With heavy hearts, the Oakland Raiders on Sunday defeated the Houston Texans 25-20 in a back-and-forth, entertaining game played one day after the passing of the indelible Al Davis. The organization’s longtime owner and leader died Saturday at his California home at the age of 82.
One of the most important figures in NFL history, Davis was best known as a maverick and rebel, a man who had a vision and did it his way – regardless what anybody thought. He wore the Silver and Black proudly. The pirate-with-a-patch logo, still the most recognizable brand in all of sports, became synonymous with a bad-boy attitude. But Davis’s ultimate goal was to strive for a commitment to excellence.
It was Davis’s rebellious spirit, that willingness to buck the establishment, which helped turn the NFL into the establishment in sports – the most successful sports league in American history. Wearing his black slacks, the standard black nylon jacket with silver piping and the large Raider patch over the left breast plate, Davis transformed into one of the world’s truly iconic sports figures. He was as recognizable as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, as bombastic as Muhammad Ali.
A kid in 1970s Seattle did not have the luxury of claiming an NFL football team as his own; the closest squad was the San Francisco 49ers. I liked Gene Washington and John Brodie on the 49ers, but they weren’t my favorites. I enjoyed watching Roman Gabriel and many others with the Los Angeles Rams. But my team growing up was the Oakland Raiders. The men in black – Ken Stabler (“The Snake”), Art Shell, Ted Hendricks, Calvin Branch, and Fred Biletnikoff. Anyone in my family will tell you that even after Seattle was granted a franchise, I still was loyal to my team.
I finally met Davis in 1998 at the yearly scouting combine held in Indianapolis, where the best college football players are invited for physicals, workouts and interviews with all 32 teams, under unusual circumstances. Between workout groups, I retreated into one of the restrooms inside the RCA Dome. A short gentleman soon positioned himself in the stall next to me. I realized it was none other than the legendary owner of the Raiders.
“Hello, Mr. Davis,” I said.
“Hello, young man. What is your name?”
I identified myself as a member of the Carolina Panthers’ staff, to which he replied, “It is a pleasure meeting you.” I never forgot the surreal, yet undeniably special, moment.
Davis enjoys a multifaceted reputation among players and peers in the NFL as an innovator, villain and admired man. He was a man who created a franchise in his own image – hard-nosed, ruthless, with the motto “just win, baby.” Though sometimes difficult to work with, he helped change the game by facilitating the merger of two leagues. He battled owners, cities and state officials in court, not to mention addressed major issues with commissioners behind the scenes. All the while, his teams won Super Bowls, earning him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992.
Davis was initially hired as the head coach and general manager of the Raiders in 1963. He had a tremendous season, going 10-4 and winning the AFL championship. He had a stint as the AFL commissioner in 1969, but resigned and returned to the Raiders as their managing general partner in 1977. He won his first Super Bowl with the Raiders that same year.
In 1980, Davis would win his second Super Bowl. He moved the franchise to Los Angeles in 1982. Two years later, he won his third Lombardi Trophy. More tumult followed in 1995, when friction with the city of Los Angeles prompted him to move the Raiders back to Oakland.
Throughout the late ’70s and ’80s, Davis was hated by many for his players’ nastiness on the field, to say nothing of his own questionable business ethics. But Davis remained unfazed by the criticism. In 1982, his legal hang-ups with the NFL cost the league $50 million. His reputation took a severe beating with the press and Raider Nation, but privately other NFL owners started looking at alternative locations for their own franchises. The Raiders were moved back to Oakland in 1995 primarily because Davis believed the Coliseum’s size and fan base lacked the ability to support the cost of running his team.
Over the years, he gradually earned respect, loyalty and love from all of his players. I spoke to several players I helped coach at the University of Washington, who also played for Davis and the Raider organization. The first thing out of their mouths: “Once a Raider, always a Raider.” Former coaching colleagues and current scouts, along with Lincoln Kennedy, Napoleon Kaufman, Mickey Marvin and many others, freely express their love for the man.
That loyalty is a two-way street. Davis was asked several times to be the inductor for many Raiders who gained enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He paid for surgeries of retired players and rehab stints for many individuals, and attended the funerals of various former Raiders.
Some thoughts from luminaries around the league on the passing of Davis:
Patriots coach Bill Belichick: “While I am saddened by the news of Mr. Davis’ passing, I will forever be heartened and enriched by the many personal interactions I had with him over the years. His winning, his football knowledge, his passion for his team and contributions to the league made him one of the all-time greats. By striving for the highest level of excellence with our respective teams and the game itself, we will be honoring the memory of Al Davis.”
Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt: “From the earliest days of the AFL, Al’s love for the game and fierce loyalty to his franchise contributed to the success and popularity of pro football. His competitive spirit helped develop the great rivalry our team and fans enjoy today with the Oakland Raiders. His contributions to the game played an important role in building the strong foundation the NFL enjoys today.”
49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh: “Mr. Davis is a titan and pillar of the game. I had the pleasure and honor to know him and to work for him. And to me, he is the greatest. The autumn wind will always be a Raider.”
Chargers owner Dean Spanos: “Al Davis is one of the main reasons our family is in the NFL today. Al approached my dad (Alex) about getting involved in the NFL and was very helpful to us through the process. He had great insight into the league, both the product on the field and the business off the field. He saw the potential for growth. He was very much a visionary. Our family will always be grateful to Al for his friendship.
“Al is also a big reason for the strong rivalry between the Raiders and the Chargers and its popularity among both teams’ fans. He personified the image and mystique of the Raiders, and that image has helped build the strength of our rivalries and the popularity of our game. There has been no one in the NFL like Al Davis.”
Davis also fired numerous coaches and front-office executives over the years, and even traded coach Jon Gruden to Tampa Bay for draft picks. He was a controversial figure, but one with an intense vision and passion for the game of football that translated into the construction of one of the most storied teams in NFL history.
Love him or loathe him, Davis did it his way – and highly effectively, at that.