Saturday, October 08, 2011

Al Davis, R.I.P.

Football, and pro football specifically, was bred into my blood. My father's family had/have been die-hard Washington Redskins fans (he even played clarinet for the the band for a few years in the very dark days of the early 1950s), and my mother's family? Well, family legend has it that they bought season tickets when the 'Skins moved from Boston to DC in 1937, and regardless of when they started, has kept them every year since. (Anyone who knows realizes what precious commodities Redskins season tickets are--there is reportedly a multi-year (decade?) waiting list just to get the chance to buy them.)
Every Sunday in the fall was centered around football, for both sides of my family--everybody watched whatever games were televised, even as we gathered for family get-togethers/dinners. It was simply the thing to do. One particular Sunday, in mid-November 1968 (I was all of 6 years old!), the televised game featured my mom's brother's favorite team, the New York Jets, who were on their way to shocking the world by beating the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. In this game, however, they were fighting mightily against the team that had been in the previous year's AFL-NFL Championship Game (not yet called the "Super Bowl"), the Oakland Raiders. For some reason, and even at that early age, I decided to be contrarian and root against my uncle's Jets and for the Raiders. (Which is only rarely redundant. There are lots of teams that I can root against without caring one whit for the team playing them.) Something about their grit appealed to me, I suppose, but more probably I just liked teasing my uncle whenever the Raiders did something well.
There aren't too many mid-season games that become historic, no matter the sport. There are too many games in too many years for people to remember any but the final few in each season. This game, however, changed the course of television history. Football, like most games (and unlike baseball), relies on a set length of time for teams to win or lose. 60 minutes of game time tick away, and in that era, there was no such thing as "overtime" if the two teams were tied at the end of that hour. Consequently, a television network could fairly count on when the game would finish (for you neophytes, the game clock stops pretty regularly, but even so, most games took about 3 hours of real time, and few lasted too much longer back then.) This time, though, both teams were scoring often (which is the event that stops the game clock for the longest amount of real time), and as the end of the broadcast drew near (7:00 Eastern Standard Time), the game itself hadn't finished. The Jets had taken a 32-29 lead and kicked off with about a minute left in the game. NBC switched off the game to show their heavily-promoted broadcast of "Heidi", much to the horror of all football fans interested in this thriller, who consequently flooded NBC's switchboards to no avail.
My uncle and I were left hanging, although with only a minute to go, he was confident his Jets had won. I had to wait until the next morning--no post game highlight shows back then!--to find out that the Raiders had gone on to score not 1, but 2 touchdowns in that 1:01, to win the game 43-32. "My" team had won! (The furor over "The Heidi Game", by the way, led all networks to vow that never again would a live broadcast be cut short in similar fashion again.)
I became a rabid Raiders fan instantly, living and dying with every game (and for the next 7 years, every season ended badly, despite the Raiders possessing the most feared (and hated) team in pro football. They were great, but not good enough to win "the big one." A perfect time and the perfect team for a young boy who loves rooting for underdogs, because nothing cements a fan's devotion like not quite winning it all. (My baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds, performed similarly over the same time span, winning their division regularly, and winning their league a few times, but never the World Series. Both teams managed to win it all in the greatest years ever for a Raiders/Reds fan 1975 [Reds] and 1976 [both!]) I immersed myself in the roster, learning all the names of these guys and reveling in their skill. Blanda, Otto, Lamonica, Biletnikoff, Hubbard, Stabler, Branch, Upshaw and Shell, van Eeghen, Villapiano, Sistrunk--even their names evoke the type of players they were, since almost by definition, the Raiders were a team of renegades and castoffs. Most of the stars on the Raiders did not come from the traditional college powers like Oklahoma, Nebraska, USC, Notre Dame, and Texas (although there were some)--heck, Otis Sistrunk didn't even go to college! It had to take a serious maverick to assemble this bunch and win.
And that's what Al Davis was. Davis loved football. Davis lived football, and once he was named head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 1963, he lived Raiders football. And he loved nothing other than Raiders football (his personal life was always kept private, but there is no doubt that he was an extraordinarily devoted family man.) Every move he made, whether as coach, general manager, or head of the American Football League for its last few years, was designed to help the Raiders, policies and protocol be damned. He fought with everyone to the betterment (as he saw it) of his team; anyone who disagreed with him was treated like an enemy combatant--which led to numerous feuds, lawsuits, and even the occasional self-inflicted damage if a team member crossed him. Al Davis prized loyalty, but he prized winning more, and his ruthlessness in achieving what he thought was best for the Raiders made him legendary and ahead of his time. Most of the other owners had created an elite, country club-type attitude that Davis disdained, which worked against him on many occasions, but served to endear him both to fans and players alike--if you were a Raider, that is. The Raiders cared nothing for the types of rules most teams enforced against their players--no dress codes, few curfews that couldn't be broken with impunity--except for one: if you didn't play your hardest on Sunday, there were no excuses. Whatever you did during the week, if you performed come gametime, you were accepted. During the late 1960s and 1970s, that single attitude made the Raiders the most highly prized family a player could join, and many wayward "square pegs" eventually found their way to the Raiders. Al Davis crafted a tight-knit organization that rewarded talent like no other--the freedom to be an individual during a time and in an occupation when individualism was actively discouraged and disciplined to eliminate. Many men were hired after their playing days were over for various jobs in the Raider organization, and by all accounts Davis loved and was loved with a fierce dedication by most who played and worked for him.
He led the Raiders for nearly 50 years; the league itself will not be the same without him. Love him or hate him (and there are multitudes in either camp), everyone will admit that his was a unique--and above all, respected--voice in American sport.
Say "hi" to Blanda, Dalby, Upshaw, and all the rest of the guys, Al. You know they'll be waiting.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, man - this is so well written! You didn't mention watching Raiders games with your Raiders robe on, Raiders hat I made for you on & waving your Raiders pennant! You were the most loyal fan I ever knew - and you were only 7 at the time!

2:24 PM  
Blogger bryduck said...

Some things are just too painful, Mom! Most of those big games the Raiders lost . . .
(To your Steelers, I might add. Hmph!)

3:34 PM  

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