by Peter Richmond
âA small wiry man in a tan golf jacket with a greasy duck-tail haircut who paced along the sidelines of both practice fields with a speedy kind of intensityâŚ.like a pimp or a track tout,â was Hunter S. Thompsonâs take on the man, back in 1973, during the too-short month they hung together at Raider practices talking about, according to Thompson. âforeign affairs.â (Jesus, how much would you pay for transcripts of those conversations?) After a few weeks, Davis had an assistant banish the Gonzo king from the kingdom of the silver and black; Al, always the paranoiac, quickly decided he didnât trust the man.
But if youâre looking for an analogy for Alâs legacy, there you have it, pre-packaged. What Thompson was to journalism, Al Davis was to professional football; barbarians outside the gate with not the slightest desire to be inside; asterisked BUT envied by everyone in their respective professional, rebels with a cause â in Davisâ case, to beat the Rozelles of the world at their own game, and beat the racists, beat the bullies, and stomp their heads open in the process, Albert Haynesworth-style.
Forget the Darth Vader crap; comparing Al Davis to a Saturday-matinee-serialized sci-fi movie emperor would be like comparing the real Caesar Augustus to George Reeves in a gladiator movie. Oneâs a cartoon. The other actuallyâŚbuilt an empire. âThe Raiders wanted to have the greatest organization in the history of sports,â Davis said in his Canton induction speech for John Madden five years ago, and thatâs as good an emperorâs manifesto as youâre ever going to find, except that he could have added, in his case, âand make everyone else weep in jealousy, if not abject painâ â which, at Alâs prime, everyone more or less did.
Besides: Davisâ empire wasnât evil. Just because everyone from Sonny Bargar and his Angels chapter to various gangs have been drawn by the Raidersâ vibe doesnât mean the man promoted maliciousness.
Yes, the manâs empireâs been on the wane of late. For the last seven or eight years, hoping my Raiders might rebound, I couldnât stop hearing the Keith Reid lyrics for Procol Harum: âThe seaweed and the cobweb have rotted your sword; your barricades broken, your enemies lord.âÂ But mistaking Al Davis for Davis 2.0, the steward of the dark era that began when he yanked his team from the East Bayâs desperate, hungry maw to try and make easy money down in the City of Illusion is to mistake the Salinger who wrote Catcher to the guy who later favored young girls, ended up eating frozen peas for breakfast and spending a lot of time in an orgone box.
Which is not to imply that the late-era Al Davis was anywhere as near a weirdsmobile as J.D. — just that by the end, like J.D, in his New Hampshire bunker, Al was long out of touch with the collectivist workings of the business of the sport that had fueled his passion. He countenanced no trusted advisors. Then, by definition, emperors seldom enlist people to sit by their side and second-guess them (âCaligula? Sir? You really think we ought to draft the wide receiver from Dayton whoM no one invited to the combine?â âCombine? What combine? Somebody cover this guy in pine pitch and set him on fire.â)
And yes, Davis did score a Super Bowl appearance less than a decade ago, but if said teamâs head coach (Bill Callahan) neglected to change the defensive signals so that the opposing coach, who coached the Raiders the year before (Jon Gruden), knows what plays youâre calling during the game, and subsequently humiliates you, does that qualify as a competent Super Bowl appearance?
But we get one shot at assessing a pioneerâs legacy in the days right after his death, so this time, letâs get it right. In the history of a sport that now dominates the cultural landscape, Al Davis is football Rushmore, and this is not in dispute. Feel free to argue about what other three old white guys who forged the game out of granite ought to be sculpted in a quarry somewhere outside of Pittsburgh, which, face it, if there were a football Rushmore, thatâs where it would be; me, Iâm going to lobby for the weirdly nose-forward assymetrical Brooklyn-y profile of the man who not only won three Super Bowls and built teams so scary that no one wanted to play them, but literally changed the face of the game. Because, letâs face it: somebody had to.
There are a million stories about Al Davis and his pioneering racial ways in a league whose roots lay in post-WWII steel-mill towns and whose pre-Black glory days, despite the domination of Jim Brown and Big Daddy Lipscomb, thrived on a lunchpail litany of names like Pietrosanti and Robustelli. Butkus and Modzelewski. McDonald and McIlhenny.
But this is mine: one night in 1964, in Davisâ second year as the Raidersâ coach, an unnamed white Raider called out Fred Williamson for being with a Swedish woman at a table in the Miramar Club.Â Raider running back Clem Daniels wanted to pummel the guy for being a racist; Jim Otto held Clem back.
The next morning, Davis called Daniels to his office to find out what had happened. âThen he gathers the team,â Daniels told me a few years ago, âand says, `I will not have this bullshit in this organization. If youâre doing shit like this, not only are you off the Raiders, Iâll get your ass out of football.â And after that, there was never a problem on the Oakland Raiders.â
It wasnât just Alâs scouting black schools like Maryland State-Eastern Shore to find athletes like Art Shell (whom he would hire, 20 years after drafting him, as the first black head coach in the modern league) â and Tennessee State, to draft Eldridge Dickey in 1968: the first black first-round draft pick in league history.
