Does anyone remember George Atkinson? Loyal and longtime face of the Oakland Raider greats gets to speak his mind during training camp and preseason games on TV as an analyst on the promotional program “Behind the Shield."
During the regular season George can be found milling around the VIP areas of McAfee Coliseum graciously answering questions and chatting with fans.
I can never quite figure out if he’s been hitting the booze or if that is his natural accent but to listen to George is like he’s Bill Cosby’s alter ego. They have the same drawl.
In his day, George Atkinson was the fastest man in the AFL with blazing speed returning punts. Drafted out of a small school in the south (Robert Morris) he played his rookie season in 1968, the year the Raiders played the Packers in Super Bowl II. He was a factor in that game for the Raiders.
In fact, it is fair to say as both a punishing defensive back and elite punt returner, Atkinson came to symbolize what Raider greatness is all about.
This of course includes a full commentary on what really defines Raider greatness.
Take the case of Russ Francis for example. He played on some underachieving New England Patriot teams in his day but was considered one of the best at his position (tight end). To try and change the complexion of a game, George Atkinson broke Russ’ nose unnecessarily.
The most unnecessary of George’s egregious acts on the football field, however, was clubbing the back of Lynn Swann's head after a play ended and a pass nowhere near Lynn was thrown (and then still calling him soft years later)
George has never made apologies for his style of play. In fact he has owned up to the label of “dirty player” and has said being labeled as such never bothered him. Is there irony here or is that a smoking gun?
What makes the story of George relevant to Raiders history is after the Swann incident, the Steelers’ head coach Chuck Noll called Atkinson part of a “criminal element.”
Back in those days, the NFL was not as strict as it is today with the rules and etiquette and legal haggling and all that stuff. On George’s behalf, Al Davis sued Chuck Noll (or perhaps he sued all of Pittsburgh) under the pretense the comment damaged his reputation.
Get it? Isn’t that funny? Chuck Noll damaged George Atkinson’s reputation?
Well, it wasn’t so funny at that time. There was a chain of endless court dates and lawyer fees and all kinds of mudslinging in the press. I remember a TV clip with Atkinson in his 1970’s wide collared shirt and gold chains saying something like “Yea, my rep is tarnished man.”
This whole lawsuit scenario was a giant farce, yet, at the time, few knew how to stop the Al Davis legal jaugernaut. People's lives were interrupted so they could be in court.
Al's history is all about abusing the legal system. Al still has the gall to refer to Chuck Noll as his friend to this day. Is that funny or what? Al was too insecure a personality to confront an issue like a mature adult. He could have accepted an apology from Chuck Noll but instead he sued him for defamation. Do friends do that to each other?
All it would take is if cooler heads prevailed. Instead, Al wanted retribution. It was the only way a scrawny guy could get to thump his chest is if he leveraged the only card in his deck, which is money, to hire multiple attorneys to throw down the lawsuit gauntlet.
Instead, he wasted a lot of people's time for no gain (the lawsuit awarded Atkinson no damages).
What most people remember about the trial was not George Atkinson. They remember Al Davis gloating, trying to stick it to Pete Rozelle (then commish of the NFL), Art Rooney and the entire Steeler organization because they beat the Raiders in the playoffs so many times.
By today's standards, what Noll said is not that big a deal. We all say things in the heat of the moment and this was hardly that bad. Al just wanted to make a point and reinforce his approach as being anti-NFL.
The implication was he did not need NFL rules. Al would use the laws of the land.