1960 was a big sports year for me, for the 1960 baseball season was the first such campaign I ever followed.
I did have baseball cards before, ones that were bestowed upon me by my parents friends whose children had outgrown the cards (sorry, no I don't still have them, though I wish I did), but in 1960 I discovered you could buy cards in packs for a nickel at the local drug store. I was hooked. Such that I bought football cards in 1960 as well, although in 1960 the NFL and not the AFL were of interest to me.
A year later, as a more savvy 10-year old, things were different. I had already established my love for the Dodgers, something that rubbed the grain of all my friends who were Giants fans in Northern California.
In 1960, I don't remember loving a football team. I knew who Johnny Unitas and Alan Ameche and Lenny Moore were, but I also knew Bart Starr and Paul Hornung and Alex Karras, not to mention 49ers Joe "the Jet" Perry and Y.A. Tittle.
But in 1961, I became a Raiders fan, because the Raiders were perfect for me. They appealed to my independent--or as my parents suggested, "contrary"--side for two reasons. One, was they were a bay area team, and better, I was born in the heart of Oakland. So, having a team representing my origins was great.
Unfortunately, I missed the Raiders--who then played at Frank Youell Field, which is now where Laney College exists—for the first 6-8 years, so that when I became a member of the Raider Nation. They were 2-12 (1961) and then a worse 1-13 (1962).
But in 1963, something magical happened for that was the year Al Davis was brought to town as the Raiders head coach. And, with Daryle Lamonica and Art Powell, Davis established the Oakland vertical game and started the team on the path to greatness.
In 1966, with both the AFL and NFL in pitched battles for college talent like Joe Namath, Davis left the Raiders to become Commissioner of the AFL, a post he held for two months.
For, the smart, and forceful Davis helped engineer the merger of the AFL and NFL in what proved to be one of the most successful like moves in sports history. By the beginning of the 1966 season, Davis was back in Oakland, though now as the General Manager, pulling the strings with a litany of great head coaches like Johns Rauch and Madden, plus Tom Flores, the second Latino Head Coach in the NFL, and Art Shell, the first African American Head Coach.
1966 also started a run of winning seasons for the team that lasted 15 years, and included an appearance in the second Super Bowl, the infamous "Heidi Game" and an amazing string of come-from-behind wins, the crushing blow of the "Immaculate Reception" and finally, a year later, vindication over the Steelers.
Davis was, at that time, as good a judge of talent as anyone working in the NFL, and he not only drafted shrewdly, but his hand with reclamation projects was beyond belief. Players like Ted Hendricks and Lyle Alzado, George Blanda and Jim Plunkett, discarded by their original teams as over-the-hill or personality problems, or both, flourished under the "Just Win Baby" aegis of Davis and his Raiders.
Davis did not care what his players did off the field for the most part, as long as they brought their "A" game to the grid iron each Sunday. Plus, he paid his players well, and those players rewarded their GM with that "Commitment to Excellence" Davis extolled.
Not that the Davis path was not bumpy, for more than often when he was done with a player, that was that. And, well, he had alienation issues, the obvious one being that of RB Marcus Allen.
Davis also crawled under the skin of the locals, when in 1980, after trying to force the Alameda County Board of Commissioners to expand seating at the Coliseum and build more luxury boxes (for at the time $38 million), Davis tried to move the Raiders to Los Angeles. Two years later the Alameda County lost the suit, whereby they claimed eminent domain on the Raiders as part of the community, and Davis moved the Raiders to Southern California where they played at the SoCal Coliseum.
There the team stayed until 1995, through a litany of legal mess, eventually coming back to Oakland for a huge cash settlement that included the stadium upgrades Davis originally sought (how foolish were the Commissioners for not season the logic making the same expansions other NFL teams were getting).
In fact, Davis' Oakland legacy--that is the stands and boxes that live on the east side of the park, blocking the view of the East Bay Hills, is still referred to as "Mt. Davis."
Over the last 20 years or so, however, the Raiders have been as bad as they were good the previous 25, and a lot of that was due to Davis, his hands-on approach, and singular vision of success.
And that was a tough thing to watch, as both the proud team, and their coach lost the relevance they had so carefully constructed for decades previous.
Somehow, though, this year, the Raiders under new coach Hue Jackson seemed to be returning to the winning ways of old, and I will even confess that though I had rarely watched the team for years, I do turn them on now. And, the truth is, the team became so terrible over the years that they rarely had a sellout and thus were blacked out for all their home games anyway.
As we all know, Davis passed away this last weekend, just around a year after another Raider great, George Blanda, and just from the above, you can guess what kind of mercurial legacy the former coach, GM, and chief cook and bottlewasher left.
I cannot say I always like Davis' moves, especially in his assemblage of a team over the past 15 years (JaMarcus Russell and Jeff Hostetler as QBs: I mean, what was he thinking?), but like any true maverick, Davis' path was as healthy with praise as it was littered with wreckage.
But he was one of a kind. And Davis changed the face of the sport, pushing it into the limelight and displaying an uncanny skill at judging players and assembling teams for much longer than anyone else I can think of.
And for a contrary kid, looking for a group of heroes, Davis gave me exactly what I needed, and wanted.
See ya Al. Thanks so much for everything!