|Part 6: Al Davis, the awkward genius|
By Pat Toomay
Special to Page 2
Editor's Note: In last week's episode, Pat Toomay experienced first-hand the blood feud between the Silver and Black and the hated Pittsburgh Steelers, and tried to come to grips with the near-fatal accident of his friend and former roommate, Duane Benson.
In retrospect, this wasn't surprising. Generally, clubs tended to keep disturbing news at a distance, if at all possible. A team's psyche was fragile enough without the added burden of a tragedy like this one. Bad news could break concentration, destroy momentum. It could wreak havoc with an otherwise successful season.
While one can debate the virtues of ignoring bad news, in football it's the rule. You play through adversity. You rise above it. And that's what we did.
By midseason, when I finally got around to phoning Duane, the Raiders were already a juggernaut. After waltzing by Pittsburgh 16-7, we eked one out against the Chiefs in Kansas City, 37-28, although six key players were out with injuries for that Monday night game. Traveling to Cleveland after a short week for our third straight road game, we won again, 26-10. The win was the club's 17th consecutive victory over two seasons.
After faltering against Denver the following week, we won three in a row before losing 12-7 to San Diego, as Ken "The Snake" Stabler went down with a knee injury. Stabler's return the following Monday night against Buffalo was triumphant, however, as he threw three touchdown passes before limping off to a standing ovation after three quarters of the 34-13 victory. A garbage win against the Chiefs in the final game gave us an 11-3 record, second in our division to 12-2 Denver.
Personally, I enjoyed my best season. After five years under "Old Stone face" Tom Landry in Dallas, and a horrible sojourn with the acerbic John McKay in Tampa, John Madden's beneficence was just what the doctor ordered. I felt like I was playing on air. It didn't hurt that Howard Cosell featured my performance against Pittsburgh on his weekly halftime highlights segment on "Monday Night Football."
Riding the tide of that bit of national exposure, I picked up two more sacks against Kansas City, one in a key third-down situation that nearly led to a safety. Against Cleveland offensive tackle Doug Dieken, who, because of his strength and savvy, always gave me problems, I managed only a single batted ball. The first of our two meetings with Denver was also unproductive, since they jumped ahead early and ended up thrashing us at home 30-7. The rematch with Denver in the seventh game, however, was a different story.
It was "Orange Crush Sunday" at Denver's Mile High Stadium. Led by former Cowboys quarterback Craig Morton, the Broncos were undefeated. Their vaunted defense led the league in virtually every important category. All indications pointed to a barn-burner. However, an injury to their starting left tackle on their first offensive series proved to be a turning point, at least for us defensively, because the rookie backup had no idea what he was doing. Because I was so familiar with Morton's rhythm and cadence, having played with him for two seasons while he quarterbacked the Cowboys, I was in the backfield all day, sometimes beating Craig to the set-up point in the pocket. The result was four sacks in a 24-14 Raiders romp. A second appearance on Cosell's highlights followed. It didn't get much better than that.
After the Denver game, I started hearing from my old teammates in Dallas. The Cowboys were also doing well, and Harvey Martin, who'd taken over my position at right end, was also racking up a lot of sacks. The impression I gathered from these conversations was that many in Dallas felt that Harvey and I, although in different conferences, were somehow competing with each other. It seemed an inordinate amount of attention was being paid to who did what each week.
On a certain level, I understood it. My departure from Dallas had not been under the best of circumstances. During my tenure there, I had been fairly glib in my observations about the club and that had gotten me into trouble. In fact, I thought the Cowboys front office would have been happy to see my career expire in the muck of the winless expansion Tampa Bay Bucs, where I'd ended up after leaving Dallas. Al Davis' willingness to take me on must have aggravated them, I thought, particularly now that it was working out so well. I supposed that Cosell's trumpeting of my play on Monday nights was also more than irritating.
All of this was just idle speculation, a little swirl in the back of my head. Toward the end of the season, however, something happened that made me wonder if there wasn't more to it than I thought. I was talking on the phone to Cowboys defensive end Larry Cole. We were yakking about football, as players do, when Larry mentioned that in their meeting that day, defensive line coach Ernie Stautner had made a startling revelation. He'd told the guys that after going back through game films, he'd discovered that Harvey had three more sacks than he'd originally been given credit for. As a consequence, Ernie announced, Harvey was leading the league in sacks.
Of course that ended our competition, if ever one existed. The additional phantom sacks put Harvey into the 20s, while I continued to wallow in the mid-teens. Fifteen years later, an NFL researcher would note the fudge and correct the record. Reportedly, a prominent former Cowboys official was furious when he heard the news. I guess some wounds never heal.
The researcher also had some news for me. During an interview for an article he was writing, he asked if I realized I'd led the AFC in sacks in '77. Of course, I didn't. But I was happy to find out. Life, it seems, is full of surprises.
