Al Davis, the iconic Hall of Fame owner of the Oakland Raiders, passed away this morning at age 82. His legacy is immense, filled with the ultimate heights of success and mind-blowing follies. But he was a visionary whose contributions to the game of football and the success of the National Football League cannot be understated.
Davis was a former assistant coach, head coach, general manager, commissioner of the American Football League, and owner. His stewardship of the AFL was vital to its merger into the NFL, the most popular professional sport in the United States.
The Raiders and Davis have been a punchline in recent history for some high profile failures on the field. And as a lifelong fan, I found myself as beyond frustrated by some of his decisions, as I was mesmerized by his strokes of brilliance. But people forget this franchise was a flagship organization that had, at one time, the highest winning percentage of any sports franchise in any sport. It won three Super Bowls in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and Davis’ willingness to challenge convention was central to its success. Winning wasn’t the most important thing, it was the only thing.
Greatness isn’t always draped over charismatic men of great warmth. Davis was a prickly maverick who competed at everything he did and didn’t care who he had to run over to get there. In an increasingly homogenized world where soundbites and image are everything, he dared to be himself and ignored the naysayers with ease. He wasn’t always right but he often was, and had the daring and confidence to keep and follow his own counsel.
It’s strange we would lose two men so associated with the brand they created in the span of days in Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Davis. There are few in this world who were ever more associated with their brand than these two men. In the case of Davis, he will be remembered by many as a villain, a doddering old fool, or both. Many have worn the crowns of greatness, villain, and fool; few have worn them all and fewer with as much defiant pride as Al Davis. That part of his legacy is as relevant today as anything his teams did on the field.
His contrarian ways extended beyond his maverick personality and approach to ownership. It was Davis who hired the first African-American head coach in the modern era when he replaced Mike Shanahan with Art Shell. The current Raiders CEO is Amy Trask, one of the few women to hold an executive position in the male-dominated sports world.
Matt Millen, a former Raiders linebacker, pointed out the Raiders organization also produced two men who put their stamp on the league, in the equally iconic John Madden, as well as former NFL Players Association union chief Gene Upshaw. Professional football is what it is today in part because of Al Davis’ presence and contributions.
I became a Raiders fan in kindergarten after a fellow student brought his own, real life football helmet for show-and-tell. Growing up in Iowa, this kid brought a Chicago Bears helmet. This being the late ’70s, I thought I wanted to be a Dallas Cowboys fan as it was the height of the “America’s Team” craze. I called around to sporting goods stores with the help of my parents in search of a Cowboys helmet of my own but to no avail. Kunkels, a sporting goods store high on a hill in Davenport, Iowa, had only three helmets to choose from, and my dad took me down there to spend my birthday money on one. My forever allegiance was to be born.
My three choices that day were the Minnesota Vikings, Kansas City Chiefs, and Oakland Raiders. I was a six-year-old kid and saw a silver-and-black helmet with a pirate on the side of it. I was sold. That logo? It was part of the brand Davis was building, based on intimidation.
That was 1979. The next year the Raiders became the first Wild Card team in NFL history to win a Super Bowl, defeating the Philadelphia Eagles behind castoff quarterback Jim Plunkett in Super Bowl XV. The Raiders won again in Super Bowl XVIII over the defending champion Washington Redskins. I was in third grade. I’ve been loyally waiting for another championship ever since.
I met Mr. Davis twice in my life. I saw the Raiders for the first time when they opened the season in Green Bay at Lambeau Field, and my dad took me to the hotel where the Raiders were staying. I got autographs from Davis, head coach Tom Flores, Hall of Famer Jim Otto (who had long since retired but traveled with the team) among others. I’ve never forgotten that.
I got Mr. Davis’ autograph a few years later when we’d moved to Seattle, where the Raiders made annual trips to play the Seahawks. It was hard being a Raiders fan in Iowa where no one paid them any mind. It was harder being a Raiders fan in Seattle where you were a hated division rival, and where school administrators were pretty sure the only reason someone would wear Raiders gear was for gang affiliation. Anyone who looked at me should have known as I was about as gangster as Pee Wee Herman, but it didn’t stop me from getting grief for one reason or another.
The Raiders have been part of my life for more than 30 years, and in that time, I’ve seen good and bad times. But the team has been a mainstay of my life and always will be. I have very few memories of my life before becoming a Raiders fan, and Al Davis was their architect.
It’s a sad day for RaiderNation but the tradition of “Pride & Poise,” “Commitment To Excellence,” and the passion to “Just win, baby” will live on forever.