In life, as in art, the beautiful moves in curves.
- Bulwer-Lytton, English Novelist and Poet (1803-1873)
I was seven years old when my thirteen year-old neighbor Alex came over and said, “Hey Mikey, you gonna watch the Super Bowl?”
“The Super Bowl! Mikey, the Oakland Raiders are playing the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl! The Raiders, Mikey! They’re the meanest, badest team in all of football, a bunch of convicts and murderers released straight from prison to the football field!”
It was the first football game I’d ever really watched, but that Sunday, I was riveted and the Raiders lived up to all of Alex’s hype. To my seven year-old eyes, these guys were like pro wrestlers, they were like super-villians from comic books, but these characters were for real, and they proved it on the field with one of the most dominating Super Bowl performances ever. I’d never seen anything like it.
The Raiders were like a bunch of marauders come to pillage and plunder your town, and in the years that would follow, I’d discover that the whole character of the team stemmed from the owner, Al Davis and the type of team he envisioned as a winner. He was the master of finding players that other teams had tossed on the scrapheap, he was the master of taking the outcasts and the misfits and giving them a new home with the Raiders, and the formula had been working for years when I discovered them and kept on working for so many years after.
I was hooked from that very first game – a Raider fan for life, and at the start, it was all gravy – the first seven years I was a fan, Al Davis engineered the team to winning three Super Bowls (1976, 1980, 1983.) I can remember Raiders games at the L.A. Coliseum in the 1980s and they would always post on the scoreboard the Raiders record as the best all-time win percentage across all professional sports, so it’s been hard to come down from that high and keep rooting for a team that has hit so many lean years since then, but while you could question some of Al Davis’ picks and acquisitions and his meddling with the coaches, you could never question the fact that with every loss, you knew your owner felt the loss even deeper than you and you knew you could never question Al Davis’ commitment to spend every dollar he had to make it a better team and you could never question his dedication and the fact that this was a man who lived, breathed, ate and slept Raider football every hour of the day.
One of Al Davis’ greatest legacies is the way his dedication to “just win, baby” manifested itself by not just talking the talk when it came to judging people by the content of their character, but by walking the walk – he was a trailblazer who hired the NFL’s first Latino head coach in Tom Flores, the NFL’s first African-American head coach in Art Shell and the NFL’s first female CEO in Amy Trask.
I don’t think there’s a single owner in all the NFL who has been so identified with his team. Most fans know their team’s owner, give them a second and they can probably recall the owners for a handful of other teams, but for even the casual fan, when you would say “Raiders”, Al Davis would pop instantly into mind.
If you were a Raider fan, Al Davis was your leader, through the ups and downs, the good picks and bad, he was your leader and he was as much the Raiders as the very Silver and Black worn by the players and fans.
Al Davis had no shortage of enemies. He waged legal wars with cities, he waged wars with the NFL itself, on a personal grudge he was capable of benching a player like Marcus Allen who still had a lot left in the tank, and if you were his coach and he didn’t like the results, he’d fire you and try to find grounds to cancel the remaining contract (as he did with Lane Kiffin, although Kiffin still had kind words for Mr. Davis today) so there were probably more than a few people who harbored some hate for the man, but for most fans, he was the like the bad guy in a very good movie – the football world was so much more fun with Al Davis in it because he was the guy all the other fans loved to hate.
It’s hard to imagine being a Raiders fan with anyone other than Al Davis as supreme commander. There were some lean years, but there were also those three Super Bowls, the beauty of seeing a bunch of misfits and castaways banded together to become World Champions, and Al Davis’ dedication to the Raiders and his Commitment to Excellence can never be questioned.
I know you’ll be up there in Raider Heaven, wearing your white jumpsuit and watching every single play of every single game. Here’s to hoping the Raiders will be making you proud, Mr. Davis.
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*** UPDATE ***
What an unbelievably dramatic win for the Raiders today. Very few regular season wins can bring tears to my eyes. This one did.
Check out Hue Jackson’s emotional postgame speech.