I’ve been an Oakland Raider fan since I was 7 years old, though I didn’t grow up in the Bay Area. I had some American Football League football cards with all those colorful players and uniforms before I really understood the game. The one for Ben Davidson got my attention. That colorful look with the handlebar mustache, silver and black uniform and fun-loving, good-looking countenance gave me an instant identity.
I said to my dad , “Wow, this guy looks cool.” Dad said, “Yeah, and you know what else? He’s Jewish. And so is the coach.” From that point on I was a Raiders fan, as a 7 year-old in Memphis in 1962. This was before I had the attention span to follow a football game; I knew I was a Raiders fan, long before I moved to the Bay Area.
As a lifelong Raider fan, I know well of Al Davis’ genius, contributions, upside and downside. I have to be honest and thorough in my assessment. He cost the cities of Oakland and Irwindale millions of dollars, and broke the hearts of fans in Oakland and LA. But he came back to heal the Oakland fans, and further torment us with seemingly addled management of his once-great team. But this year we look better, if you can believe that.
It is said that only the most righteous Jews die during the High Holy Days. Mr. Davis died on the morning of Yom Kippur. That may or may not be coincidence.
Growing up in Memphis , we had no professional sports teams to root for within 500 miles. Thus we were primarily St. Louis Cardinal fans, and adopted other allegiances based on childhood color preferences, or players we took a liking to. I got on the Oakland Raiders bandwagon for the aforementioned reasons.
My initial reaction to learning of Mr. Davis’ passing was appropriately cynical, “Though we may not grieve for him, we honor him deeply for all of his accomplishments, and doing the right thing.” But indeed we do grieve for him as he had a perversely decent streak despite his self-destructive acts towards his team and the league. He did the right thing many times on many levels, not the least of which was hiring the first Black and Latino coaches in the NFL, with Art Shell and Tom Flores.
Remember all the controversy in the 1960s about whether there would ever be a black quarterback in the NFL? Seriously kids, sportswriters asked that question. But Mr. Davis was far above that mentality of the day. That is the context of Mr. Davis naming Art Shell as coach, and drafting Eldridge Dickey in 1968. Mr. Davis also made Amy Trask the first woman to run a major professional sports team. For all of his downside, you gotta’ admit that’s progress.
Would that I owned an NFL or AFL football team, and certainly would that I had been the commissioner of the AFL when the merger occurred – I would have been just been just as much a bitch and pain in the ass to Pete Rozelle as was Mr. Davis! Maybe moreso. I’m just an old “Antidisestablashtarianismist”, just like Mr. Davis was. (Check out that Duke Ellington song with Ray Nance on the vocals.) Maybe that’s why I’ve been a Raider fan for nearly 50 years.
In 1970 I was playing high school football. I was a sophomore, back-up running back, to a guy who went on to Texas to become the back-up for Roosevelt Leaks and Earl Campbell. That’s Bob Rowan. So I know my place in the football food chain – a fan. Sometimes when the heat rises on a field of freshly mowed grass in August and September, I get the urge to run sprints and play football. Fortunately, the sprints get it out of my system, or at least what passes for sprints at this age.
In 1970, our family watched “late” game from the West Coast over dinner every Sunday, and it usually involved the Raiders. Between the excitement generated by Daryl Lamonica, Fred Biletnikoff and George Atkinson, and my cheerleading, my parents and three siblings also became Raider fans. On five consecutive Sundays in the fall of 1970, we saw some incredibly magic things happen on the football field, which sealed our Raider fandom for life: George Blanda, a man older than Daddy (43) was throwing a series of game-winning touchdowns and kicking game-winning field goals. He was at least ten years older than the next oldest player on the field.
After the first three doses of George Blanda magic, we came to expect more. Whenever he walked on the field, there was a sense of expectation that he was going to do it again; no matter how deep the Raiders were in their own end of the field, or how little time was left on the clock. I noticed that when he first walked on the field, there was a little hitch in his gait that smoothed out as he jogged himself into a rhythm. When he gathered the team in the huddle, a sense of calm and confidence seemed to come over the guys. Daryl Lamonica was a great quarterback himself. But for five straight weeks in 1970, he either got hurt or didn’t get it done. No problem – we had Blanda on the bench.
On Sunday, Oct. 25, 1970, we were having flank steak and potatoes for dinner, and the Raiders were playing Pittsburgh. Lamonica got hurt, so Blanda stepped in. With no expectations, he threw three touchdowns passes in the fourth quarter to win the game.
The next Sunday, we had a shrimp and crab dinner, and the Raiders played Kansas City . It was a nail biter that ended in a tie when George kicked a field goal with eight seconds left.
The following Sunday, we dined on pizza and pasta from Pete and Sam’s, while we watch Blanda relieve an injured Lamonica, once again with the Raider down by seven. The result: Blanda won it on a 52-yard field goal with three seconds left, AFTER throwing a touchdown pass and kicking the point to put the game within reach. Really, a 52-yard field goal from a 43 year old man!
The Raiders played the Denver Broncos the next week, and we were back to flank steak and potatoes, which was one of my favorites at the time. (Now I’m a vegetarian.) When George came in to relieve Lamonica late in the game and the Raiders down, there were no expectations in the air. It was more like, “OK, how’s he going to do it THIS TIME.” And he didn’t disappoint, winning the game on a late touchdown pass.
The Raiders played San Diego in the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and we had plenty of leftovers for dinner. By then, we didn’t even get nervous if the Raiders were losing – George won it on a last minute field goal.
George Blanda was just one of the many heroes we loved or identified with on those great Raider teams. As much as any player in any era of the Raiders, George Blanda seems to personify the spirit of the franchise, along with Jim Otto, Mr. Davis’ closest confidante. Blanda actually quit the game after the 1959 season when he was dumped by Houston . But he was lured back a year later with the start of the new AFL by Raiders Coach Al Davis. Before becoming a Raider, Blanda had led Houston to two AFL championships, and was the League MVP in 1961. He was a connection to the early days of football, backing up Sid Luckman and Johnny Lujack for the Bears, after playing under Bear Bryant at Kentucky , and ultimately Davis .
Some things change and some don’t. Every member of my family is still a Raider fan, but we eat differently now. Most of us are vegetarians – We want to be like George – old and good, and to live a long time like Mr. Davis.
Mr. Al Davis made some great moves and some bad moves. Kind of reminds me of playing golf with my late grandfather. On the way home he’d often say, “Well Scottie, we hit some good ones and some bad ones. But we had a good time.”
H. Scott Prosterman