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“Just win, baby.”

October 9, 2011

Al Davis died yesterday. Just so happens yesterday was also Yom Kippur. Got to hand it to Al, he always had a flair for the dramatic.

I’ve been a Raiders fan for as long as I can remember. They’re not my favorite NFL team, that’s the Dolphins. In fact, they aren’t even my second favorite, that would be the hometown Giants. But I always rooted for the Raiders. I loved the craziness, the style, the who-gives-a-shit attitude, the silver and black, all of it. And a lot of it came from Al Davis, a Jew from Flatbush (like me) who graduated from Erasmus Hall High School (I didn’t go to Erasmus but my elementary school graduation was held there).

When the Dolphins were the good guys, the least-penalized team in the NFL, playing in Don Shula’s image, the Raiders were the polar opposite. They were the most penalized team, just as happy to rip the helmet off your head by your facemask as to tackle you. I’m pretty sure I was the only kid who loved both of them. So here’s to Al Davis, one-of-a-kind, and the kind of crazy-ass, passionate team owner that you don’t see very much anymore.

Brilliant, enigmatic and unapologetically independent, Mr. Davis turned the Raiders into one of the most successful franchises in pro football in the 1960s and ’70s. A keen judge of talent, he was willing to accept other team’s castoffs and troublemakers and able to get the best out of them.

He defied the National Football League by moving the team to Los Angeles in 1982 without league approval, then brought it back to Oakland in 1995. The Raiders won Super Bowls after the 1976 and 1980 seasons and a third while in L.A. after the 1983 season. When Yankees owner George Steinbrenner died in July 2010, Mr. Davis said, “I judge sports figures based on individual achievement, team achievement and contributions to the game. George was right up there with me at No. 1: bright, aggressive and, most of all, not afraid.”

The hometown fans have been intensely loyal even during trying times for the team. On the road, because of their renegade image, the Raiders were generally despised opponents. When it came to finding the right players, coaches and executives, he was an equal-opportunity employer. He was one of the first in the NFL to scout historically black colleges for players and the first to draft an African American quarterback (Eldridge Dickey in 1968) in the first round. He took players considered over the hill or under-talented by other teams and turned them into stars, like quarterback Jim Plunkett and tight end Todd Christensen.

Mr. Davis was the first NFL owner in the modern era to hire an African American head coach, Art Shell; the first to name a Latino head coach, Flores, and the first to name a woman as chief executive, Amy Trask. In another departure from conventional wisdom, he hired some head coaches who were younger than some of his players: John Madden, 32; Mike Shanahan, 35; Gruden, 34, and Kiffin, who, at 31, was the youngest head coach in NFL history when he was selected.

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