I remember the first time I met . It was Sept. 12, 1965. The Raiders had just whipped the Kansas City Chiefs, 37-10. My assignment was to do a game story for the Fremont News-Register. Fresh out of journalism school, I was a bit intimidated as I wandered into the Frank Youell Field locker room for the first time.
As I glanced around, semi-confused by the strange, cramped surroundings, trying to figure out which of these behemoths was Raiders’ quarterback Dick Wood, my deer-in-the-headlights stare was greeted by a sharp voice with an unmistakably New York accent.
“Can I help you?” the voice said.
I turned and there was the one face in the room I could definitely identify. It was the coach, Al Davis. I introduced myself. Al shook my hand and turned to the short, squat man he had been talking to.
“Bill, I’d like you to meet Hank Stram. He coaches the Chiefs.” Stram took my hand and shook it as Davis continued. “Now, who are you looking for?”
It is of little-to-no significance that Davis then took the effort to locate Wood for me. What is of significance is that Al Davis was on top of everything going on in his world — even knowing who the 22-year-old rookie reporter in his midst happened to be.
The man always had to know. Everything. And if he didn’t know, he found out. It was like he not only had eyes in the back of his head, but eyes on the side of his head and probably on the heels of his shoes. Protects the back, you know.
The man was a reservoir of the kind of information that allowed him to dominate his surroundings. Knowing was his nature. And he never forgot.
To illustrate, flash forward to July of 1969. Back from a military tour and working for the Hayward Daily Review, the young reporter had just been named the Raiders beat reporter for John Madden’s rookie year.
It was Day 1 at training camp in Santa Rosa. As I walked behind the end zone during warm-ups, Daryle Lamonica fired a pass that spiraled over the head of receiver Rod Sherman. The football hit the ground and took one bounce in my direction. Carrying a notebook in one hand, I reached up with the other and snared the errant pass. I am pretty sure it was nifty looking, but then I was a long time first baseman and thought little of it.
Until I heard that familiar Bronx voice from the sideline, congratulating me for making the play.
“! You are now a Raiduh!”
It was Al Davis. He had not only remembered my name but knew of my new assignment — which was not one that would have raised a hair of significance to anyone … other than a man who knew, HAD to know, everything that pertained to his passion.
The better to dominate his environment.
In the immediate years that followed, I had an opportunity to travel with the team, listen to Davis urge his troops to win after win, observe the icy silence between he and fellow owner Wayne Valley that wound up in a courtroom over control of the team, listen to his disappointments that the Raiders always seemed to fall just a game short of the ultimate goal, and read all the praise, the venom, the sarcasm and the love and hate that this unique man — coach, commissioner, general manager, owner — engendered.
When he took the Raiders away to Los Angeles, I remember standing outside a courtroom in Monterey during a break in the eminent domain case, telling him how I fervently believed he was doing the wrong thing. He was taking a rare beacon of light from a city that needed light and a passion to fight back so much. He was taking the hearts of thousands of Oakland kids who were looking for something to believe in, something to identify with and he was putting it in a city 400 miles to the south that did not deserve this blue collar team.
I wondered how this icon would respond to direct, verbal criticism of his decision, which was clearly based on financial gain. Would he fight back and let it be known he would suffer no fool gladly?
He did not. Al Davis stood there and explained, in essence, that it couldn’t be helped. He had been double-crossed by the politicians. He could not back down. He, of all people, could not back down. And yet, there was a sad look on his face — one of the rare times I saw that look — knowing that what I had said had a ring of truth to it.
He cared. But he would not be dominated.
A rare sit-down interview with Davis
Two decades later, the Bay Area Newspaper Group decided to publish a feature highlighting the Top 50 Movers and Shakers in Bay Area sports history. Would No. 1 be Joe Montana? Willie Mays? Bill Walsh? Charlie Finley? Eddie DeBartolo?
No. The choice was Al Davis, and it would be my story. Davis was difficult to pin down for interviews. He had his media favorites, mostly in other cities, mostly in the East. But “interviews” with the favorites would, in truth, be midnight conversations, usually for background and off the record. The rest of his words came during rare press conferences when a big event called for a public appearance.
In truth, he simply did not do sit-downs. He made an exception this time. In a Tennessee hotel coffee shop we sat for two and a half hours. He reiterated time and again how proud he was of his Raiders, even as they were struggling at .500. He spoke of the future of the team, railed over its failures. He projected the successes of NFL as an enterprise and its failures to stick to football. We talked politics, we talked life and goals, death and disease — the latter of which saddened him as his old friends and enemies began to pass on.
“We’ve got to find some way …” he said with regard to a particular ailment that had claimed a close ally. The sentence went unfinished.
He went on, thoughtful and — surprise — even willing to let the subject be changed by the interviewer. Occasionally, he would ask that a comment be “off the record.”
It was one of the more entertaining 150 minutes of my life. It was clear he trusted me. That was reward in and of itself.
The story was not all about the Greatness of the Raiders or the Greatness of its leader. There were the salutes, but there were the negatives, too. People like Stram talking of Al’s greatness. People taking Davis to task for being a cut-throat bandit.
A Raider. Imagine that!
I thought the story was balanced, yet I wondered how it went over with the Raiders’ Godfather, ever the critic.
A few years later I got my answer as to how Davis felt about it. A Raider employee led me up the staircase at the team's headquarters in Alameda, never explaining our mission.
There, on a wall outside Davis’ office was that story. It had been reprinted on a Raider-like dark lacquered background. I’d like to think it was in bronze or something of that nature. Suffice it to say, it was impressive. At least to me.
All I could think of was a voice in Santa Rosa telling some poor slob of a reporter how he was now a "Raiduh." After covering the team for 26 years and trying his best to be unbiased, I hope that said writer won’t go down as some kind of a Raider pushover.
But being a Raider? Coming from the Godfather? Yeah. I’ve got to admit. That’s pretty doggone cool.
Retired sports writer Bill Soliday covered the Raiders for 26 years. He's lived in west Dublin for 24 years.