He had as many loyal friends as he had sworn enemies, though plenty on both sides never met him.
Just as he loved and hated with an intensity that could cut glass, he too was adored and detested with a passion that could come only from the bottom of the heart.
Al Davis, the iconic Raiders boss who died Saturday at 82, was an amalgam of many great and historic figures yet somehow an American original. Possessing a unique persona -- charming yet abrasive, defiant yet compromising, ruthless yet compassionate -- he managed to be exceedingly complex yet utterly simple, unforgiving as cold steel and sensitive as cotton.
He will be forever regarded as one of the most fascinating figures in the history of athletics, unquestionably the most compelling in the comprehensive book of Bay Area sports, all without personally engaging in actual competition.
Quite a feat, indeed, and it only begins to measure the magnitude of Al.
Sport is filled with a vast array of characters, from the regal and distinctive, to the bellicose and occasionally unhinged. Al was all that and more. Feared and followed, respected and despised and admired and always -- always -- worthy of observation, he lived for the ceaseless and methodical pursuit of all he visualized.
His visions, from young adulthood, were acutely ambitious. Davis set out not only to realize his own version of the almighty New York Yankees of his Brooklyn childhood but also to
Davis attached himself to the operation. It became his obsession, man and team becoming one and the same, inseparable and most assuredly incomplete without each other. The Raiders played and lived as Al dictated, by the only rule in his book: win.
That's what Davis was all about. He could not care less about being liked, for it was more important to project an air of power and authority. His desire to be feared was met as long as his teams were rampaging over opponents -- as the Raiders did for nearly a quarter century. Al's Raiders developed a reputation of bending the rules and twisting policies to maximum benefit.
All is fair in war, right? And football, to Davis, was a form of war.
The franchise mindset descended from the top down. It came from Al, who always seemed to know the fine print better than anyone in the room or, for that matter, anyone in either the AFL or the NFL. He was fiercely independent, swinging his knowledge like a hammer, never hesitating to walk alone, thus cultivating the maverick image he embraced.
Never was there a more iconic and enduring symbol of a business. Not Oprah Winfrey, not Steve Jobs. Not George Halas or Bill Walsh or Bob Knight. Not even Davis' good friend, George Steinbrenner.
For Al not only represented his team but also dressed the part. He wore his suits and sweatsuits like a shield, never deviating from black or white and silver -- the colors of his team. It was a matter of mutual identity, Al and the Raiders, the Raiders and Al.
Yet Davis' reach extended far beyond his renegade image as King of the Silver and Black Empire. He was instrumental in the growth of the AFL and its subsequent merger with the NFL. Even as he built consensus with others, Davis remained his own man in every way, with little regard for common wisdom.
Davis supported African-Americans when it wasn't popular, standing with them in the face of Jim Crow incidents in the 1960s. He believed in second chances, believed in equal rights. Insofar as he believed what he believed with such profound conviction, no one -- past, present or future -- was more committed to his own personal rhythms.
In the macho world of the NFL, Davis in 1987 recruited a young woman, Amy Trask, and developed her until she became his chief lieutenant, as synonymous with the Raiders as he was. He did it not to be a pioneer but because he admired her intellect, toughness, loyalty, dedication and ambition.
Davis in 1989 hired the first black head coach in the modern NFL. Art Shell, a former Raiders great in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, took the job and was moderately successful over almost six seasons. The two men shared an unmistakably reciprocal respect and a love of all things Raider.
In 2006, in an effort to correct what he perceived was one of his biggest mistakes, firing Shell after the 1994 season, Davis rehired Shell. It was a disaster. The 2006 Raiders finished 2-14, the franchise's worst record in four decades under Davis. He fired Shell, blistering him in the process. Suddenly, two men who had shared so much, who had made such history together, had little use for each other.
Yet it was classic Al, ever capricious, the very same Davis who out of anger and ambition, moved his team from Oakland to Los Angeles -- only to return 13 years later, guided yet again by ambition and, this time, a bit of romance.
I'll never forget my first extended interview with Davis, which took place in 1995 at the team's old training camp site in Oxnard. I was directed to his hotel suite, entered bearing the tools of my trade and was encouraged to take a seat. The blinds were shut, the lights dimmed.
He spent more than an hour talking football and war and football and world history and football and civil rights and more football. He was engaging and colorful and quotable -- even quoting Sir Winston Churchill -- his words effectively painting a mural of his experiences and beliefs.
I'd known of Davis since childhood, when I rooted for the Raiders. I'd heard many stories about him. I'd read about him. I'd observed him from afar, then from up close.
Davis was a spellbinding subject, and that interview was the most fascinating of my 26-year career. One man, discussing his principles and how they were shaped, his life and his team -- which were one and the same -- to a rapt audience resulted in an unforgettable afternoon.
Given an audience or a platform, Al Davis never disappointed. Nobody, not even Donald Trump, better understood the art of the deal.
Contact Monte Poole at firstname.lastname@example.org.