I write this column with a heavy heart because Al Davis is the reason I'm a rabid NFL fan and the sole reason I have rooted for the Oakland Raiders my entire life. The Silver and Black have always been my team and Davis is the one who turned me into a lifetime fan. Quite frankly, he's the reason I've stuck with the team in recent years, despite it's unfortunate fall from glory. But make no mistake, Davis built one of the world's most recognizable sports franchises and he's a big reason the NFL is a successful business model known around the world.
My time with Davis goes all the way back to near the beginning. Growing up in Ohio, our late game always came from the West Coast and it was always the Raiders. Sunday afternoon on CBS Television at 4 p.m., I could always expect to see the Raiders kickin' some butt on national television as I sat in my parents' living room cheering for a team 3,000 miles away.
It didn't matter that I was in Cincinnati. We had our own legendary coach at the time in Paul Brown of the Bengals, but Davis and his team had stolen my heart and I was hooked.
His team was incredible. He was the coach at first.
Davis developed an offense where his quarterback would eventually get the nickname of the "Mad Bomber." QB Darryl Lamonica was known for throwing the long pass downfield. They were called "bombs" because the passes were so high in the air and would drop right in the receivers' hands as they streaked into the end zone.
Young, talented wide receivers such as Cliff Branch and Fred Biletnikoff were born and on their way to stardom thanks to Davis.
They rarely lost after David stabilized the franchise. He would roam the sidelines decked out in white, black or silver leather Raiders jackets and coats. He was the face of the franchise and the face of tough football. But his rise to glory came with pain, heartache and jealousy directed at him.
Back in the day, Davis was the commissioner of the The American Football League (AFL). They were an exciting brand of football led by Davis. He was extremely innovative. He believed in the passing game, and the AFL had all that and more. The AFL games were exciting, long touchdown passes, and fun to watch. The NFL took notice and knew it had to merge because the AFL was popular.
After the merger took place, it seems the NFL brain trust didn't want to recognize Davis for being the guiding force behind the idea and its success. He didn't entirely control the merger, but without Davis and the success of the AFL, the NFL never would have become the powerhouse it is today.
Rarely has the NFL credited Davis for helping transform the league, and that kind of intentional oversight in my mind has always been unforgivable. David deserved a lot of the credit.
This led to a bad relationship with the league. There was lawsuit after lawsuit. Davis and the league were like water and oil. They didn't mix.
He abstained from voting during the past summer's NFL bargaining agreement. That alone shows you how he felt about the league and how they treated him over the years. I don't blame him for one bit for feeling this way. I don't blame him for fighting the league and various issues.
He was probably smarter than the current commissioner and previous commissioner combined. And they knew it.
But it didn't matter to Davis in the long run. He went on to build an NFL champion and dynasty. The Raider teams would gain worldwide attention. They would win several Super Bowls, and Raider hats would become a part of pop culture.
It seemed everyone in the '70s and '80s owned an Oakland Raiders cap. Everyone loved them. They were winners and everyone loved a winner.
At one point the Raiders had a 92 percent winning percentage on Monday Night Football. No one ever came close to matching that. You knew that if you played the Raiders on Monday night there was a good chance you'd lose the game. They were that good back in the day and the entire league was intimidated.
No one wanted to play Davis and the Raiders. His teams had a tough-guy image and was very physical. It's what Davis taught. Just win, baby? Commitment to excellence. He lived those mottos and so did his teams.
Opposing players were injured, paralyzed and beat up after playing the Raiders during the championship years. To be quite honest, a lot of players were afraid. They would never admit it, but the vision of the Silver and Black running out of the tunnel was enough to make them a little uneasy.
Davis was also the face of diversity in the NFL. He started the Rooney Rule before there was a Rooney Rule. He believed in a diverse workplace long before it became fashionable and politically correct to do so. He hired the league's first African American coach in Art Shell, his former player. No other team had done it and no other team was smart enough to do it. Davis knew that African Americans would make good head coaches and he knocked down the wall.
But it didn't stop there.
Davis also hired the second Hispanic head coach in the NFL in Tom Flores. He sent a message to the NFL and he sent a message to society about minorities in head coaching.
Man, what a statement. What a man. There's a reason people loved him and were forever loyal to him. This is one reason why.
Current Raiders front office executive Amy Trask is the highest-ranking female executive in the NFL. Why? Because she's smart, hardworking, talented and gifted. And also because Davis gave her the opportunity of a lifetime. How many other teams have the track record that Davis has in terms of hiring and promoting minorities?
There have also been dark days in the Black Hole. I didn't agree with everything David did, but I always respected him and knew he was a fighter. I love fighters. But I was torn when he had a falling out with Marcus Allen back in the '80s.
There were contract issues, perhaps a personal beef. Allen spent the last few years of his Raiders career on the bench before being shipped off to Kansas City. Allen never looked right in the Chief's red and white. He'll always be a Raider to me and should have retired as a Raider, but I completely understand where Marcus is coming from.
More modern-day embarrassments such as the drafting of JaMarcus Russell, the hiring of Lane Kiffin, the awkward coaching stints of Mike Shanahan and Jon Gruden. He was only tying to make the team better. Unfortunately it didn't work and it was back to the drawing board. No one can argue they haven't gotten better because they have.
The team now has a chance to make the playoffs again, but it's not the Raiders excellence we have all come to expect.
The images of Davis on the sidelines are seared into my memory. He fit the part of the Raiders Mystique. Maybe it was his New York upbringing in Brooklyn. Who knows.
But Davis has "it" and it transformed him into a legendary icon while he was still living. When he walked into the room everyone turned and looked. Not many of those are left in professional sports or society.
The kids will only remember Davis as the fiery old owner who fought with his coaches. He should not be judged on the exchange with former coach Lane Kiffen and the overhead projector used to argue his case. He was more than the struggling franchise we saw in the late '90s and 2000s. Perhaps his stubbornness got in the way in his later years.
Who knows. But look at his entire career before opening your mouth. You'll be impressed.
Back in the day the Raiders were the most exciting team in all of professional sports. They kicked butt and took numbers.
From Ted "the Mad Stork" Hendricks to Lyle Alzado, they punished teams on a daily basis. Davis signed assassins like Jack Tatum and George Atkinson to patrol the secondary. Phil Villapiano made runners suffer if they ran his way. Art Shell and former NFL players union president Gene Upshaw became Hall of Fame players.
Castoffs like Jim Plunkett came to the Raiders and won the Super Bowl. The New England Patriots didn't want him, but Davis did. Kenny "The Snake" Stabler was exciting and more importantly a winner. Davis hired legendary coach John Madden.
From the immaculate reception to Brady smacked from behind and fumbling, the Raiders were always in the forefront. All because of Davis.
Polarizing? Perhaps. He also set the bar high for other owners. David did it right for so many years and backed up what he preached in the process. He still wanted to win another Super Bowl, and you could see it in his actions. A competitor to the end.
Football fans everywhere are better off because of Al Davis. His franchise and contributions are, without question, recognized everywhere. He spoke his mind, stood his ground and was relevant. He was quite frankly, an Oakland Raider. No one bled silver and black like Al Davis.
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