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O’Brien: Al Davis Was Different and He Helped Change the Face of Pro Football

November 19, 2011

O’Brien column for The Valley Mirror

Al Davis died at his home in Oakland,California last week.  He was 82 and he had been challenged by ill health for several years.

          I last saw him on Sunday, Oct. 2, when the TV cameras focused on him as he sat behind glass windows in the owners’ box as his Oakland Raiders were defeated by the New England Patriots.  He missed seeing only three games in his 49 years with the Raiders.

          Al Davis didn’t look good.  He hasn’t looked good in a long time.  Some Steelers’ fans felt he never looked good.  His face was the face of the enemy.  The silver and gold never liked the silver and black. Daviswas the Darth Vader of pro football.

          Chuck Noll never liked Al Davis.  They were both assistant coaches under Sid Gillman with theLos Angelesand then San Diego Chargers in the early ‘60s.  Dan Rooney didn’t care much for Al Davis.  He once called him “a lying creep.”  They later made up.

          When Dan Rooney bid goodbye to his fellow owners at one of their meetings a few years ago – he was going to be spending time overseas as our ambassador toIreland– he said, “I’ll miss all of you guys, even you Al.”

          Al Davis came up and embraced Dan Rooney and shook his hand and wished him well on his new assignment.

          Arthur J. Rooney Sr., the late owner and founder of the Steelers, liked Al Davis.  He said, “He’s a good football man, if he’d keep his mind on football.”

         Daviswas always taking the league to court on one issue or another, fighting to keep his Raiders in LA orOakland, or to relocate them wherever he wished. Davishad his own “reality TV series” before there was such a thing.

          I spent time with Al Davis on at least a dozen occasions over a lifetime as a sportswriter and he was always interesting, available and quotable.  I liked Al Davis.

          He died the same week that anotherNorthern Californiaicon died.  Steve Jobs, the founder and CEO of Apple, Inc., died at age 56.  Both were geniuses in their own game.  The Raiders won’t be the Raiders without Al Davis and Apple won’t be Apple without Steve Jobs.   Both were innovative and inspirational and difficult to live with, and they changed their respective worlds.

          ThoughDavisgrew up in a nice home, he liked to portray himself as a tough guy from the streets ofBrooklyn.  But he graduated fromSyracuseUniversitywith a degree in English, so he was never able to pull it off convincingly.

          I had a degree in English from Pitt, and Myron Cope accused me of playing “the poor kid from Hazelwood” role a bit much, so Davis and I had a bond.  We understood each other.

         Davisbecame the youngest coach in the NFL at age 33 in 1963 and he would later become the owner of the Oakland Raiders and one of the leaders of the American Football League.  He’s one of the reasons the Raiders and the AFL lived to merge with the established NFL.  There was no Raider for top talent like Al Davis.

         Daviswas often at odds with the other owners and with NFL Commissioners whether it was Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue or Roger Goodell. Daviswas daring and determined.  “Win, baby, win,” was his slogan in running the Raiders’ operation.  He stressed excellence in his organization.

          He liked black and silver and chose them for the team’s uniforms because he thought the colors were intimidating.  His Raiders won three Super Bowls and they were the chief rival of the Steelers for a long time.  He and Raiders’ coach John Madden never forgave Franco Harris for “The Immaculate Reception” in the 1972 playoffs.

          I first met Al Davis in the office of Beano Cook, when he was the sports information director at Pitt.  This was in 1961 or 1962 and I was an undergraduate at Pitt.  I was the sports editor of The Pitt News and I helped out in Beano’s office at the Pitt Field House.

          This was a Friday before a football game at nearby Pitt Stadium. Daviswas one of four individuals who came to Cook’s office back-to-back in a 15-minute period to pick up their press box credentials for the following day.

          First came Davis, then an assistant coach and scout for the Chargers.  He was followed by Frank “Bucko” Kilroy, a scout for the Washington Redskins who had played for the “Steagles” in 1943; Emlen Tunnell, a scout for the New York Giants who had been a great defensive back for that club in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and then Red Smith, the outstanding sports columnist of the New York Herald-Tribune.

          They are all in one kind of Hall of Fame or another.  I was about 20 at the time and it should have been a tip-off to me that life as a sportswriter would be a good life.

          I have been fortunate ever since to spend time with and interview some of the greatest names in sports.  Al Davis was one of them.  He was the least known of the four when I first met him.

