Raiders' Amy Trask driven like Davis
There is a T-shirt in Amy Trask's wardrobe that sits somewhere between the perfectly pressed black power suits and white sweaters with matching slacks. It is Trask's favorite T-shirt, and might possibly describe where all of this is going. On the front it says there are 31 teams in the NFL. On the back it reads, "And then there are the Raiders."
Trask is zooming 100 mph in the bye week, tapping e-mails on her worn-out BlackBerry, plotting out moves, which means she has to do this interview by phone.
This way, it is impossible to know whether her pauses are from deep reflection or if she's getting choked up in the toughest month in the history of the Oakland Raiders' franchise. Her critics would say that Trask, CEO of the Raiders, is just carefully trying to measure her words and hide behind the silver-and-black curtain of a franchise notoriously cloaked in secrecy. They call her "Al Davis with ovaries." They wonder if she'd consider that a compliment. Nearly everyone who will talk about Trask uses the word "tough" in describing the woman who is now, three weeks after Davis' death, the front-office face of the Oakland Raiders. The most powerful woman in the NFL.
But Trask does not want to talk about gender, and also makes it very clear from the start that she will not spend the conversation unlocking any secrets about her mentor. She respected his privacy when he was alive, she says. She'll protect in death, too.
Uncertainty rumbles on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. Anti-Wall Street protestors are filling the streets of Oakland; politicians are fretting over a stadium initiative. And for the first time in five decades, the Raiders must carry on without their iconic leader.
Oakland is an NFL anomaly in many ways, most notably in its power structure. Everything -- from trades to travel to the decision that it's nobody's damn business what the team had for breakfast -- flowed through Davis, who ran the show for 48 years. It is still unknown whether the 82-year-old owner/general manager had a succession plan in the event of his death, but it is clear that the Raiders, who are 4-3 and in the hunt for their first playoff berth in nine years, have been aggressive in the days since his death.
They gave up what eventually could amount to two first-round draft picks for quarterback Carson Palmer, traded for Seattle linebacker Aaron Curry, and on Tuesday signed veteran receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The moves were no doubt influenced by Raiders coach Hue Jackson -- he worked with Palmer and Houshmandzadeh in Cincinnati -- and were presumably approved by Trask and Mark Davis, Al's son, in a collaborative effort.
Trask will say only that the Palmer decision was "a team approach, and it involved a number of people within the organization." She is witty and polite and talks for more than an hour on the phone, but doesn't reveal much. She stands 5-foot-3 and weighs just a shade over 100 pounds, this tiny woman in a big-boy world, but is nearly impossible to pin down. Maybe that's the lawyer in her. Maybe that's how Trask, a former Raiders intern, became one of the select few to gain Al Davis' trust.
The old man drives her, especially now. To stand out, to fight, to compromise. To finish something he couldn't.
Football at an early age
A number of former Raiders coaches and players declined to comment for this story. Others simply said they didn't know Trask, who handles all non-football operations, well enough to chime in. But there is an endearing scene that was captured on video and posted on YouTube last month, moments after Oakland knocked off the Texans, the day after Davis' death. Trask is shown hugging players as they came off the field in Houston.
"Everyone was hugging everyone," Trask says, deflecting the warm-and-fuzzy significance of the video. "It was a very emotional day."
She has been married for more than 25 years to Rob Trask, whom she met in law school. She calls Rob, who runs a hedge fund, her best friend. Their wedding ceremony was delayed because a Raiders game went into overtime. Trask offers up Rob's contact info for a possible interview, but he eventually declines. The only thing he'll say is that marrying Trask was the best thing he's ever done. They don't have children. They do have two cats and a horse whose names are not revealed.
"Pets deserve their privacy," Trask says, laughing.
She grew up in Southern California, the youngest of what she calls "considerably older siblings." Her mom was an educator and her dad was an aerospace engineer. Her family was not particularly interested in football outside of the Super Bowl, but Trask fell in love with it by junior high. She calls it an intellectual game of chess with speed and power.
As a kid, she was considered something of a troublemaker, mainly because she was constantly speaking her mind, occasionally in inappropriate places.
"I really don't have a particular story that I would share," she says. "I would simply say if I were my parents, I would've given great thought to sending me away to boarding school."
But she got good grades in school, and wound up at Cal Berkeley. It was just a short drive from her beloved Raiders, a team Trask was drawn to in part, she says, because they believed in second chances and stood up for what was right, regardless of what others thought. She went from Cal to law school at USC in 1982, the same time the Raiders moved to Los Angeles. She interned for the team in 1983, finished up school and went to work for a law firm.
Trask will not tell the rest of the story, but a friend of hers says she was discovered by Davis almost in the same way he used to spot future NFL players on the football field. She was working for a law firm that Davis had retained, and when they came out of a meeting, he said she was the brightest person in the room and that he had to hire her.
She took a job in the legal department in 1987, and, though it was somewhat frowned upon by a few colleagues, she immediately wanted to know everything, from the ticketing department to accounting to the way the team handled media.
Davis, Trask says, encouraged that quest for knowledge. Roughly five years into her job, he sent her to her first league meeting. Soon, she was going toe-to-toe with owners. Her ascent was fast. In 1997, Trask was named CEO.
"He had a tremendous amount of respect for her," says Mike White, who coached the Raiders from 1995 to '96. "She's a very intelligent lady. And because of those reasons, she was given a lot of responsibility."
