Al Davis: The open-minded maverick

Before Super Bowl 50 writes the next chapter in the history of football in the Bay Area, NFL Media is examining local football heroes who were, in their own, unique ways, ahead of their time. Here's the story of an owner unbound by stone-age convention ...

The Motorola flip phone rang abruptly on an overcast Seattle morning, as I was walking along a wooden pier peeking out over Elliott Bay. The voice on the other line was unmistakable -- carrying the sharp, Brooklyn-tinged accent linked to so many trademark phrases (Just Win, Baby ... Commitment To Excellence ... The quarterback must go down, and he must go down hard) and steeped in so much football history -- and hearing it speak my full name on an early autumn day in 2002 nearly sent me tripping into the cold, blue water out of pure shock.

"This is Al Davis," the voice continued. As if I hadn't known.

Suffice it to say that Davis, the Oakland Raiders' legendary owner -- a Hall of Famer who was one of the most important figures in the annals of pro football -- had never called me before. We'd had a highly contentious relationship for nearly a decade, dating back to my initial attempts to report what would become a largely unflattering profile for Sports Illustrated.

Long before I penned that piece, Davis -- based on my early inquiries to the Raiders' public relations director -- had decided I was The Enemy, and he'd banned me from the team facility in response. It was the first of many battles. After one mid-'90s game in Kansas City, Davis had an armed police officer deny me entry into the visitors' locker room at Arrowhead Stadium. He was later fined $10,000 for his transgression; on the day it was announced, I went on a national radio show and cracked, "Al, next time, let's eliminate the middle man. Send me seven grand, and I won't even show up to the stadium."

So yeah, it was like that, and it was probably not a stretch to say that Davis detested me, a state of affairs that would persist until his death nine years later at the age of 82. Granted, I was not alone, but in this particular case I had asked him for something -- having left a message with his secretary that I'd assumed had no chance of ever being returned -- and now the NFL's most indelible iconoclast was on the line, ready to give me what would turn out to be about 50 minutes of his time.

"Mr. Davis," I said, in a tone as gracious as I could summon, "thank you for talking to me."

Davis chortled loudly and dismissively. "Accchhh, I'm not talking to YOU!" he clarified. "I'm just doing something for Amy!"

I was working on an SI profile of then-Raiders chief executive Amy Trask, whom I'd accurately dubbed The Toughest Woman In Football. And though I'd never expected Davis to contribute to the cause, it made sense that he'd make this exception: Trask, who'd joined the organization as a legal intern in 1983 and immediately jumped into the ongoing battle between the Raiders and the NFL in the wake of Davis' maverick move to Los Angeles, was as close to an understudy, at least on the management side of his multifaceted leadership portfolio, as he'd cultivated during his remarkable and unparalleled career.

For all the bad things that could be said about Davis -- about his penchant for ruthlessness, his spiteful treatment of adversaries, the degree to which petty, incessant battles consumed him and detracted from the big picture -- his mentorship of Trask spoke volumes about his character. In an industry not known for its progressive thought, in a culture that was alarmingly backward when it came to feelings about race, ethnicity and gender, Davis was an admirable rebel with a two-pronged cause: He felt that fighting against harmful stereotypes was the right thing to do, and -- perhaps just as important to him -- he correctly believed that being open-minded in the search for talented employees would benefit his football team's fortunes.

As the football world descends upon the Bay Area for Super Bowl 50, it's important to remember Davis' legacy as one of the sport's true visionaries, in realms that extended far beyond the playing field.

"He was a very, very enigmatic man, a man that is very hard to describe -- and I worked for him for almost 30 years," Trask, now a CBS Sports Network analyst, told me recently. "I understand Al was a polarizing figure. There are people who hold him in the highest regard, who respect and admire the man he was. And there are some who hold him in tremendous contempt, and scorn the man he was.

"But I think if we're being intellectually honest, we can all agree that he was so far ahead of his time when it came to hiring practices, it's absolutely staggering. Football, for so long, was run by people who were set in their ways, and yet Al went out and got the best people, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or any other perceived stigma. Nobody made him do that."

It wasn't as if Davis were merely running a public-service campaign for affirmative action; he was a man hell-bent on success, dating back to the old American Football League, for which he served as commissioner, a move that helped provoke the 1966 merger with the NFL. The Raiders had 16 consecutive winning seasons at one point, made 18 playoff appearances from 1967-1993 and won a trio of Super Bowls. Bottom line: They were one of pro football's most successful franchises throughout a large portion of Davis' reign, a run that included his three seasons as coach (1963-65) and another 45 years in ownership, all as the chief powerbroker of Raider Nation.

