Commentary

Al Davis always had time to talk

One of the game's great innovators, he brimmed with ideas and savored information

Originally Published: October 8, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

I started covering the NFL when I was 17 and in high school, and by the mid-70s I was immersed in a special time for the sport.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, the team I covered, became four-time Super Bowl champions, but to do that they had create one of the sport's greatest rivalries. They had to beat Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders. The memories of the Immaculate Reception, the fierce on-field battles and Davis's special brand of leadership came to mind when I learned of Davis's death at the age of 82.

Because of the Raiders-Steelers rivalry, I was able to get to know Davis, an innovator and competitor who fought the NFL as commissioner of the American Football League and won a battle that led to a merger.

In the late 1970s, I stumbled into a story that cost the Steelers a third-round draft choice. Chuck Noll, the Steelers' coach at the time, closed May minicamp practices one year and had players use shoulder pads. Because teams such as the Steelers feared Davis and the Raiders were having padded practices, a rule was created to make sure there could be no such contact drills during the offseason.

Once the story came out, Noll, naturally upset, said that I was tied to the Raiders' organization, which obviously I was not. After that story came out, Davis reached out to me at owners meetings and Raiders games. That's how I got to know him.

I'll never forget the times we sat in his office discussing the things he had done as a coach, a commissioner and an owner. Davis was always about information. He had an uncanny way of finding out everything about you.

He knew I went to Duquesne University. Once I got married, he found out my wife wrote about bowling and would tell her about celebrities and bowling, such as Sharon Stone being on a high school bowling team.

When I interviewed him, he would end up picking my brain more than letting me totally into his. Still, I learned a lot about football from years of conversations.

The Al Davis moment I cherish the most came during a Hall of Fame meeting. I've been a selector since 1988. Because Davis was so controversial, there was always a resistance to selecting him.

My reporting mentor, Will McDonough of the Boston Globe, came to me during the week and asked me to help make a push for Davis. I jumped at the opportunity. It wasn't easy, but that year we were able to get Davis, John Riggins and John Mackey into the Hall of Fame.

That was a controversial class, but it was my favorite, mostly because of the sight of Davis getting into the Hall of Fame.

For years, I would see him at owners meetings. I can't tell you how many times I thought I knew what was going on, but then he would say something that I had never considered. And he would be right. I, like so many, will miss him.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter @ClaytonESPN

John Clayton

NFL senior writer