Originally posted on Fox Sports Kansas City  |  Last updated 10/11/11
Where to start, sorting out a kaleidoscope of memories everything from frustration and fury to laughter and admiration? Some kind of crazy, mixed-up bag of incidents and emotions seems to fall together, forging a perfect good-bye to Al Davis. Davis was in my life, one way or another, for every one of the 49 years he coached, owned and called every shot for the Oakland Raiders not to mention his short stint as commissioner of the AFL. Heck, my own relationship with Davis dates back even PRIOR to my entry into journalism. And to a litany of media-related battles, like the time at the Oakland Coliseum when Davis ordered his henchman, Al LoCasale, to eject me from the press box on the grounds that there was "something suspicious" about my press credential. It was nonsense, of course. The real issue was that I'd teed up Davis in print for cheating circumventing league rules by making sure the Raiders fudged and delayed before sending mandated game tapes and injury lists to future opponents. That same season we went to war in the Coliseum, in the week before Oakland played the Chiefs, Davis held onto Oakland's game tapes until the last possible minute and then sent the package on Zantop Airlines. Via Venezuela, or Brazil, or someplace. Paul Wiggin, Chiefs coach at that time, produced a howl of laughter at a press gathering by offering this opinion with a perfectly straight face... "The Raiders add a whole new meaning to word cooperation." Events like that occurred regularly during years when I worked in Denver and Kansas City both cities with teams in the Raiders' division who became blood rivals. But going back even further... My dad and his partner were the San Francisco 49ers' first accountants when the franchise was born into the old All American Football Conference in 1946. So the Niners were family. First as a little tyke, and later as a 13-year-old water boy at old Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, I worshipped the 49ers who were larger-than-life heroes to me. Somewhere, we've still got a photo of 49ers co-owner Vic Morabito holding me, perched on his knee. So now... Try to imagine the reaction among everyone close to the 49ers including my mom and dad when Davis emerged from under a rock someplace to make the Raiders a viable rival just across the Bay Bridge. (In fact, Davis' background was in military intelligence and given all that followed in that half-century he ruled the Raiders as the "man in black," that could hardly be considered a shock.) But what I'm trying to say is that a profound distaste for the Raiders, and everything they represented, was basically part of my DNA. In fact, our family bond with the Niners caused a temporary rift between me and my dad. I happened to be stationed at Forbes Air Force Base outside Topeka after college, and I came to like the AFL team down the road in Kansas City what with Hank Stram's multiple formations and all the rest of it. That proved to be a bit of problem during Super Bowl I. I was hoping that Len Dawson and Co. would give the Packers a stern test in the first real duel between the leagues. My father, on the other hand, despised the AFL because Davis and the Raiders had divided the San Francisco Bay Area market, and thus siphoned some business from his 49ers. Not only that, but we both understood that with all due respect to Lamar Hunt it was Davis' hostage strategy that forced the leagues to merge. Davis came up with the idea of AFL teams pooling their money to steal the NFL's best quarterbacks a move that left the established league with no choice but to sue for peace. Every one of the NFL old-timers seethed over it. Forever. My sister is all that's left of my family now, but she still snarls at any slight mention of the Raiders -- as though all the intervening years never happened. During that first Super Bowl, I rang our house outside San Francisco to needle my dad over the fact that Green Bay led only 14-10 at halftime and that the Chiefs looked quite capable of a stunning upset. He hung up on me. When the Packers eventually won 35-10, my phone rang and went unanswered. So for one afternoon, at least, Al Davis and the merger he forced actually put my dad and I on opposite sides of a game that NFL owners all told Vince Lombardi that he "had to win." With the benefit of hindsight, it's easier look at the league's success over time -- and conclude that Davis earned the NFL mega-millions in income. Despite his lawsuits and feuds with commissioner Pete Rozelle who looked physically ill when handing Davis the Lombardi Trophy after the 1975 Super Bowl the truth is that Al really WAS a genius. Not exactly a loveable type of guy, by any stretch, but even in cities where the Raiders are routinely booed just for appearing on the field, fans will grudgingly admit that Davis' full body of work was Hall of Fame stuff and more. There is also is the widely held belief that every Raider coach has been a Davis puppet, and angry about it. John Madden, though, has told me several times that Al wasn't all that difficult as a boss as long as you were bright enough to keep up with him. Sure, Davis pushed the rules. The playing surface at the Coliseum was tilted near the corner of one end zone and Raider receivers knew exactly where they would start running downhill past startled cornerbacks. Almost every coach who's taken teams to Oakland has assumed that the visitors' locker room is bugged, a suspicion that exists today. Former Chargers coach Harland Svare once had the locker room searched inch by inch, found nothing, and finally just looked toward the ceiling and screamed, "Dammit, I know you're there, Al." How you perceived Davis pretty much depends on whether or not you were part of the Raider family. It's a fact that he encouraged his teams to be dirty. "We used to take an intentional personal foul early in every game," linebacker Phil Villapiano admitted. "We'd try to spear somebody out of bounds just to plant the idea that we were all crazy and dangerous." When a Bay Area journalist questioned some of Davis' tactics, quarterback Ken Stabler confessed to planting cocaine in the reporter's car. Football was all-out war to Davis "Just win, baby!" I simply can't make myself paint a warm eulogy of this man. At the same time, though, I have to be honest and say he had a massive and beneficial impact toward making pro football the success it's become. And that Raiders players and coaches well, SOME coaches claim that Davis supported them long after they'd left the club. OK, Mike Shanahan (who sued him for back pay and won) and Jon Gruden would disagree, but in truth... The fairest thing I can say about the late Al Davis was that he was a true character in a sports world that has become more and more vanilla. Boring, even. These next words are a bit hard to type, but... We really do need more swashbuckling, screw-the-establishment, can't-take-your-eyes-off-him sort of people. Even if they act like gangsters. Whatever we thought from time to time about Al Davis and his sandpaper approach to competition, the sports establishment is a blander, emptier place without him. Yes, he really will be missed. But damn, my press credential was perfectly valid and you knew it, Al, you...
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