Pub Pen: Recalling Al Davis' role in Pro Football Weekly

Posted Oct. 09, 2011 @ 12:50 p.m.
Posted By Hub Arkush

I've always had a hard time taking myself too seriously. I'm just a guy from Rogers Park, a north Chicago neighborhood, who has been lucky enough to raise his kids and support his family by following, analyzing, reporting on and writing and talking about pro football. I'm sure a million other guys could have done the same thing if they shared my interest in and passion for the job. But I suppose it is noteworthy that over the last 33 years we've informed and entertained millions of fans like yourselves through our newsmagazines, website and radio and TV shows while at the same time employing hundreds of folks and their families and, on more than a couple of occasions, even impacting and helping to evolve the way the game is covered.

And none of it would have happened if it hadn't been for Al Davis.

There are dozens of places you can go to read about Davis the football icon and how the Pro Football Hall of Fame owner, scout and coach helped make the NFL what it is today while building one of the most successful franchises in the history of pro sports, and others where you can go to debate whether he was the Howard Hughes or Darth Vader of pro football, or maybe both rolled up into one remarkably complex, larger-than-life riddle. I'd just like to tell you a little bit about Al Davis the man, and what he meant to me and my family.

My dad had struggled for almost a decade to turn his dream, Pro Football Weekly, into a going concern, but while everyone loved the idea and the product, no one wanted to share his risk. Chasing that dream, he went anywhere there was hope, and along the road he was befriended by Davis and then-Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom. They loved the idea of a publication devoted exclusively to pro football in much the same way The Sporting News was to baseball in those days, and did all they could to hook my dad up with the right folks. But by the summer of '78, there was no deal in sight, the grim reaper was hovering, so Davis decided to fund the business himself. He was betting as much on my dad's talent, commitment and expertise as he was on PFW. He put up enough for my dad to negotiate down all the debt and have a few bucks left for promotion, and for that, Al got 25 percent of the business. He also got an option whereby, should my dad die, Al could exercise a right to buy the rest of the business. Just six months later, Arthur S. Arkush was felled by a massive heart attack, and Davis had a decision to make.

I was 26, with no clue what it meant to be a publisher and/or editor, and my brother Dan was just a year and a half older with a journalism school degree to help him through the content side of the equation, but even less of a feel for the business side. And quite frankly, Dan resented Al, not for his friendship, support or relationship with our dad, but out of concern that as an NFL owner he might try to bias our coverage and challenge our credibility. The bottom line, though, was there were only two choices, and they were both Davis'. Either he bought us out or he allowed us to maintain majority control and operate the business. It was a nasty mix at best.

We went to spend a few days with Al in training camp a few months later out in Santa Rosa, Calif., to get to know each other and figure out what we were going to do. Keep in mind this was August of 1979 and the Raiders were in the process of succeeding the Steelers as the dominant team in the NFL. He was truly larger than life and there was absolutely nothing warm and fuzzy about our relationship. But he asked us what we wanted to do, and I told him this business was my dad's dream but he hadn't lived to see it through, so it had become my dream to finish the job. He told me every man should have a dream, to go chase mine and he'd be the best partner he could.

Of course, we weren't exactly on equal footing and we had our rough spots. He was intimidating without even trying, and when he had an idea, he wanted to be heard. But in the six years we were partners, he never once asked us to report something to benefit or favor the Raiders or the league, he never once complained if we reported something less than favorable about him or his club, and he was always there if I needed his guidance or help. In the truest sense of the word, he was a friend to a kid in need.

That first year we stumbled into some success and were actually able to pay back about 25 percent of his investment and we did OK in '80 and '81, too. But labor strife was in the air and the 56-day work stoppage that crippled the '82 season devastated PFW, too. It took three years, but we never recovered and were forced to file for bankruptcy in 1985. Al was always available, but remember he was in the midst of his war with the NFL over Los Angeles, and as quickly and unexpectedly as it had started, our partnership was over. I had lost almost 70 percent of his investment, and he never, ever said a word to me about it.

Al Davis always spoke of the Raiders as his Raider family. Like every family, they had their spats, fights and all-out feuds, but he viewed himself as the patriarch of his Raider family, and I'm not sure we ever talked when he didn't fill me in on at least a few of his current and past players. When I got things restarted for PFW in 1986, he chose not to be a partner again, and my brothers had moved on as well, but he remained a friend. We weren't in regular contact, but he made a point of keeping in touch.

When PFW draft expert Joel Buchsbaum passed away at the end of 2002, Al was distraught. When I arrived at the Brooklyn apartment of Joel's mom, Frances, the next day to be with her, I walked into the cramped kitchen and was overwhelmed by the largest arrangement of roses I'd ever seen. The card read, "Our condolences to the Buchsbaum family from Al and your Raider family." When Frances asked me who is this Al Davis who called her to make sure she knew she should call him if she needed anything at all, I could only smile.

We talked several times in the following year about Al's desire to support scholarships for young people like Joel to learn to scout and the business side of the game, and he even talked about starting a scouts' school. I'm sure what Al loved most about Joel was that he was a brilliant football mind and, of course, a fellow Brooklyn native. But I always suspected he felt a certain kinship as well for a guy like Joel, who was never able to play the game but achieved so much in it anyway. The years were starting to take their toll on him and we never got the idea rolling, but I really think it was more my fault than his because, had I found the time, I know he would have found the way.

A few years ago, Al called me just before the Super Bowl to see if I wanted to get together with him when I got in town to talk about him investing in PFW again. When we talked, I told him I was open to anything but that I had other partners then and I wondered how, and if, it could work, and why he was suddenly interested. He told me that he was tired of seeing so many great Raiders players who belonged in the Hall of Fame being passed over and that he feared it might be an anti-Raider sentiment and he wanted to do more to promote and support them. He was particularly upset that Ray Guy and Cliff Branch hadn't been honored, and I assured him I could promote their credentials without compromising my journalistic integrity, and that there was no need for him to invest again to make it happen. Of course, he wanted them honored to further advance the Raiders' legacy, but he was also deeply saddened that two of his favorites hadn't been granted what he viewed as their due.

That is the Al Davis I knew. In the coming days there will be many glowing and glorious memories of Al Davis, the football giant, written and spoken, and there will be some unpleasant and perhaps even nasty remembrances of him, as well. But I don't really want to get into any of that. I just want to remember a man who was there for me when my life could have gone in any one of a dozen different directions, and he gave me the chance, the means and the support to be who I wanted to be.

I just want to say, thank you, Al.