You need to know two things about me to get some context for this post. One, I’ve been an Oakland Raiders fan for just about 30 years, which means I’ve seen some sweet highs and a lot of dismal lows. Two, I am not a professional journalist and so I haven’t had an Al Davis tribute ready to go for years — which means these are my unedited, unprepared thoughts about the man in the minutes immediately after I heard about his death at age 82.
I’m sure there are other articles and tributes that can properly frame Al Davis’s legacy in a way I can’t, but it needs to be said — if you have even a passing interest in the National Football League, take five seconds right now and thank Al Davis. He, along with men like Wellington Mara, Pete Rozelle, and Lamar Hunt, was one of the titans of professional football in North America and deserves every bit adulation he gets for his contributions to the game.
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Al over the years. While I could never deny that the Oakland/Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders became one of the great franchises in pro sports under his direct leadership, I struggled to reconcile the swashbuckling, iconoclastic Al Davis with the Al Davis who left loyal Oakland fans in the lurch in 1982, banished great players like Marcus Allen to the bench because of petty disputes, blamed everyone from puppet head coaches to referees for the team’s losses, and (most egregiously) continually failed to adjust his approach to an ever-changing and increasingly complex game from about the mid-1990s onward.
As season after season of mediocrity began to obscure the Raiders’ past accomplishments, I grew to resent Al. I saw him as the biggest roadblock standing in the way of the team’s chances for success. I became especially despondent after Jon Gruden was traded away after the 2001 season, seemingly ending a period of renewed relevance for the team. Watching Gruden’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers crush the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII the next season was my absolute lowest point as a fan.
Eventually I stopped hating Al and started feeling sorry for him. As he trotted out coach after coach in the post-Gruden era — and kept uttering hollow cliches about “Commitment to Excellence” and “Just Win, Baby” — I saw him as nothing more than a fragile old man with absolutely no clue how to run a successful sports franchise anymore. And yes, I cracked my fair share of jokes about Al’s mental and physical state over the years. The thing is, they were always borne out of frustration with the team’s fortunes rather than over any personal animosity towards the man.
And now that he’s gone, I have no earthly idea what’s next. Few other franchises in sports were as uniquely tied to one person as the Raiders have been for 40 years. I’ve never known a world without the Raiders as Al’s team. Despite all the times I thought and said that the team would never really improve until he was gone, I feel no relief or happiness over his death. I knew this day was coming and yet I can’t believe it’s here now.
So now what? Do the Raiders fall into line and become just another NFL franchise, just one of thirty-two? Will I still feel the same allegiance to the Raiders if they lose their outlaw appeal? Will I relish Raiders wins as much if some anonymous GM is running the show instead of Uncle Al? For non-Raiders fans these sound like stupid questions I’m sure, but if you’ve bled silver and black like I have then you surely understand where I’m coming from.
I would have loved nothing more than for Oakland to win one more Vince Lombardi trophy for Al, just for a chance to stick it one last time to uptight empty suits like Roger Goodell and the bevy of owners who are business men, not football men. The people running the league now may know how to turn a profit, but is it really a good thing that the future of the NFL is in their hands? For whatever else you want to say about Al, he was a Football Man first and foremost. There will never be another like him.