Al Davis – 1929-2011

It was in the early 1980s and the NFL was holding its annual spring meetings at the Biltmore in Phoenix, one of those old school resorts with multiple amenities.

There was a press room set up by the NFL for the media to use and it was at the far end of the building, on the second floor. It was essentially a guest room that had been stripped down to shove in some tables and chairs.

As I sat writing a story for the Kansas City Times & Star, I kept hearing a clanking sound coming through the open door to the room’s balcony. It would be clank, clank, clank … then silence. And then clank, clank, clank … silence. Over and over again went the pattern.

It caught my ear because the Biltmore is not a place where you hear clanking sounds. This was a high-end resort where the grass somehow got cut without hearing the mowers and the beds got made without seeing the room maids.

I walked out to the balcony just as the clank, clank, clank was starting. It was coming from below and I looked over the railing to see a weight bench and assorted weight equipment scattered around the ground.

On the bench was a man doing one-armed curls with considerable weight. Up, down, up down, up down. Pause. Up, down, up down, up down, pause.

It went on like that for 10 minutes as Al Davis went through his morning workout. From above, you could see a growing bald spot on top of his head, but there was no questioning his fitness. Thirty minutes later, 45 minutes later, an hour later … clank, clank, clank.

I thought of that story Saturday morning as I was driving to KCI to catch my flight to Indianapolis. Word came that Al Davis, assistant coach, head coach, AFL Commissioner, team owner had passed away. He was 82 years old.

Back when he was pumping iron at the Biltmore, Davis was in his early 50s. It was in those days that he was the most feared man in pro football. But it turned out that he feared only one thing – death.

At the time, Davis had lost several close friends and others were battling illnesses that would lead to their passing. His own wife Carol had been on death’s doorstep, but battled back and remains alive today.

Nothing in the world of football, business or politics intimidated Davis. He was famous for his saying that “he would rather be feared than respected.” But as he reached middle age, Davis was realizing there was one opponent he couldn’t beat and that was Father Time.

He hung in there a long time, but he’s been in bad health for the last decade. Davis didn’t go anywhere by himself because he always needed help to get into and out of his limo, and to make his way to his seat at the stadium.

Before the rehab of Arrowhead Stadium, the visiting owner’s box was just a door away from the home radio booth. Every year that the Raiders came to Kansas City, we would see Davis making his way to the box. There was always a large entourage with him, almost always there was former Raiders center and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Otto, and there would be other former players as well. Sometimes George Blanda would join Davis for the game.

Everybody loved to beat the Raiders – I’m not sure that Davis got more excitement out of beating the Chiefs, or the Chargers, or the Broncos, or any of the other teams that took the field with the silver and black. They were all the same for him. Remember “Just Win Baby.”

But every team the Raiders played wanted to beat them. Fans of the Chiefs know all the stories of the rivalry between these teams that went back to the halcyon days of the American Football League. Check off almost all the memorable moments of the Chiefs in the 1960s and the Raiders were always in the picture.

Hank Stram loved to beat Al Davis. It would be nearly two decades after Stram was fired before that same kind of feeling came back into the building. That happened in 1989 when Carl Peterson and Marty Schottenheimer came in the door.

It was Schottenheimer who created Raiders Week, and he let his players know that it was a special time. Marty wanted to beat the Raiders so bad and nobody, absolutely nobody in the Oakland-Los Angeles-Oakland history dominated them on the field like the Chiefs coached by Schottenheimer. Over 10 seasons, it went like this:

  • 1989 – 1-1.
  • 1990 – 2-0.
  • 1991 – 3-0.*
  • 1992 – 1-1.
  • 1993 – 2-0.
  • 1994 – 2-0.
  • 1995 – 2-0.
  • 1996 – 1-1.
  • 1997 – 2-0.
  • 1998 – 2-0.
  • TOTAL: 18-3

*including victory in playoffs.

Check the history books and you will not find a domination of an Al Davis team that comes close to what the Chiefs did in the 1990s under Marty.

For a long time Schottenheimer wouldn’t really talk about why he enjoyed beating up on the Raiders so much. But over the years, he’s spoken about the rivalry a few times and his feelings came down to this – he always felt like Davis and his team did everything they could to not follow the rules, to cheat and take cheap shots. Intimidation was a staple of Davis’ good teams, but the Chiefs under Marty wouldn’t put up with it and struck back on the scoreboard.

Peterson enjoyed tweaking the Raiders any chance he got. For years, Davis would bring his team into Kansas City on Friday night and then have a walkthrough practice at Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday before Sunday’s game. Peterson ended that, making the stadium off limits to Davis and his team the day before the game. That put Peterson on Al’s hit list for the rest of time.

Lamar Hunt enjoyed a victory over the Raiders more than other games. He once admitted that it was “a little bit special” while holding his fingers about an inch apart. Like a lot of folks in the NFL, Hunt never forgave Davis for suing the league and moving the Raiders to Los Angeles without league approval.

Al Davis is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his contributions to the game and it’s a deserving honor. But he was a bad businessman, and often unethical. His behind the scenes maneuvering in the early 1970s froze out Wayne Valley, one of the original owners of the Raiders going back to the first season of the AFL. It was all done when Valley was out of the country, attending the Summer Olympic Games in Munich.

Then he couldn’t get along with Oakland and they wouldn’t take his demands seriously, so he moved the team to Los Angeles without permission. It took about a dozen years before he wore out his welcome in Southern California and moved back to Oakland, where the Raiders have been fighting with the city and county ever since they returned in 1995.

Sadly, the Raiders deteriorated on the field, and coaches came and went like rookie free agents. The working atmosphere around the organization was one of fear, and that was generated by one man – Davis.

What Al Davis feared was the Grim Reaper. Give him credit for fighting off the inevitable for as long as he did. A weaker man wouldn’t have lasted as long as Davis.

But eventually, we all fall victim. Even feared legends.

4 Responses to “Al Davis – 1929-2011”

  • October 9, 2011  - Tenand6 says:

    Another outstanding column. Thanks, Bob.

  • October 9, 2011  - johnfromfairfax says:

    I was out yesterday (attending a college football game) and didn’t see this post until this morning. Frankly, speaking of Marty, I’m surprised nobody had posted before me. I’m a lifelong fan of the Chiefs. From the time I was a small boy so many memories of the Chiefs Raiders rivalry are part of that. While growing up I hated Davis and the Raiders and that really hasn’t changed as an adult. One of the reasons I’m a Marty Schottenheimer fan (besides the fact he’s an outstanding coach and made us a sustained winner) is because he brought back the intense rivalry that always made the Chiefs and Raiders games special. I agree with his assessment of Davis and the Raiders and think that’s the appeal of that team to a lot of people who like to root for a team that seemingly doesn’t follow the rules and think of themselves as rebels. Davis was largely responsible for the Raiders past success and it can be argued equally responsible for their lack of success over the past several years because of his commitment and mindset to the game and organization. There’s no denying his impact on the game and his earned inclusion in the HOF. For that he deserves respect from even his detractors His passing is like other events in a lifetime that bring back a flood of memories and make you contemplate what lies ahead. Professional football will continue and no doubt flourish but it won’t be the same. It doesn’t make me want to beat the Raiders any less but R.I.P. Mr. Davis.

  • October 9, 2011  - johnfromfairfax says:

    P.S. I started before Tenand6 was up. That should read one person posted before me.

  • October 9, 2011  - ED J says:

    Great article Bob and well said johnfromfairfax

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