits say it takes five years to recover from a blown No. 1 draft pick, so perhaps the Raiders are about to become respectable, shedding the hex from drafting JaMarcus Russell, who was far more into food and codeine than quarterbacking.
Davis’s boys won yesterday, on the road, the way the old man would have liked it. After the game his current head coach, Hue Jackson, crumbled to a knee, crying in gratitude for Davis, while the players dotted the Texas grass to give their two cents to the media on the immortal Al.
The name Al Davis doesn’t ring around the Key Demo, so most of you only recall a wrinkled man in repose. But anyone over 40 remembers a titan, a man whose club was so well known they only needed their logo pasted to one side of their helmet. And they played just as they were named and branded, with a skillful fury that helped make football the behemoth it is today. Al Davis means as much to football as Modell, Mara, and Namath. He just happened to wear a black hat – stenciled with silver as if to remind you that he wasn’t all bad.
I’m reminded of that famous scene from “A Bronx Tale,” when the boy asks if it’s better to be respected or feared. For a few decades, Al Davis was both.
Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com