Darth Raider, when the force still mattered

Posted Oct. 12, 2011 @ 6:48 p.m.
Posted By Tom Danyluk

I was hoping the Raiders would've come out last Sunday in Houston, on their first offensive play since Al Davis died, and sent one deep … just bombed one way out there through the stratosphere, with nobody on the pattern. Here you go, Al, we love ya. We remember.

Kitschy? Nah, merely a thank you. Just a one-gun salute to the way it used to be with Oakland.

Instead, Jason Campbell chucked one at the sideline.

Raider football. It's been an organization of ghosts for decades, a team for the scrapbookers. The Al Davis glory era — i.e., that wonderful stretch of seasons draped in power running and long-range bombing, in violent, swarming pass rushers and strangulation cornerbacks … and winning — essentially dissolved on Jan. 5, 1986.

That morning, Davis fooled with his breakfast and read the newspapers which said the Raiders were money favorite to reach the Super Bowl. In a few hours, a home playoff with the Patriots was to be played.

But his quarterback went to pieces that day, and his runners littered the turf with fumbles, and when it was all over Lester Hayes, one of his prized roughneck cornerbacks, spoke up and said, "It's a joke. These guys flew 4,000 miles and kicked our ass. I thought the silver and black were invincible at home. That was a fiction."

It was a capsule of what would become of Davis' empire over the next 25 years … a procession of hollow, misfiring QBs, a near-congenital sloppiness in play, monstrous mistakes in personnel. The Raider mystique, with all those clichés that came affixed to it, was over. History, stitchwork in some soon-to-be ancient tapestry.

So today it's simple. You remember Davis when he was still on top, the wine and roses stuff, when the Raiders were still going around gathering pieces for that whole legacy bit. When they were firing deep and storming walls and making top headlines. When the Al Davis way was still working.

"Everything about Al Davis was silver and black, everything was Raiders," former CBS broadcaster Pat Summerall says. "I remember one time we went out to interview Al when the team was still in Los Angeles. He walked in and sat down in his silver-and-black sweat suit. Even the ice cubes he dropped in our drinks were silver and black. I'm not kidding. That type of devotion."

From saint to sportsman to scoundrel, that range of being. Love and hate, brother. How many men are described across those extremes? Mafia guys sometimes … the goodfellas handing out turkeys and c-notes to the poor then drowning some shlub in the river 'cause he's past due. Hey, Al was tough, but he was no crook.

"He was like no other owner I had been around," says Pat Toomay, a Raiders pass rusher from 1977-79. "Al drove a black Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham with black tinted windows and no license plates. He was a distant, lurking presence, like a medieval king. And he loved his players, guys like Freddie Biletnikoff and Pete Banaszak. There was a kind of intimacy between them, a real affection. The chemistry on that team was deeply endearing.

"One year we were out in Cleveland playing the Browns. At the time, the league uniform code was going into effect, and owners were being fined for players trashing their uniforms. They were actually sending out inspectors to the games to watch for violations.

"Well, our guys were known for ravaging their uniforms. Davis tolerated it, but the fines were really coming in and he was getting a little perturbed.

"The worst offender was Fred Biletnikoff. He'd cut the sleeves under his arms, he'd cut the bank of his pants. He was just a guy in rags, with shreds of uniform hanging down. Well, the inspectors happened to be in Cleveland that day. After the game we were on the bus and Freddy and [QB Kenny] Stabler were having a sip of Jack Daniels.

"Suddenly Al gets on. He looks back and sees Biletnikoff and points his finger at him. Then he takes the letter from the inspectors out of his coat pocket, and he says, 'Hey you cost me another $2,500 today for what you do to your damn uniform!' And Biletnikoff fires back, 'Blank you, you blankety blank $#%!$! You told me whatever it takes!'

"I'm sitting there with my jaw open, thinking, my god, you can't do that. And Al just throws back his head and just laughs and laughs and laughs. Biletnikoff looks at me and says, 'I guess I told him, eh Tombstone?' "

Monte Johnson worked at linebacker for Davis, and he remembers the man standing on the field at the L.A. Coliseum before a big headbanger with the Rams. It was 1977 and the Raiders were coming off their first trophy season.

"We were the first team to win it all using the 3-4 defense," Johnson says. "Al had this thing of always watching the opposing team during warmups, to see what's what. On this particular day, he was standing there watching the Rams and just smiling. I walked over and asked him, 'Al, what are you smiling about?'

"He said, Monte, they're running a 3-4 over there. That is the most sincere form of flattery, when someone chooses to emulate you.'

"For whatever reason, that moment has stuck with me all my life."

"Generous, a very generous person," former Raiders defensive coach Charlie Sumner says. "If you were on his side, there was nothing he wouldn't do for you. At times, he'd be a little hard to get along with because he wanted to win so much. And if you got on his bad side, look out.

"I could never figure out why he got mad at Marcus Allen. The only reason I could think of was we had that strike year [1982]. Al had talked to Marcus about coming in. He got as far as the parking lot of our practice facility in El Segundo. Then some other players got to him and talked him into not coming in.

"That didn't sit well with Mr. Davis."

Toomay strongly remembers his brush with Davis' dark side, the baleful breeze swirling off Dracula's cloak. It was during the hour after the team's loss in the '77 AFC title game, a heartbreaker at Denver that was soaked in controversy.

"There were a lot of things that happened in that game," Toomay says, "a bad call on a fumble, a few other things. Al was agitated deeply. The locker had pretty much emptied out. Snake and I were the last two getting dressed and Al was still pacing the room. 'Run Run' Jones was our equipment guy, one of these man-child types you see hanging around teams. Everybody loved him. He was on his hands and knees, picking up towels and tape husks.

"Suddenly Al stopped pacing. He looked at 'Run Run' and pointed down at his boots, which had some mud on them. 'Run Run' looked up at me with the saddest look that you could ever see. Then he crawled over on his hands and knees and wiped off Al's boots.

"It was a Richard III, kiss-my-ring moment. I marked that as an end of an era, a big pivot point for the franchise. A sort of coldness had settled in from then on, a shift from the old Raider way. Soon Madden was gone; Al brought in disciplinarians. The old guys revolted. Madden got ulcers."

Phil Villapiano, another linebacker, another piece of the old Raider way, got swept up in the housecleaning.

"It was the spring of 1980," Villapiano says. "Al calls me down to his office to chat about something. What's he want? He says, 'We're taking a look at Bobby Chandler, that wide receiver for the Bills. What do you think about him, Phil? Think he'd fit in?"

"I said, Yeah, he's real good. Tough. He can catch. Goes over the middle. Yeah, I think he'd fit in real well around here.'

"Al said, 'I'm glad to see you feel that way.'

"'We just traded you to Buffalo for him.'"

 

Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.