Trask's longevity is no small feat. During her 14-year span as CEO, the Raiders have had eight different head coaches. Davis was slow to trust and quick to dismiss. He was "the ultimate of micromanagers," former Raiders coach Tom Flores says, and made all the decisions. He ran his team on an island, which shifted from Oakland to Los Angeles to back to Oakland in 1995. Us against the world. That's the Raiders' mentality.
Oh, there were the behind-the-scenes acts of kindness that Davis was responsible for. But Davis preferred that the outside world didn't see that. He wanted his Raiders to be mysterious, feared and contentious. To love to be hated.
And Trask had plenty of that fight in her. She was a relative newbie in the NFL power circle, when, according to an old Sports Illustrated article, she got into a spat with former 49ers president Carmen Policy at a 1997 league meeting, then refused to yield the floor, even when she was ordered to by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
"Nobody survives in that organization without having a mean streak," says former San Francisco Chronicle reporter David White, who covered the team for four seasons. "Al Davis wouldn't have promoted [Trask] if she didn't."
Former Raiders employees and people around the league call Trask fiercely loyal, a tag she both embraces and hesitates to accept. Trask insists her loyalty was not born out of blind faith, and that she disagreed with Davis on numerous occasions. If she wasn't allowed to speak her mind, Trask says, she wouldn't have lasted for a week.
So no, she is not Al Davis. Not exactly. She is active in the community and plays well enough with others in Oakland that the city council president, Larry Riley, says he loves Trask because of her contributions to Oakland's youth.
Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, whose father battled Davis in the early days of the AFL, describes Trask and Davis as "very different personalities."
"I do know for sure that everything that she did up until Mr. Davis passed away she did with his approval. But she's much more of a consensus builder, I'd say, than Al was. And somebody who has worked very hard within the framework of the league to get things done as opposed to certain cases [when] Al worked outside of the framework of the league.
"I would say she has been able to gain the respect of the other 31 teams in what was probably a difficult situation. First of all, she was not the owner representing the Raiders, and very few teams are not represented by their owners. And she was one of the very first females in the room representing a club. She's so capable that everybody looked past that and accepted her as an equal."
A woman in charge
Surely, Trask felt the eyes upon her the first time she walked into one of those meetings. She must have heard the whispered nicknames, such as "Pit Bull" and "Princess of Darkness." Did it motivate her to work harder? To know everything she could about the league? Trask says everybody -- men, women, old and young -- has to put up with something at some point.
Trask just had to put up with a little more than the average exec.
"When a man climbs to the top of the NFL by any means necessary, we call them resourceful," David White says. "When a woman does it, we have another name for her."
Susan T. Spencer has heard that name before. More than two decades ago, Spencer was general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles, the team her dad owned. She had trash thrown at her, was booed and underestimated, she says, because she was a woman in a high-ranking football job..
When news of the Palmer deal hit a few weeks ago, Spencer was annoyed. Hue Jackson's name was mentioned prominently in the stories; Trask's wasn't. To Spencer, it was a sign that the media and the average football fan still don't think it's possible that a woman can handle a job like Trask's or have a hand in any football-related decisions.
But Trask probably wasn't offended by the slight. She's a businesswoman who knows her football, but she's not a football scout. It is believed that the Raiders will lean on Jackson for personnel decisions and eventually hire another front-office person, probably a general manager.
Commissioner Roger Goodell says the Raiders are in good hands.
"She's a very strong person," Goodell says of Trask. "She has strong beliefs, and she is not afraid to express them. She is smart, tough, and she will do what she believes is right."
Friends say she's loyal
But back to a more touchy-feely issue: family. Trask, 50, does reveal something after some small talk and a couple more pauses. It's about kids.
"You know what?" she says. "We all make decisions that are right in our lives."
She adds nothing else to the subject. A close friend, Kathy Schloessman, says Trask has Rob and the Raiders. That's her family.
Trask was so close to Davis, Schloessmann says, that she'd be far more offended by a negative article about him than herself. It seems that most of Trask's good friends, the ones who could penetrate that very tight circle, met her through business dealings.
Schloessman, president of the L.A. Sports and Entertainment Commission, was working to bring the NFL to Los Angeles in the late 1990s when she met Trask. At first, Schloessman was intimidated by her. Now Trask is the kind of friend whom Schloessman says she can call any time, even in the middle of the night, if she has a problem.
Tony Tavares, president of the Dallas Stars, is also in the circle. He says she's as tough as any guy in business negotiations.
"I don't think Al Davis, maybe other than his wife and son, had anybody as loyal to him as Amy," Tavares says. "Look, you know Al and his personality and his penchant for confrontation, if you will. And no matter how tough the sledding got, she was loyal to her owner and represented her owner in the best possible way."
How badly does Trask want to win for Davis? She won't say. But eventually, during the course of a 70-minute phone call, Trask caves in and tells just one story about herself. It seems relatively safe and innocuous. It's about her mom, Sel, who's in her 80s now. Sel was a chemist, one of the smartest people in her class. When she graduated from college, she went looking for a job at all the big pharmaceutical companies. Every one of them turned her down. At her last interview, she asked why she wasn't getting any jobs.
"He looked at her as if she was just so silly to be asking that question," Trask says. "He said to her, 'You're a stunning young woman with a large diamond on your left hand. No one's going to hire you.'"
It was the late 1940s. And Trask's mom had to abandon her dream and do something else. Amy never had to do that. A few years back, Sel told her daughter how much she appreciated what Al Davis did. He gave her a chance.
"I believe that he brought out the best in me," Trask says. "And I believe he helped me be the strongest person I could be."
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