by Nathan Rush
Al Davis was born in Plymouth County, Mass., on the Fourth of July in 1929, just three months before the start of the Great Depression. From that day until his passing on Saturday, Oct. 8 of this year, Davis was the personification of the American dream — fighting his way to the top through hard work, savvy business moves and an unwavering belief in himself and the team he assembled.
“Just win, baby,” Davis’ famous motto, served him well on his rise from college assistant coach at Adelphi, The Citadel and USC, to vertical passing game guru as the head coach and general manager of the Oakland Raiders, to his brief stint as the commissioner of the AFL, and finally as the principal owner of the Raiders.
His “commitment to excellence” and “the will to win” — two other well-known Davis mantras — were undeniable. The Raiders earned three Vince Lombardi Trophies — winning Super Bowls XI, XV and XVIII — with Davis steering the ship as owner. But his impact went beyond the field.
“In my eyes, so much of his legacy will be defined by the loyalty he had for the men who played for the Raiders and the love that they had for him. That was a bond that extended beyond the playing years and lasted lifetimes,” said Dallas’ Jerry Jones, rumored to be Davis’ closest friend among NFL owners.
“His contributions and expertise were inspiring at every level — coach, general manager, owner and commissioner. There was no element of the game of professional football for which Al did not enjoy a thorough and complete level of knowledge and passion. …
“We will miss him deeply and we are thinking of (son) Mark and (wife) Carol at this difficult time.”
Never was the Raider Nation’s bond with Davis more evident than this past weekend, when coach Hue Jackson’s team went on the road to upset the Texans, 25–20. With black “AL” decals on the back of their helmets, the Raiders carried heavy hearts during an emotional come-from-behind win that ended in a game-clinching interception in the end zone by safety Michael Huff.
“One thing coach (Davis) always taught me was, he said: ‘Hue, don’t believe in plays, believe in players. And eventually the players will make plays for you,’” Jackson said.
“And that’s what I did. I could just hear him saying that to me the whole time. ‘Believe in your players and not the plays.’”
Controversial Davis draft picks like wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (99 yards, TD) and kicker Sebastian Janikowski (three 50-plus-yard FGs) came through in the clutch for the man whose fierce, familial loyalty permeated the franchise during his 48 years of service. In the end, the players Davis believed in made plays.
“We know he’s looking down on us right now,” said Huff. “This win is for him. I appreciate everything he’s done for this organization. He’s never gone in our eyes. We’ll never let him go. He’s with us.”
An American icon in the truest sense, Davis’ signature look of black shades and white jumpsuit will almost certainly be a popular Halloween costume in the Bay Area and across the country — likely challenging the Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck and blue jeans fashion statement, in terms of tribute popularity.
Davis was more than stylish maverick with memorable catch phrases; he was a groundbreaking pioneer. Davis’ Raiders made Tom Flores the NFL’s first Latino coach in 1960, Art Shell the first black coach in modern NFL history in 1983 and Amy Trask the league’s first female CEO in 1997.
An NFL head coach at 33 years old himself, Davis had an eye for young talent in the coaching ranks, hiring 32-year-old John Madden in 1969, 35-year-old Mike Shanahan in 1988, 34-year-old Jon Gruden in 1998 and 31-year-old Lane Kiffin — who remains the youngest hire in NFL history — in 2007.
Strategically, Davis’ teams were known for their dedication to an aggressive vertical downfield passing game on offense and excessively physical play — highlighted by bump-and-run coverage and brutal (often helmet-first and/or late) hits — on defense.
“I don’t want to be the most respected team in the league,” Davis famously stated. “I want to be the most feared.”
And with a list of Raider alumni that includes Shell, Gene Upshaw, Howie Long, Ted Hendricks, Willie Brown, Mike Haynes, Marcus Allen, Bo Jackson, Fred Biletnikoff, Dave Casper, Tim Brown, Kenny Stabler, Steve Wisniewski, George Blana, Ray Guy and Jack Tatum, it’s safe to say that the Silver-and-Black — a color scheme Davis selected for intimidation purposes — were a feared franchise to be reckoned with.
More than any owner in any sport, Al Davis was representative of his team. The Oakland Raiders were, and will continue to be, an extension of Davis, as his brainchild in action. And, in more ways than many realize, so will the entire NFL.
“Al Davis’ passion for football and his influence on the game were extraordinary. He defined the Raiders and contributed to pro football at every level. The respect he commanded was evident in the way that people listened carefully every time he spoke,” said Commissioner Roger Goodell, in a statement following Davis’ passing.
“He is a true legend of the game whose impact and legacy will forever be part of the NFL.”