NAPA, Calif. -- Reggie McKenzie relaxed in his hotel suite at the Raiders’ training camp site Tuesday, comfortably clothed in matching team T-shirt and shorts.
The former Raiders linebacker turned NFL executive appears to be at home. It’s where he belongs.
McKenzie -- whose eyes twinkle when he talks about his new role -- is taking on a responsibility few others NFL leaders can understand. He is now the football decision maker in Oakland. Since 1963 and until his death last October, that position was filled by Al Davis.
Davis was the Raiders. Now, McKenzie -- who was born in 1963 -- is the voice of the team.
“It’s an immense amount pressure,” McKenzie said. “But I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I really feel like I belong here, going back to where it began.”
Davis drafted McKenzie, a linebacker out of Tennessee, in 1985 and he spent four seasons with the Raiders. After his playing career, he became an astute personnel man for the Green Bay Packers. But he always kept in touch with the man who brought him to the NFL.
The two would often talk when they ran into each other such as events such as the NFL combine. Davis often talked to McKenzie about coming to work for the Raiders one day. In one of their final conversations, Davis said this to McKenzie: “You can come home anytime you want.”
McKenzie has come home.
I asked McKenzie did he think Davis died knowing McKenzie would be the man who would take over for him as the team’s decision maker. McKenzie thought long about it.
“I don’t know if Al told people, “hey, go get Reggie,'" McKenzie said. "But I do think he had a plan and I hope he’d be happy I’m back with the Raiders in this role. … Now, we got to go win some games and win that Super Bowl and I’m sure he’d be jumping up and down about that.”
McKenzie believes it has helped him that he's entering this job with Raider ties. He said he thinks it’s possible for someone without Raiders’ ties to run the team in the long run, but he felt his connection gave him credibility with people around the organization.
“It is like a college atmosphere and people have given me so much support and I think is because I was a Raider,” McKenzie said. “It’s been incredible. I’ve had guys who played here in the 60s to give me their support. A lot of people care with what is going on here.”
As he takes over the team, McKenzie has vowed to do it his way. Yes, he will take things he learned from Davis and former Green Bay boss Ron Wolf (who also has an Oakland past and who helped bring McKenzie to Oakland), but he will do it his way. He has already cut several players Davis recently gave big contracts to and he has had his own draft philosophy.
“I have to do it my way,” McKenzie said. “I was brought in to do it my way. Being a Raider is important to me and I will do my best to make it work and win games here at a place that means so much to me.”