- Paul Gutierrez, ESPN Staff Writer
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DENVER -- Dan Conners takes a special interest in Raiders games these days as he plops himself onto his couch in San Luis Obispo, Calif., to take one in on television. Just as he will Monday night when Oakland is at Denver.
Oh sure, the Raiders are Conners’ team, the only one for which the three-time AFL All-Star selection played in an 11-year career that began with a 17-14 defeat to the Boston Patriots on Sept. 13, 1964, and ended with a 24-13 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game on Dec. 29, 1974.
And there’s that whole mantra by which those self-described “bad ass” old-timers live: Once a Raider, always a Raider.
But there’s something else. A gnawing at the old middle linebacker’s football-playing soul as he watches the big and fast Terrelle Pryor extend plays with his legs as part of this new generation of quarterbacks.
“He is getting better each week,” the 71-year-old Conners said slowly into the telephone. “He’s going to be a player. He has all the intangibles only Al saw.”
And there it is: Connors is the first draft pick Al Davis ever signed, and Pryor was his last. Between them, the late Davis drafted 555 players, but now, with fans recognizing Pryor’s distinction, the line between the old-school linebacker from St. Mary’s, Pa., and the new-jack quarterback by way of Jeannette, Pa., is distinct.
Pryor never met Davis. Not face to face, anyway.
Pryor said he spoke with Davis “about eight to 10 times.” During his five-game suspension to begin his NFL career, his cell phone would come to life and on the other end was Davis’ secretary, telling the newest Raider that Davis wanted to speak to him.
The phone would click over and the sound of Davis’ disembodied voice materialized.
“You could tell he was really sick,” Pryor said. “You could tell he wasn’t well. But also, you could tell his energy. Most successful people, they have a vision and you could hear it in his voice. It was coming out and that’s what I could hear from him -- his vision.
“I believed every word he said.”
Pryor said Davis told him he could accomplish anything he set his mind to, but he had to work at it. No sloughing off, no putting in the minimal amount of work.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to lead by example,’” Pryor recalled. “‘If you do that ...’” Pryor’s voice trailed off.
“He said it to me and he made me believe [in myself], even if I didn’t,” Pryor added. “Because I didn’t know what the league was about. So to hear it from a guy that caliber, it was amazing.”
Several sources have said that Davis went back and forth on whether to select Pryor in the supplemental draft in the summer of 2011 before finally pulling the trigger and using a third-round pick on him.
There were already doubts about the position he would play in the NFL and he was coming from Ohio State with some heavy baggage due to his part in the Buckeyes’ memorabilia-for-tattoos scandal.
But when did Davis ever let a flaw -- real or perceived -- get in the way of a second-chance decision to, by his count, improve his team?
Pryor never met Davis and Davis never saw Pryor play for the Raiders. Davis died on Oct. 8, 2011, one day before Pryor’s NFL-mandated suspension for “deliberate manipulation of our eligibility rules” came to an end.
Which is why there is a part of Pryor that feels he is flying a certain flag for Davis every time he takes the field.
“I knew coming in that people didn’t really think of me as being that type of quarterback that he believed me to be,” Pryor said. “In that way, in that sense, absolutely I want to prove him right. He drafted me. Was it the first round? No. But I was the last pick of Al Davis’ life, and that means something.
“Especially with a five-game suspension. That says he believed a lot in my ability and right now, to this day, I know I have to get better at some things, a lot of things. But that definitely pushes me to be great.”
Pryor got in on one play in 2011, but it was wiped out by a false-start penalty on Pryor himself. He started the 2012 season finale at San Diego with Carson Palmer injured and showed flashes of potential at times before beating out Matt Flynn, who was brought in to be the starter, this year.
In the season opener at Indianapolis, Pryor was electric in defeat, rushing for 112 yards -- a franchise record for a quarterback -- while passing for 217 more and a touchdown. But two red zone interceptions proved too costly. Last week, he was more of a game manager (he committed no turnovers) and the Raiders beat Jacksonville.
So which Pryor will the Raiders utilize under the brightest of all regular-season lights? Either way, he has a fan in current Raiders owner Mark Davis. And vice versa.
“You can kind of feel it from his son,” Pryor said. “His son is very chill, laid back, but he’s a fiery guy. His son, Mr. Davis, Mark, he has some fire in him, too. He wants to succeed like his father. I can tell he has that vision, too. I just wish I could have met [Al Davis].
“I wish I could have met him in person.”
Conners has more than met Davis in person; he yelled in his face ... and his career survived so he could tell the tale.
But first, it should be noted that Conners was not the initial player Davis drafted. That would be a running back from Arizona State by the name of Tony Lorick in the 1964 AFL draft.
In Davis' first draft for the 1964 season (held on Nov. 30, 1963), he selected Lorick at No. 7 overall. But Lorick was also taken in the second round of the NFL draft by the Baltimore Colts. Lorick chose the more established league.
That left Davis’ second-rounder, Conners, who went 15th overall out of Miami. He was also taken in the NFL’s fifth round by the Chicago Bears.
But for Conners, picking the Raiders was a no-brainer.
“Chicago was not interested in signing me and the Raiders were,” Conners said. “It wasn’t about the money.”
It was about respect and opportunity. In those Wild West-style days of recruiting players in the war with the NFL, the Raiders had a scout in South Florida, constantly checking in on Conners.
And yes, Conners knew all along he was Davis’ first draft pick to sign.
“I never really thought about it, though,” he said. “You’re talking [almost] 50 years ago.”
When Conners was not an active participant in some of the more wild moments in NFL history, he had a front-row seat.
He started at middle linebacker for the Raiders in Super Bowl II against Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers.
Conners was there for the Heidi Game.
He was on the sideline for the Immaculate Reception, or De-ception, as it’s known in Silver and Blackdom.
“That was the only play I was off the field all game,” Conners said.
And if Conners had been on the field, might he have stopped Franco Harris?
“I want to say yes,” Conners said. “Because where he caught the ball, in the middle of the field, was where I would kind of hang out.”
Conners was there for the Sea of Hands. It was the last game he’d win as the Raiders' defense would get pummeled a week later by the Steelers’ running attack, one game shy of Super Bowl IX.
“They were clipping all game,” Conners said of the Steelers.
Almost 39 years later, the spirit is still there. As it was following the last game of Conners’ rookie year -- when he got in Davis’ face.
The Raiders had just eked out a 21-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers at Youell Field and players were already packing their cars for the offseason after a lackluster 5-7-2 campaign. Conners had an especially long drive to Pennsylvania, but he had something to get off his chest.
Still in his uniform in the cramped locker room, Conners, who played hurt all year, approached Davis.
“I was crying and yelling at him,” said Conners, who appeared in five games as a rookie. “I was telling him, 'You said I was going to play this much and that.' I was standing there looking like a big, old crybaby.”
“I told him, ‘I hate this, I hate you, I hate everything,’” Conners recalled with a laugh. “I unloaded both barrels on him.”
So how did Davis, whose mercurial nature would become the stuff of legend, react?
“He grabbed me by the shoulders, looked me in the eyes,” Conners said, “and gave me a big hug.”
“I love that, kid,” Davis told Conners, referring to his passion.
“I love you, kid.”
Conners paused on the phone.
“Imagine that,” he said.
Pryor already does.
4dEric D. Williams
5dEric D. Williams