It wasnât just assembling, in the Sixties and early Seventies, a multiracial team that appealed to a multiracial second-sister city, wherein players of all colors would hang for hours in post-game parking lots with partiers of all color, and then hang together at every bar from Castro Valley to Walnut Creek to Jack London Square, from Uppyâs to the Grotto to â always — Big Alâs Cactus Room, on 19th off Webster, named for Al Punzak, who stood 5-foot-2 and kept a loaded .45 under his pillow in his apartment above the place.
âIt didnât break down black and white,â Seventies tight end Bob Moore told me. âIt wasnât blacks in one place and white players the other. We went to the same places, from Big Alâs to the 19th Hole, from Clancyâs to the Grotto. Itâs Upshaw, Shell, Dalby, Hubbard, all drinking together after a game. Thatâs the way things broke down on this team. You didnât see that around the league back then.
âAl didnât care who your color was, what your drinking habits were, probably didnât care about your sexuality. Didnât care about any of that shit. He was drafting players for their ability to play football. Not for their lifestyle. Not for their race. Not for anything else.â
âI understood the blacks pretty well,â Davis told Gary Smith in Inside Sports in 1981. And if this was sort of a tone-deaf thing to say, you have to remember that Al didnât get out a lot, even back then. Real outlaws seldom do. This is probably why, in the same interview he said, âI didnât hate Hitler. He captivated me.â
The fact that Al qualified this egregious blurt with, âI knew he had to be stopped. Jesus Christ, he tried to take on the whole world, the cocksucker!â has been sort of lost, but face it, once youâve evoked Adolph, all bets are off, even if you grope for some context: His dad, the successful Brooklyn manufacturer of womenâs underwear, insisted his kids map European troop movements in The Big One, wherein Al, future emperor, saw some pretty impressive stuff on the Wermacht side.
That he couldnât see, 50 years later, how incendiary his words had been is, somehow, a barometer of his true rebel nature, which is to say: True rebels, by definition, have to discard the mainstream lens for seeing things. Otherwise, youâre attacking the enemy on the enemyâs terms.
On the other side was the power of that rebellious side of his soul back in Davis 1.0:Â he generally saved it for where it counted. This wasnât a piss-ant megalo like Jerry Jones, or Andy Griffith in Kazanâs Face in the Crowd . This was a true game-changer who saved the rebellions for the big-time arenas, where they counted. He let his players do the meaningless venting, from the streakers at practice to the bar-top stripteases to the punched out plate-glass windows to the weed-smoking in the closet of the El Rancho Tropicana, a training-camp motel that only David Lynch could have loved
Like the great emperors, Davis picked his battles to win the big wars. In 1966, when Pearly Peteâs gray flannel LombardiLeague tried to swat down Alâs gnarly upstart band AFL â there wasnât enough money to keep both alive — Davis revealed that his league has already signed a half-dozen NFL QBs to future contracts, the CBS league caved.
But Al was pissed as hell. Al wanted to grind Pete into submission. When Rozelle was named commissioner of the merged leagues, Al limped back to Oakland, where he took it out on the principal owner, a man named Wayne Valley, whom he detested, by wresting total control and ownership of the team, off an initial investment ofâŚ$18,000.
And in 1977, and in 1981, and in 1984, he tried not to smirk when Pete had to hand him the Lombardi Trophy.
Heâd shown the bastards.
Hereâs the cool thing about Al holding on until Friday night. He lived long enough to know that people had stopped laughing at his incompetency and started taking his team seriously. By the time Alâs soul ran into some ethereal authority figure, and he said, âYou donât want to admit me? F*** you! I donât need your afterlife! I got an afterlife over here thatâs gonna kick your ass!â â his team, finally, was being referred to as a team with actual playoff possibilities.
Saving eventual face mattered a lot to Al Davis. I know this because I was granted an audience with him exactly two years ago. Iâd come to talk about late Seventies Sundays on the East Coast when the NBC sun bathed my guys out there in some outlaw-loving luminescence — Biletnikoffâs eyeblack all vampiric, Tatumâs beard all Panther-y, Snakeâs hair flapping like a happy freak flag.
But at one point, without my asking about the current malaise, Davis said to me,Â âI know this:Â That I let it slip the last several years. That will tarnish a legacy that was tough to beat. But somehow or other Iâll get it back before Iâm gone.â
Weirdly, mostly I remember the doors. The black doors to the windowless black-everything-ed office seemed to be about twice as big and heavy as they had to be, with silver handles that looked like huge Cosa Costra cufflinks. After they closed behind the assistant whoâd led me in, there was sort of an airlock effect: It was me and The Man. Iâve interviewed thousands of men. Iâd never interviewed The Man.
He was sitting at the end of a long table, wizened and frail, with a walker by his side. He was rheumy-eyed, and he had that late-stage-Howard-Hughes-fingernail-thing going on — all of which made him all the more intimidating. I mean, Augustus probably didnât look all that good in his fifth decade of office, but that didnât mean he hadnât been an emperor you had to take seriously.
Before I could even ask him a question, he started to read from a copy of that Madden induction speech, because he wanted me to know from the start that it was Madden, the man whose winning percentage beat Lombardiâs, who should get all the credit. But within a second or two, he realized this was a stupid thing to do, and he slid the speech over to me, so I could read it myself later.
Then he said, âWhat I was trying to say in the speech is that time never stops for the great ones. Thatâs what I was trying to say.â