Al Davis (and AFL): Something different
Remembering A Pioneer
"Al Davis Passes" isn't a headline, it was his playbook.
This is not biography. Neither is it history nor eulogy nor expert summing up of X's and O's. This is just a sketch of how Al Davis and those pass-happy Wild West AFL days of the 1960s seemed to me as a little kid.
It's hard to remember now, but back then the NFL and the AFL were as different in type and kind as any two things could be. And not just different, but at war over their differences. At war, we were informed at the time, for this nation's very soul.
Because the NFL was all slow-motion teamwork and Norse mythology, a grinding siege of elbow grease and high-top shoes, antacids and good intentions. The NFL was as buttoned-up and buttoned-down as IBM or ITT or McNamara's Defense Department.
The AFL was Bourbon Street. It was fun that felt wrong. Like you woke up one morning to discover your dad had traded the family Vista Cruiser for a Vincent Black Shadow and was dating Ann-Margret. Al Davis was the embodiment of this, of course. Maybe even the cause of it.
On one side was the football establishment and its fedoras and cashmere topcoats and its dull Machine Age regimentation -- and over there was Davis, as loose and sleek and daring as a cat burglar. On game day his teams all looked like they had just made bail. He was the most thrilling villain in football history -- something I could understand even as a 10-year-old boy in 1967.
Because in '64 or '65 or '66 if you chose up sides for a sandlot game, it was even money you'd pretend to be the Colts or the Giants or the Packers; a safe bet you'd stand in the pocket of your imagination like Unitas, or run the sweep like Hornung. It was straight up old-time football, missionary football according to the catechism of Halas and Lombardi.
But by 1967, here comes Al Davis and his Raiders and his quarterback, The Mad Bomber, Daryle Lamonica. Your daydreams just got the upgrade. No more Starr to Dowler on the 6-yard buttonhook. Instead it's everybody go deep and I'll heave it.
Maybe it was those black uniforms. Or that logo. Or maybe because Davis embodied for me a very specific kind of anti-hero at a very specific moment in history. Lee Marvin in "Point Blank." Frank Sinatra in "Tony Rome." Steve McQueen in "Bullitt." 1967. 1968. Fictional hard guys caught between the antique days of Sam Spade and the new world order of Harry Callahan.
That moment in time didn't last long. But what Al Davis brought to football was their aesthetic, their vibe, their wardrobe. Their situational morality. He wore the same wised-up tough-guy nihilism they did. The same hot cool. The same sunglasses. This wasn't the harmless ring-a-ding-ding of the Rat Pack just passed; nor was it yet the turned-on, tuned-in chronic fugue state of Fonda and Hopper and "Easy Rider." Rather, it was a weird little break in our cultural progression -- not quite out of the Fifties, but not fully into what we now understand as the '60s. So a couple of years of violent cinematic alienation and imminent rage in wingtips and two-button suits; of Angie Dickinson and Jill St. John. All of it overwrought corn and inauthentic and completely American. One minute it's hip to be square, the next thing you know it's the Summer of Love and even the league bosses are rocking turtlenecks and ankle boots.
And what's sort of endearing about Al Davis -- at least to those of us who've traveled down the timeline with him -- is how this remained his look and his sound and his ethos for the next 40 years. The revolutionary authoritarian. The anti-corporate capitalist. Just win, baby, whatever the cost or contradiction or existential consequence.
He seemed to me then and seems to me still a very great and terrible man. An American pirate. An original. An answer and antidote to the dismal little pieties and uptight fictions of the National Football League, he was a 60-yard go route just for the hell of it.
He was the Raiders. He was the AFL. He was what I knew of rebellion at the age of 10.
Looking back, what Al Davis brought to football was sex and freedom. And for that The League can never forgive him. And the game can never thank him enough.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at email@example.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.
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