          He was wearing a black leather jacket over a black turtle neck jersey, dark sun glasses, and his hair was combed back in the “ducktail” style, a holdover from the ‘50s. He looked like The Fonz, a wise-cracking street corner guy from the TV Series “Happy Days” as played by Henry Winkler in a cast headed by future movie director Ron Howard.  To the end, Al Davis had a “ducktail” hair style.

          I ran into Davisabout eight years later in a hotel swimming pool in Atlanta.  I was covering a pre-season contest involving the Miami Dolphins.  I was writing for The Miami News at the time.

          We were both splish-splashing away when we came upon each other face to face.  I introduced myself and he said, “I know who you are, Jim O’Brien.  I’ve read your stories.”

          I later learned that Al Davis read the sports sections of the daily newspapers in all the cities in the league.  This was 1969, the last season of the AFL before the merger with the NFL in 1970.

          Al Davis was a lot like Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner in that respect.  They both read the sports sections from cover to cover and they were aware of what was going on in all sports, not just their sport.  Art Rooney was like that, too, a man for all seasons.

          I would see Al Davis at the NFL Owners’ Meetings at Maui and Scottsdaleand Palm Springswhen I was covering the Steelers for The Pittsburgh Press in the ‘80s.  Imagine getting paid to spend time in those exotic places, partying and playing tennis with the owners and coaches in pro football.  I was also fortunate enough to do that in pro baseball and basketball as well.  I miss those days.

         Daviswas always delightful company.  He liked to talk to sportswriters and share his opinions on any subject.  He said he didn’t seek the spotlight, but other owners accused him of being a showboat.

          I remember seeing Al Davis when he attended the funeral Mass of Art Rooney at St. Peter’s Church on the North Side in late August, 1988.

          Something ironic happened that day. The church was filled. It was SRO. There had to be sixty or seventy priests there that day.  George Young, the general manager of the Giants and a long time pal of Art Rooney Jr., the team’s player personnel director in the ‘70s, said, “No Catholic in Pittsburgh better have died that day or there’d be no priest available to give them the last rites.”

          Pete Rozelle came into the church to pay his respects and an usher took him down the center aisle, and seated him in the last seat available on the aisle.  I was sitting in a pew directly across the aisle.  Al Davis was sitting directly ahead of Rozelle on the aisle seat.

          I knew what was coming.  When the officiating priest told those in attendance to turn and offer a peace greeting to those in front and behind them, I smiled as Al Davis turned and, to his surprise, saw Rozelle there.  They shook hands and offered thin smiles.  I thought that Art Rooney Sr. was smiling overhead and that he’d had a hand in this peace offering as well.

         Daviswas accompanied by his wife Carol at St. Peter’s. Daviswas always quick to introduce his wife. He called her “Caroli.”  She had a stroke in 1979 and nearly died.  When she was deathly ill in the early ‘80s,Davisrecalled how Art Rooney was in constant touch, sent her flowers often, sent her encouraging words, and went to visit her. Davissaid he would never forget Rooney’s concern and personal kindness toward him and his wife.

          Carol Davis confirmed the goodness of Art Rooney. “He’s one of the last of a vanishing breed,” she said.  “When you find somebody as special as him, you better treasure him.  He’s such a good man. He said he remembered me in his prayers.”

          Carol is still living.

          I used to go to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Weekend activities inCanton,Ohiomost summers in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Daviswould be there. Daviswas often chosen by his Raiders’ players to present them for the Hall of Fame induction. 

          I saw him present Fred Belitnikoff, Art Shell and Gene Upshaw. Daviswas also inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  Some of my friends feel he is undeserving, but that’s mostly because they don’t like him and thought him a bit of an outlaw, always opposing the league in one way or another.

          I talked to him inside the Hall of Fame in the summer of 1989.  John Henry Johnson and Joe Greene of the Steelers got in that year, and so did Gene Upshaw.

          I was with my buddies Bill Priatko and Rudy Celigoi, both from North Braddock, and we were talking to a former Raider fromYoungwood,Pa., the great George Blanda, and then Mike Ditka, of Aliquippa and Pitt.

         Davisstrolled by, dressed in black.  He saw us talking to Blanda and Ditka, and he thundered, “You guys fromPittsburghare always hanging out together.”

          He smiled and posed for some pictures.

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien has copies of “The Chief” and “Steeler Stuff” available at area bookstores.  His website is www.jimobriensportsauthor.com

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 23, 2011 8:31 am

    my brother wanted to know something about this, ill point them to your website, thanks

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