North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

There’ll never be another like Al Davis

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The Raiders press release called Al Davis a maverick. If there ever was an understatement, this was it. Davis was a maverick of the old school, from when the word wasn’t a political cliché or a fighter pilot. He was unpredictable, cunning and a hell of a lot of fun to have around.

Al Davis was a lot of things, including a progressive. He hired the first black coach in the modern era, the first Hispanic coach and quarterback and hired the NFL’s first woman CEO. He gave many of his players a chance to play pro football when nobody else would – just think of how many people he picked up off the scrap heap.

He was a champion of the rights of owners, challenging the NFL’s monopoly and asserting the right to move his team as he saw fit. He was the person whom so many clichés originally described: a maverick that did things his own way and just won, baby.

There are less fun details. He shuttled his team up and down the California coast, twice leaving behind a vibrant community of fans. He gave off the sense of a paranoiac, especially in dealings with coaches and the media. And he was a constant thorn in the side of former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle; one biography of Rozelle all but blames Davis for the commissioner’s health problems and early retirement.

Everybody sees the Raiders are Davis’ team. But his contributions to pro football far outweigh just one team. As commissioner of the AFL, Davis led a drive to sign away NFL talent, a move that all but pushed the competing leagues together and ushered in the modern era of pro football.

But by 1970, when the two leagues merged, Davis had long since returned to the Raiders as part owner and head of football operations. The teams he built in that decade are some of the NFL’s most infamous and talented, with players like John Matuszak, Kenny Stabler and Fred Biletnikoff. In the golden years of the Raiders, they were good on the field and wild off of it.

When Stabler’s biography details on training camp with the Raiders, it reads like a Hunter Thompson story: all-day practices and all-night parties, fuelled by pills and booze (Matuszak was partial to Crown Royal and Quaaludes). Indeed, Hunter Thompson once described the Raiders as the flakiest team in pro football and compared Davis to Sonny Barger.

In his seminal book on football, Paul Zimmerman was more blunt: he called Davis a “master spy, master trader wheeler-dealer and rogue.” He detailed the tricks Davis used to pull: changing visiting team’s practice spots at the last minute, have his grounds crew unroll tarps while the visiting team is still practicing and the time he snuck workers into Shea Stadium on the eve of an AFL championship game to build an illegal heating tent on the Raiders bench. Davis cultivated an aura of pushing things to their breaking point, doing everything he could to give his team the advantage.

Every obituary on Davis makes one point crystal clear: Davis personified the Raiders like no other owner, coach or manager ever has or will. The Raiders were his baby, right from the get-go. Everything, from team colours to management went through Davis. As the recent years have shown, he was a control freak. He’d fire coaches with little warning and even less pretext, once burning through three in five years. When the move to Los Angeles gave the Raiders ownership of luxury suites, the Raiders started charging rent to the stadium’s other users.

And culturally, it’s hard to think of another football team that mattered more than the Raiders. When asked why NWA wore Raiders colours, Ice Cube said “it’s a thing where you looked right, it felt right.”

One is tempted to define him on the above, with a glance to his long-term successes: the Raiders once went from 1968 through 1978 without a losing season. They won three Super Bowls with Davis around and went to another in the 2002 season. Doing this misses the point.

I didn’t know Davis, but it’s pretty easy to say he was complex man. A story that paints him as a colorful rogue(“His clothes seemed to matter more than half the players he ever drafted”) looks past how he helped former players. Another that suggests maybe he overdid it (he “often pushed the boundaries of what some people thought was acceptable”), never mentions how often he won when challenging the NFL.

It’s foolish to think about Davis and the Raiders without addressing everything the man did for pro football. What he did with the team almost never happens in culture, especially in so short a time. The Raiders almost exist outside of pro football. Their black and silver are iconic, representing not just a team, but also an attitude.

It cannot be said enough: no owner will ever mean as much and make the same impact on professional sports as Davis did with the Raiders. And that’s a shame.

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Written by M.

October 9, 2011 at 12:00 am

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