Ironically, in what was my most productive season, one of the most memorable moments took place off the field. It happened on the road trip to Cleveland. The moment was memorable because it seemed to sum up something quintessential about the Raiders. Unexpectedly, there was a glimpse of the mixed and darker forces swirling within the team and the organization, accompanied by an articulation of the kind of affection that could accommodate that darkness and thus make playing for the Raiders the pleasure it ultimately turned out to be.
Al Davis, then as now, possessed a reverence bordering on awe for the sheer physicality of many of his players, particularly his great ones. There was something almost childlike in his veneration. Seeing a player perform a trick with a football, Al would try the trick himself. Inevitably, he would fail, looking foolish in the process, much to everyone's glee. Discomfort with his own body led to long sessions in the weight room, which prompted more teasing, since Al tended to focus on his upper body at the expense of his legs. This "arms first" approach gave Al the proverbial toothpicks-for-legs bodybuilders' syndrome. "Ol' Baggy Pants" was the inevitable nickname. But Al's willingness to reveal his vulnerability to his players endeared him to them. It created a bond between players and owner that existed nowhere else in football.
The issue was the League Uniform Code. Sometime in the mid-'70s, the league decided "to create consistency in the appearance of its product" (product being the players). The policy targeted idiosyncratic alterations players made to uniforms, such as strapping white adhesive across the tops of stockings, or allowing shirts to come untucked during games. After defining rules, the league dispatched inspectors. Infractions were noted. Fines were levied. The fines escalated with continued noncompliance.
Of course, of all the teams in the NFL, the Raiders were among the worst adulterators. Of all the Raiders, the most profligate offender was Fred Biletnikoff. How Fred felt in his uniform was of vital importance to him, so getting dressed for a game acquired the intensity and feeling of a sacred ritual. First, Fred would hold his game pants up to the light. Carefully inspecting them, he'd snip off every little extraneous hanging thread. His pants had to come to just over his knees, so he'd cut them in back for more freedom. He wore his black understockings just over his calves, so the flesh was bare to the knee.
Then he'd go through the ceremony of selecting and spatting his game shoes. Spatting was when you wrapped white tape around your shoes; the resulting look was like those 1920s dandies who wore spats. Once that was done, Freddy would tape a crucifix under his flimsy shoulder pads. Then he'd tape his wrists and spray the tape with Stickum. Finally, he'd yank on his helmet and begin the endless process of adjusting his chin strap.
During all of this, Snake and Pete "Rooster" Banaszak would harass him unmercifully. They'd hide his shoes or lace them wrong. Or after he was dressed, Pete, winking at Snake, would say, "Jeez, what happened? Your uniform looks like crap today!" At which point, Freddy would take everything off and start all over again. "Be a little more careful," Snake would tell him.
So it went on this day. The ritual was followed to a T. Biletnikoff performed. Another Raiders victory went down in the books.
On this day, Snake was the only other player on the bus when I climbed aboard. He'd taken a seat on the left side all the way back. Settling down behind him, I accepted a paper cup half full of whiskey, a fifth of which Snake had stashed in his briefcase. We toasted, drank and, after a minute, Freddy came back. Still sweaty and wired from the game, Freddy plopped down across from Snake, fired up a cigarette as he threw down the whiskey Snake had passed him. "Let's go, bussy!" Fred yelled at the driver. "Who's left anyway?" The driver held up his hand. "One more," he said. "Come on, let's go!" Freddy barked. But the driver insisted on waiting. Then we saw why. The one person left was Al Davis.
As Al got on the bus, he grabbed the pole behind the driver and was about to swivel into his seat when he caught sight of us in back. "Hey!" Al shouted at Freddy, pointing a rolled up game program at him. "You cost me another $2,500 today with the way you butcher your uniform every week!"
Fred recoiled, as if his trust had been violated and he had been called a traitor. His response was immediate and assaultive, for he was defending hallowed ground.
"F--- you, you no-legged baggy-pantsed mother------," Freddy snarled. "You told me 'Whatever it takes!' "
Hearing this, I cringed, slid down in my seat until I'd disappeared from view. In my experience, this was unprecedented. Violence, I was sure, was imminent. But then I could hear Al start to laugh. Slowly, I raised my head. Sure enough, Al was laughing. Head thrown back, he was laughing and laughing.
"I guess I told him, huh, Tombstone?" Fred said to me. Now chuckling himself, Fred tossed off more whiskey.
"Zhivago, you're some piece of work, man," Snake remarked.
Coming attractions: Toomay completes his best regular season ever, leading the AFC in sacks, and heads into the playoffs on a blissful high ... until he suddenly comes face-to-face with the darkness at the heart of the Raiders' 1977 campaign -- an extremely troubled man they called "The Tooz."
Former NFL defensive end Pat Toomay played in the league for 10 years (1970-79) with the Cowboys, Bills, Bucs and Raiders. He is the author of two books, The Crunch and the novel On Any Given Sunday. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.