Even as the deteriorative effects of aging became more and more evident during his yearly press conferences, Al Davis seemed like he would stick around for a couple reasons. First, to spite everyone who opposed the Raiders and what he stood for. Second, because dying would mean no more drafts, no more game film, no more football. When Davis’ mother passed away at age 103 back in 2001, many assumed Davis would live at least that long.
On October 8, 2011, Al Davis died at age 82.
Davis is gone, and along with him a style of ownership that will never be replicated. Most owners today are billionaires; Davis came from an era before professional football dominated the hearts, minds and televisions of the American public. One of the many things that made Davis unique was that unlike almost every other owner, he ran everything. Jerry Jones tries to be that kind of guy for the Cowboys, but if he sold the team some other brash oil guy would buy the team and yell “Yee-haw!” every time the Cowboys scored. The Raiders were Al Davis, and now that he’s gone the team will never be the same.
Every decision went through Davis, which meant that as the Raiders got progressively worse after losing the Super Bowl to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Davis’ former coach Jon Gruden (a Raiders team whose top two rushers, top two receivers and starting quarterback were all at least 30-years-old), fans wondered aloud when they’d be free from Davis’ reign.
Now they are, although it’s unknown how things will change now that the team is under the control of Al’s wife Carol and Marc, his son who’ll presumably take over most if not all of Al’s duties. But now that the fantasy of everlasting life is gone with Al’s passing, it’s impossible to do anything other than respect and revere what Davis did in his life.
We’ve all poked fun at Davis from time to time, and I’ve been no different. However, there were so many positive things Davis brought to the worlds of football and sports. Here are a few:
— The idea that only white people can handle intellectual leadership positions has been a blight on our society for decades, and professional sports has hardly escaped these ugly stereotypes. Forget Davis’ “commitment to excellence,” an idea that’s tough to define and even harder to maintain. Davis’ commitment to diversity at football’s intellectual leadership positions, head coach and quarterback, was and remains unmatched. Most of you probably either had or have an aging relative with racist tendencies — Al was the oldest guy in the league and was truly colorblind. (He also put a woman, Amy Trask, in a position of power … that’s a rarity in the NFL.)
— Davis believed in salvation, second chances and talent. He took pride in bringing in players nobody else wanted and providing a place where they could thrive. It can be argued that Davis relied too much on questionable character guys as the years wore on, but in the heavily militaristic NFL it was refreshing to see a franchise led by someone with such a laissez faire attitude toward what the players did during their off-time.
— Davis was an assistant coach, head coach, general manager, owner and commissioner, and was successful at times in every capacity. He’s the only man affiliated with the NFL who could boast such accomplishments.
— You have to have major stones to own a football team and consistently wear white track suits when cameras are present.
— The way Davis pitted cities against each other (remember Irwindale?) and sued everyone made him seem cantankerous, difficult and greedy. And in some ways he was all of those things, but he was universally loved by everyone who became a part of the Raiders family. And a family was what the Raiders seemed to be, at least to all the outsiders.
— Davis and the Raiders were considered outsiders compared to the rest of the NFL, leading to the paranoia, secrecy and defiance the organization was known for. But if you broke through the wall and became a Raider, Davis had your back. After hearing so many stories of Davis’ kindness to current and former players and coaches — how he’d help them financially, call them to ask how the player and the player’s family was doing — one’s left with the feeling that under his combative exterior Davis could be a pretty kind-hearted man.
— Nobody did a press conference like Davis. If I ever see another overhead projector in my life, the first thing that’ll come to mind is the letter he read that he sent to Lane Kiffin back in 2008.
There are plenty of other things that made Davis special. Above all else he was unapologetic about doing what he thought was right for him and his team, regardless of what others thought or said. It may have frustrated Raiders fans used to the success they enjoyed in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, but Davis’ stubborn reliance on the “vertical game,” speedy skill position guys and NFL combine beasts was almost comforting in its predictability.
Love him or hate him, he had a personality that gave the homogeneous NFL a villain whose desire to do things his way made the Raiders different than every other team. At his age, with his health, he just couldn’t do everything it took to put a consistent winner on the field in his later years — although this year’s squad’s improvement makes the timing of Davis’ passing a little sad, since he left right before it seemed the Raiders were going to start winning again. But he was a complex man, a man who may have contributed more to what has become the most popular sport in the United States than anyone else. He will be missed.