A personal encounter with Al Davis
This column first appeared on FOXSports.com in March 2009.
At the base of a grand staircase, the exhibit was installed to commemorate the American Football League, conceived half a century ago by a gang of renegade rich men who called themselves "The Foolish Club."
But the photograph that catches my eye features Al Davis, newly appointed as the commissioner, sandwiched between Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson and Jack Kemp, then a handsome young quarterback. Davis wears a skinny tie, a toothy grin and just enough pompadour to announce his contempt for the standards and practices of company men. He's in his early thirties, just beginning to feel the possibilities of his power.
And now, as the owners adjourn from their morning meetings here at the St. Regis resort, the man himself comes into view.
Almost half a century later, the pompadour has been decimated, a matted wisp in its place. Davis' eyes are red-rimmed and damp. His hands are purplish and papery with age. But never — ever — has Al Davis looked more defiant, even heroic, than he does right now, pushing a walker across the marble floor.
Guarding the boss's rear flank is Raiders strength coach Chris Pearson, while a burlier man — could be a pro bouncer — leads the way. If the other owners don't warrant protection, that's only because they're pishers by comparison. Bob Kraft is flitting about in a lavender sweater. Jerry Jones is holding court in golf shirt and blazer. Everybody's dressed for an afternoon at the club. But Davis is in full Raider regalia: new white Adidas, a black and silver jumpsuit that proclaims his franchise to be "THE TEAM OF THE DECADES." Though he'll turn 80 on July 4, the bejeweled bracelet on his left wrist — "AL" set in diamonds on a black stone — suggests a founding father of bling. Then again, Davis was always ahead of his time.
As the Raiders have had six consecutive losing seasons, it's become fashionable to lampoon him. But in fact the AFL exhibit outside the Pacific Ballroom does not do him justice. If football had a Rushmore, then his bust would be carved in the side of that mountain. Whether you like him or not — and either position can be justifiably argued — he's a founding father of the modern game.
These other owners fantasize about coaching their teams. Davis has done it. (By the way, while I'm on the subject of owners and coaches, last season's firing of Lane Kiffin doesn't look so nutty anymore, does it?). So say what you want about these six barren, bumbling years, but yes, the Raiders are the only team to have played for the Super Bowl title in each decade since the merger. Davis' mantra — "Just Win, Baby" — is as American as the pledge of allegiance. Black uniforms? Who ever heard of that? Then again, who cares? He was firing black coaches — twice — before most of these rich kids ever thought to hire one.
Still, I've come to appraise this man with his walker, de-pompadoured, the visionary as altacocker. What kind of aged king was he: Lear of Oakland, a madman, or Arthur, whose realm became barren as he was physically diminished?
The answer? He's not mad.
On Wednesday morning Davis appeared again, this time in a white jumpsuit with black trim. By now, the final day of the annual owners' meetings, the exhibit had been removed. Still, his agenda could not be more clear. He's concerned with his legacy, in particular, those revisionist historians who would sell it short.
Davis knows most of the football writers by name. Those he doesn't, he charms.
Judy Battista identifies herself, New York Times.
"I may buy that paper," he says.
Then, one of the guys from ESPN.
"How come you're not in Dallas?" he asks.
In short order, he steers the conversation back to the AFL. He begins with Pete Gogolak, the first soccer-style kicker. In signing him from the Bills, the Giants broke the "gentlemen's agreement," a pledge between the rival leagues not to sign each other's veterans.
"Gogolak was 1964?" says Sports Illustrated's Peter King.
"'66," says Davis. "April."
Correct, of course. Gogolak's signing unleashed a period of not-so-gentlemanly competition between the leagues, with the upstart AFL outhustling and outbidding the established NFL for a good many stars.
"Pete was good," Davis says of his epic rival, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. "But he didn't like confrontation."
In Davis' estimation, that was a great weakness. He recalls telling the AFL owners, the press, and anyone else who would listen what the signing of Gogolak really meant. "You just got a merger," he said.
I remind him of the words he used at the time. "You called it a 'declaration of war.' "
"You know that I said it was a declaration of war?" Translation: I don't like being interrupted, kid.
"I'm pretty sure."
For the record, the quote appears on page 229 in the 1969 paperback edition of Bob Curran's "The $400,000 Quarterback."
"How old were you, six?"
"I didn't know I said that."
Of course he said it. Davis, who grew up reading newspaper dispatches from the war in Europe and the Pacific, reduces everything to military terms.
"The guerrilla wins if he doesn't lose," he says. "We were the guerrillas in those days."
He recalls a phony memo sent to NFL scouts, instructing them to report to Portland, Ore. Meanwhile, AFL guys like Al, were stashing draft picks, sending them on all-expenses paid vacations to Hawaii. In the 1962 Sugar Bowl, as an assistant coach for the Chargers, he signed Lance Alworth under the goalposts. A couple of years later, at the Gator Bowl, he signed Florida State's Fred Biletnikoff.
"On national TV with a lawyer there," says Davis. "The lawyer was from Florida State. His mother and the Detroit Lions were on the sidelines, screaming, 'Don't sign it, Freddy. Don't sign it.' "
Belitnikoff signed it. He won a Super Bowl, and went to the Hall of Fame as a Raider.
Which brings us to Davis' second order of business: "One thing, while I got you all here, there's no way — no way — Cliff Branch shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame.
"He may not have had all the catches that you want, but he was the force that dictated coverage. He dictated everything."
Jim Plunkett. He belongs, too. "What quarterback isn't in the Hall of Fame that's won two Super Bowls?"
Davis goes on for close to half an hour, speaking with authority on subjects that range from the cornerback's lost art to the NCAA women's bracket. He refuses only a camera crew. Apparently, he doesn't want to be photographed in his present state, a condition he attributes to weakened quadriceps.
Then he readies himself to leave, the strength coach and the bouncer in tow. "God, I love talking to you guys," he says.
Still, his real purpose only becomes apparent as he pushes his way down the hall. Ralph Wilson stayed home with a bad shoulder. Jack Kemp has cancer. Rozelle is dead, as are all but two charter members of the Foolish Club.
It is said that Davis is vain, and scared of dying. If that's the case, then this processional with the walker shows some real balls.
I find myself wondering who'll say Kaddish for Al Davis. Perhaps that misses the point, though. He needs no prayers for the dead. He needs only to be told that he won.