I've thought many times over the years why the Raiders are my team. I'm not rebellious or litigious or cantankerous. Not an outlaw or an outcast. When I've been to games in Oakland, I've taken pictures with the hard-core fans dressed in Raiders gear; I haven't joined them.
I did grow up in Los Angeles when the team was here from 1982-94, but the move to Oakland should have turned me off, not made my heart grow fonder.
I've never really found a decent answer for it, so for a long time I settled on the idea that the Raiders were my team for the same reason that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas: because maybe it's good to get away from yourself a little bit, do something that doesn't make a lot of sense but still feels good, and make no apologies for it.
Then Al Davis died over the weekend.
I finally got it. It was Al.
I'd never met him. I didn't need to. There was something so authentic about the man and the team he built in his image. Something so human and real, in the best and worst of ways.
He was shrewd and mean and controlling and brilliant and tough. His ego got in his way as many times as it pushed him toward greatness. His loyalty was as legendary as his temper. The next time he kissed up to someone would have been the first time. Same goes for apologies.
But was he real.
If he said something, he meant it. If he did something, there was a reason. If he felt something, it came from his gut or his heart. You could question his motives or his logic, but there was never any doubt about his sincerity.
When people talk about the Raiders being Al Davis' team, that's what they mean.
How many teams, in any sport, are as consistent in their image and spirit as the Raiders? From era to era, through thousands of players and hundreds of coaches, across decades and in two different homes, the Raiders' soul has always been the same.
Most teams are defined by their stars or their legends. Their brand changes as the faces who lead them move on. They adapt to their surroundings, taking on the characteristics of the town that cheers for them.
The Raiders never change, because Al was always Al. No matter where they go or who coaches them, no matter who throws passes or catches them. Their linemen always jump offside or pick up stupid holding penalties. Their linebackers always get whistled for personal fouls. Their quarterbacks always throw deep. They hire who they want to hire, regardless of the color of their skin or the length of their resume. They fire who they want to fire, and always, “with cause.”
It’s something to latch on to and love. The reason I can’t give them up.
It felt strange watching the Raiders play the Houston Texans on Sunday, knowing Al Davis was not there to celebrate the 25-20 win. I'm sure it felt even stranger for the coaches and players who knew him best.
But it felt right that the Raiders won, and fitting that some of the players he took the biggest chances on played the largest role in the victory. Sebastian Janikowski -- the portly kicker he blasphemously used a first-round pick on in 2000 -- kicked four field goals, three of them over 50 yards. Darrius Heyward-Bey, the speedy wide receiver he foolishly reached for with the seventh pick of the 2009 draft, had a career day with seven catches for 99 yards and a touchdown. Michael Huff, the safety from Texas he drafted ahead of Matt Leinart in 2006, sealed the win with an interception in the end zone.
Al Davis' last years were not his finest years. He'd grown old and frail. His body was crumbling from the inside and the outside. It seemed, on far too many occasions of late, that his iron grip on the Raiders was squeezing them too hard and into a sad, strange place they should not be.
But when the end comes, the last bit of life fades and matters little, and the entirety of a man, in this case a legend, becomes large again.