Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, football maverick, dies at 82


Al Davis, whose nearly 50 years with the Oakland Raiders as coach and later owner was marked by storms, Super Bowls, lawsuits, feuds, a fierce devotion to his players and the game of football, and numerous notable quotes, died at home in Oakland, Calif., at 82 on Oct. 8, Yom Kippur.

Davis was called a “renegade,” “maverick,” “controversial and combative,” and “a hard man — a genius contrarian” among other epithets in articles about him after his death. A blogger for a Raiders fan website, Silver and Black Pride, titled his hyperbolical article, “Was Al Davis The Greatest Jewish-American In Sports History? ”:Mr. Davis defined an era of American sport and also stayed loyal to his family and his traditions. He was a great American. The question is, do his accomplishments outweigh those of Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, Red Auerbach, Max Baer or Mark Spitz? This would be a great honor, I’m sure, but I don’t think it would mean much to Mr. Davis.” Davis’s response likely would have been the slogan he coined for the team, "Just win, baby."


Another football blogger put it this way: “It is a tradition of the Jewish faith that the very best and the very worst among us die on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonenment. Al Davis died on Yom Kippur. Al’s many, many friends and fans would say it is appropriate that he died this day. So would some of his detractors, but for completely different reasons. It is also tradition that we should not judge, so I will simply say that Al would probably chuckle at the irony.”

Davis’s “battles with the National Football League gave him an outlaw image matching that of his silver-and-black- clad team,” one writer said. Over the years, Davis sued the NFL and was sued by it over his moving the Raiders out of Oakland and then back into the city from Los Angeles. He was AFL commissioner at a time when the fledgling football league was fighting with the larger, more established NFL, and saw the leagues move toward merger over his objections and without his approval.

Others noted that under his watch, the Raiders were the first NFL franchise in the modern era to have a Latino head coach (Tom Flores), a black head coach (Art Shell), and a female chief executive (Amy Trask).

Davis cultivated the image of outsider both for himself and the team he molded over several decades. With its pirate logo and silver and black color scheme, the Raiders sought to be viewed as intimidating and outside the mainstream of the NFL, which has assiduously worked at buffing its rough edges and insisting on conformity in team attitudes.

“History will dictate what my legacy is,” Davis said in a 2010 documentary. “Maverick is fine,’cause I am. Outlaw I’m not. But if believing in what you believe and sticking up for your rights and sticking up for the rights of others from time to time — do it your way. Don’t let the culture tell you what do. That’s being a Raider.”

The Raiders became the favorite team of outsiders and renegades. Numerous bloggers quoted the late comedian George Carlin, himself a self-defined outsider, as saying once: “In football, I root for the Oakland Raiders because they hire castoffs, outlaws, malcontents, and f*** -ups, they have lots of penalties, fights, and paybacks, and because Al Davis told the rest of the pig NFL owners to go get f***ed. Someday, the Raiders will be strong again, and they will dip the ball in s*** and shove it down the throats of the wholesome, white, heartland teams that pray together and don’t deliver late hits."

Davis engendered fierce loyalty among those who worked with him.

"Times New Roman"">"Forty eight years ago, I met Al, and every once in a while in your life, someone comes along that changes the direction of your life," Flores said. "He did that to me and changed the direction with his passion for the Raiders and professional football. He was a dear man, my mentor and most of all, my friend. I will miss him."

“People love the Raiders and every time they think of the Raiders, they think of Mr. Davis,” said NFL Hall of Fame cornerback now Raiders assistant Willie Brown. “It’s a sad day in the Raider nation.”

Sportswriter Chuck Klosterman opened his essay about Davis with his analysis of what some might consider a surprising factoid: “What is one to make of a Jewish person who is fascinated by Adolf Hitler? How do we comprehend a man who goes out of his way to study the most hated thing he can imagine? In 99.9 percent of all possible scenarios, such paradoxical absorption would be dark and meaningful. It would be twisted and bizarre, and it would be perceived as the ultimate manifestation of self-loathing. Unless, of course, the Jewish person is question was Al Davis. Then it makes perfect sense. Of course Al Davis was interested in the Nazis. Of course he was. Somehow, it would have been more surprising if he hadn’t been.”

Klosterman went on to say how Davis defined the owner-as-larger-than-life years before figures such as George Steinbrenner and Mark Cuban became celebrities as famous as their teams and players: “No one ever personified a sports organization the way Davis embodied the Raiders, and no one ever will. No one can. It’s not possible. The league he helped invent no longer exists in the manner he devised. It’s difficult to visualize another man who could coach a team, then manage that team, and then own the team.”

Davis’s Raiders are among the NFL’s most successful teams, with three Super Bowl victories and five AFC championships, the last of which was 2002. In recent years the Raiders have struggled, and Davis accepted the blame for the team’s poor performance: “We slipped tremendously, and it’s my fault. I’m the custodian. I’m the Raiders, at least the face of it.”

Arthur Allen Davis was born in Brockton, Massachusetts, and raised in Brooklyn, the son of a prosperous raincoat manufacturer. He graduated from Brooklyn’s storied Erasmus Hall High School and received a degree in English from Syracuse University, where he was cut from the varsity football team. He coached football at Adelphi University, The Citadel, and USC before moving to pro teams in the early years of the AFL. He was hired by legendary Jewish football coach Sid Gillman in 1960 as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers.

“All my life, all I wanted to do was coach and lead men,” Davis said in a 2010 TV documentary, “

Davis was entered into the NFL’s Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992 and was cited as the only person to serve as a personnel assistant, scout, assistant coach, head coach, general manager, commissioner, and owner. A Jewish sports memorabilia website said Davis appeared on several football cards, and his autograph was “among the most sought after of the football hall of fame members.”

He is survived by his wife, Carol, and son, Mark.

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org.

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