I have to admit, toward the end, I really did feel sorry for Al Davis. He kept his physical ailments quiet over the past few years, even as his physical appearance deteriorated. He had a right to do that. But he was clearly not in a good way. It hurt to see a once-vigorous and roguish man in that condition.
It had to be an adjustment for him, most of all, as he understood what was happening. Of all human beings on earth, few were more in control of their own destiny.
Davis created his team, the Raiders, in his own image -- and essentially created his life. Nothing was more important to him. He deserved every piece of credit for the team's spectacular achievements (five Super Bowl appearances, three victories) and its immense failures (the fitful wreckage and non-winning seasons since 2003).
As anyone who worked for the team can tell you, Davis and the Raiders were one and the same. He maintained total control over the entire operation. Davis did not merely have the final say on everything. He had the only say.
In the last years of his life according to one or two people who heard him say the words, Davis mentioned that he planned to take the Raiders with him "to his grave." I am not sure how that could be accomplished. Perhaps his last will and testament, when it is read, will require the team to change its nickname? Or change its logo? Is that possible? Nothing would surprise me.
Not that I had an intimate relationship with the guy. Years would go by -- literally -- when I would make eye contact with Davis and he wouldn't acknowledge my presence. Then, suddenly on a random occasion, he might look over and say: "Hi, Mark. Good to see you."
And I would think: "What does he mean by that?" Which is exactly what Davis wanted. No one was better at keeping you guessing.
The younger followers of Davis' team really missed out. They never knew the Davis who was great and terrible and unforgiving and relentless and dashing.
That image became harder and harder to remember in the last few years of Davis' life. By then, he could move his feet only with the aid of a walker and was reduced to uttering his bravura statements through watery eyes and thinning hair. He missed the game at Buffalo last month and attended last Sunday's home game in a wheelchair, sitting in the back of his private box.
But look at those pictures of Davis from the early 1960s, when he first took over the Raiders. He was practically James Dean with a coach's whistle.
In those days, the standard pro football owner was usually a patrician rich guy who dabbled in football as a hobby. The exception was Art Rooney of Pittsburgh, who essentially won the Steelers in a card game. The most savage and relentless man in football at that point was Vince Lombardi -- who coached for a publicly owned franchise in Green Bay.
Compared with that club, Davis dived into the business and played it for keeps. Everything was acceptable as long as it led to Sunday domination. Winning excused anything. He proudly identified and found players to fulfill his vision.
Also, without any real calculation, Davis created the edgy image and texture of the Raider franchise. It led to a dogged and brash fan loyalty unlike any seen before.
Eventually, other owners caught up. They either hired smart people or became smarter about locating talent. And they began marketing their teams more aggressively.
But before all that happened, Davis was tough to beat. And I think the NFL, which fought him repeatedly in court, still appreciated him in a big way. I was in the Superdome locker room for the Super Bowl XV trophy presentation after the Raiders beat the Eagles. There was some tension involved. In those days, Davis and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle were near mortal enemies. During the week, as Rozelle was at the podium, one of Davis' lawyers had interrupted the proceedings to present the commissioner with a subpoena.
After the Raiders won the game, I was in the locker room, close enough to see Rozelle's expression when he handed Davis the trophy. As Davis grabbed it with a huge smile, Rozelle winked at him.
That's right. Winked.
Why? Rozelle understood that Davis, for all of his troublemaking, was fabulous for the NFL. He created interest. His team sold tickets, drew millions of television eyeballs.
I was thinking of that trophy-presentation scene in 2006, during a poignant moment with Davis in a far different setting. The Raiders opened their exhibition season in Ohio, at the Hall of Fame Game. John Madden was inducted that weekend in Canton. Davis presented him. He couldn't climb steps, so he walked up a ramp to the stage.
The next night, before kickoff time, NFL officials made another special accommodation for Davis. The stadium in Canton -- normally used for high school games -- had no private boxes. But the field was below ground level. So as a solution, the stadium staff erected a small platform on the rise above one end zone. A three-sided tent was built around the platform so that Davis could view the field with shelter around him.
And that's where Davis sat, the whole evening, with a spectator walkway just beneath him. People paraded past the tent all night. Many didn't notice Davis. But some did and performed a classic double take. Wait, is that ... it is! It's Al Davis! And then they would point and wave or make a fist.
Davis waved back, uncomfortably, as if some potentate reviewing the armies he had created, both on his side and the enemy's side. It was kind of funny. It was definitely touching. Although in some cases, people seemed to be laughing or scoffing at him more than smiling with him.
I also couldn't determine if, sitting there on that makeshift platform, Davis was mostly sad or mostly happy. It probably depended on if the Raiders were making first downs.
But whatever he was feeling that night in Canton, Davis also knew this as he gazed across the field toward the Hall of Fame building. Inside, there was an Al Davis bust, alongside the busts of every other pro football legend. Davis had earned that bust, many times over. So let some people scoff and laugh. The hell with them. He had won. In what mattered most to him, he had beat them all.
Contact Mark Purdy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5092.