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The Autumn Wind Takes Al Davis

One of the most important figures in football history dies at 82

Marc Tracy
October 10, 2011
Al Davis in 1989.(George Rose/Getty Images)
Al Davis in 1989.(George Rose/Getty Images)

Born on the Fourth of July, Al Davis died on Yom Kippur at the age of 82. He was the owner of the Oakland Raiders. But he was the Raiders: tough, brash, obnoxious, with a truly heroically sized chip on his shoulder. Many have tried to figure out where that chip came from, and one of the most frequently proffered explanations—for why Davis felt like an outsider who constantly had to antagonize authority, all the while having the canny and willpower to succeed—is that he never stopped being a Jewish kid from Flatbush.

As I wrote earlier this year, Davis was one of a few Jews who was central to the success of the American Football League, the upstart that merged with the National Football League and whose noisy, sensationalistic aesthetic came to define the game. As the second and final AFL commissioner, he waged brilliant war with the more powerful NFL, creating an environment where the dealmakers could strike a peace (which Davis, characteristically, compared to FDR’s bargain with Stalin at Yalta). Meanwhile, with “the Raiduhs,” as coach, then part-owner, then principal owner, and all the while, for more than four decades, as “general managing partner” (translation: the Lord our God, who is one), Davis revolutionized the vertical passing game; invented the “bump-and-run” style of pass defense, which is now as elementary to the game as the handoff; and upended the popular understanding of players, who no longer needed to be cogs who fit tidily into predetermined systems but could instead be electric athletes whose improvisational genius enabled their teams to win. (Davis also was the first to understand that players with character issues were just undervalued assets waiting to be utilized—he has made the comebacks of Ben Roethlisberger, Plaxico Burress, Michael Vick, and dozens of others possible.) Deadspin’s A.J. Daulerio was right on the money in publishing an obituary of Davis that was essentially a rewrite of Steve Jobs’. It is difficult to say whose was the more original mind and who more powerfully shaped his field. Think different, baby.

Davis hired the first black and Hispanic head coaches in NFL history; the current Raiders CEO is the highest-ranking woman in NFL history. By moving his franchise to Los Angeles (he later moved it back), Davis established the primacy of owners, paving the way for the present, where owning an NFL franchise is a license to print money. He was the very last figure—George Halas of the Chicago Bears and Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals are others—who embodied their team wholly. Davis recruited at historically black colleges when such a thing was looked down upon. He gave Bill Walsh, arguably the greatest coach of all time, his first job in pro football. He gave John Madden, the winningest coach of all time, his team. He drafted Howie Long, Art Shell, Marcus Allen, Ken Stabler, Tim Brown, Charles Woodson, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Darren McFadden. His emphasis on speed and toughness, his self-cultivated renegade image, and even his leather jackets, Brylcreemed hair, and Brooklyn accent made the Raiders arguably the most distinctive, mystique-laden franchise in professional sports. In his last years, Davis’ stubborn insistence on maintaining control was probably in error, and resulted in a fallow period. But still—and, he would say, most importantly—he guided the Raiders to the final three AFL title games (winning one), 11 post-merger AFC title games, five Super Bowls, and three world championships.

Earlier this year, I spoke to Ron Mix, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman who knew Davis when the former was a player and the latter a coach with the San Diego Chargers of the early 1960s. Mix, who is Jewish, kept up with Davis through the years (he is the guy who looks like Norman Mailer in this picture of Davis’ induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame). Mix told me that he attributed Davis’ me-against-everyone mentality to the climate of anti-Semitism he experienced and the recent history of the Holocaust.

“I’ve never seen anyone as loyal as he is to his former players,” Mix added. “He’s given more jobs to former players in scouting, coaching, front office, than I would bet any other three owners combined. He has secretly helped more former players who have had problems than you can imagine. He is the best friend there is of former players.”

On Saturday, America lost a great man. On Sunday, the Raiders won. All in all, not a bad weekend for Al Davis.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.