Al Davis shared the same birthday with America and George Steinbrenner, and died on the same date as Che Guevara.
Who else but Al Davis could hold that distinction? Chock it up to one more contradiction among a thousand that characterized the maverick former owner of the Oakland Raiders.
When Davis died Oct. 8 it brought up a lot of memories for me and other die-hard Raiders fans. Most of those memories are great, and some of them, honestly, are terrible. Heartbreakingly terrible. Such is the life of a 21st-century sports fan.
In their heyday, Davis’ Raiders teams were the baddest of badasses, a team of hard-edged outlaws who, oh yeah, won three Super Bowls in the 1970s and ‘80s.
But for all their legendary toughness, I couldn’t get one of the least tough things in the world – a Broadway show tune – out of my head as I’ve ruminated the past few weeks about Davis’ life. Specifically, I thought of that song from “Evita” – not something you often hear in The Black Hole – and these lyrics:
Don’t cry for me, Argentina
The truth is I never left you
All through my wild days
My mad existence
I kept my promise
So keep your distance
Change “Argentina” to “Oakland” and “I” to “Al” and I think you know what I’m getting at.
Davis – whose legendary mantra was “Just win, baby.” – just wanted to be known for winning in intimidating and dominating fashion. And he was. Unfortunately, he was just as infamous for moving the Raiders from Oakland to L.A. and then making sport history by moving them back. No team has ever left a city only to return.
That’s Davis in a nutshell. Capable of great accomplishments and inspiring incredible loyalty in one flash, yet capable of breaking your heart in the next.
How was Davis great? He won championships with a group of football outcasts and renegades such as Ted “The Mad Stork” Hendricks, Kenny “Snake” Stabler, Skip “Dr. Death” Thomas, Dave “Ghost” Casper and Jack “Assassin” Tatum. They not only won consistently from 1963-1985, Davis’ Raiders often conquered with spectacular, heart-racing heroics in games so unforgettable they were given their own titles: Sea of Hands, Ghost to the Post and The Holy Roller, to name just a few.
More importantly, Davis broke color barriers in a conservative sports world that changed at a glacial pace. In 1968, he became the first football executive to draft a black quarterback, Eldridge Dickey. In 1979, he hired professional sports’ first Latino head coach, Tom Flores. In 1989, he hired the NFL’s first African-American head coach, Art Shell. In the 1990s, he promoted Amy Trask to Raiders CEO, making her the first woman to hold a top NFL front-office position.
There was, of course, his dark side.
Davis could be loyal and sentimental and he could be cold and ruthless. He was color-blind and progressive. He also was greedy. He was extremely generous, often quietly paying hospital bills for a down-on-his-luck athlete or former coach. But he could be petty and mean-spirited. He was private, almost reclusive. But he loved being famous. He showed the city of Oakland loyalty in his early years. Then he kicked it in its teeth and took the ownership game of pitting cities against one another to new, shameless levels.
His legacy is wonderful. His legacy is awful. Contradictions are his middle name.
And yes, he broke our hearts in Oakland by moving the team. But then again, he healed the wound by moving back.
Years ago, I went to a book signing to see another Oakland rebel named Davis -- Angela Davis, a former Black Panther. (No relation to Al.) She thanked the crowd for coming out before adding, “But you didn’t come out to see me, did you? You came out to see each other.”
I never quite understood what she meant. Until …
Fast forward to Oct. 16 at that “li’l ol’ bullring” – as Kenny Stabler calls the Oakland Coliseum in his Alabama-bred vernacular -- when the Raiders played the Browns for their first home game since Davis died.
The Raiders won 24-17, and the raucous fans – one of those beautiful blue-collar Oakland crowds where just about every group under the sun was represented – were feeling good and happy. Out in the parking lot, as someone blasted an old R&B song, hundreds of Silver-and-Black-clad fans started doing the Electric Slide dance in unison. The day of mourning for Davis had turned instantly into an Irish wake, and the tears had turned to smiles, cheers and good vibes.
At that moment, I finally knew what Angela Davis had been talking about. The fans had come out to pay tribute Al Davis’ life but they ended the day just enjoying the moment of being a community, of being with each other. They were able to do that because Davis built the Raiders into such a successful franchise and because he moved them back to Oakland, taking a huge wrong he alone created and making it right.
That’s Davis’ legacy, too. And it’s a beautiful thing.
I guess what I’m trying to say is:
The truth is he never left us
All through his wild days
His mad existence
He kept his promise
So keep your distance