During the team's heyday in the '70s and '80s, Davis became known as an owner who took in misfits and renegades and who cashed in by giving second chances to those who'd stumbled. The Raiders encouraged individuality and let men be men -- and together, they did a lot of great things on the football field.

Davis was the ringmaster, and he reveled in breaking all the rules. He hired the league's second Hispanic coach, Tom Flores, who won two Super Bowls in the early '80s. Then Davis hired the first African-American coach of the modern era, Art Shell, the Hall of Fame left tackle who'd been part of the Raiders family since 1968. In the '90s, Davis turned to Trask as his right-hand woman, to the point where she would represent the organization at virtually every important league meeting during the latter stages of his life.

As Davis got older and surlier, the Raiders' run of excellence ended, and he became increasingly meddlesome, firing coaches with abandon and taking big swings in an effort to restore the team to prominence. The new century began with a mini-run under Jon Gruden, but Davis' inability to coexist with (and unwillingness to financially reward) his young, charismatic coach led the owner to trade him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The following season, 2002, saw Gruden's replacement, Bill Callahan, guide the team to the AFC championship -- only to be blown out in Super Bowl XXXVII by Gruden's Bucs. The Raiders have not had a winning season since, and publicly, Davis received a lion's share of the rebuke.

Trask concedes that "we all may make different decisions in our 70s, when we are not well, than we did in our 30s and 40s, and Al was no exception." Yet, it hurt her when her legendary boss was reduced to a caricature, and in true Raider fashion, her instinct was to fight back.

"There were years he was getting battered by the press, and some of the things were positively fair," Trask recalls. "I'd tell him, 'You are leading with your chin. But why can't we share stories that paint you in a different light? Why can't we tell the world that as the [Raiders' coach] you refused to play games in the segregated South, holding out to the point where they were canceled?' And he would stop me dead in my tracks and say, 'Hey, kid -- I didn't do it for publicity. I did it because it was right.'

"And I'd say: 'That's! The! Point!' And he would get very heated and hold firm: 'What did I just say? I didn't do it for publicity.' "

Similarly, Davis frequently engaged in acts of great generosity toward former players, coaches and other Raiders employees that were unpublicized and barely acknowledged. In his own, albeit oft-contentious way, Davis considered the Raiders a family -- and he enjoyed nothing more than playing the role of knowledge-imparting patriarch.

At the time of his death, Davis was grooming another African-American head coach, Hue Jackson, who'd caught the owner's attention as an innovative but well-traveled offensive strategist. And though his mobility was severely restricted by that point, Davis -- a football savant who'd been named head coach and general manager of the Raiders at 33 -- relished the chance to share and swap schemes and philosophies with the Los Angeles native.

"Watching Al and Hue interact was a treat," Trask says. "I'd walk into Al's office with a stack of papers, and he'd be in the middle of a football discussion with Hue -- usually over speakerphone, but sometimes in person. To listen to them talk Xs and Os was fascinating, because they each understood that football is a game of matchups: First and foremost, you don't try to put your damn square peg into a damn round hole. And instead of being beholden to a 'system,' you build a system for the talent you have.

"When Hue would say these things, I just loved looking at Al's face -- he would smile and nod. He was just beaming, that Hue got this, because so many others do not."

When Davis died in October of 2011, the ensuing void ultimately derailed what could have been a special season. His son, Mark, who would succeed him in running the Raiders, had not been groomed for such a role; he, Trask and Jackson did their best under trying circumstances, including season-ending injuries to quarterback Jason Campbell and running back Darren McFadden, ultimately sending first- and second-round draft picks to the Cincinnati Bengals for then-retired quarterback Carson Palmer.

In the end, thanks partly to the surreal phenomenon that was Tebowmania, the Raiders, at 8-8, fell just short of making the playoffs as AFC West champions. In the ensuing four years, Mark Davis has done his best to usher in a new era, beginning with the hiring of general manager Reggie McKenzie (a former Raiders player) and the firing of Jackson (who was recently hired as the Cleveland Browns' head coach); Trask would leave on her own in May of 2013.

Three coaches, an 18-46 record and an unsuccessful attempt to move to Los Angeles later, the Raiders are still trying to find their way -- and the prevailing narrative among fans and media commentators is that Al Davis has been largely responsible for their recent struggles, thanks to perceived (and overstated) salary-cap mismanagement.

I find this bothersome, and as strange as it might seem, I am now one of the man's loudest defenders, a stance that I'm pretty sure would have blindsided him as much as that phone call I received on the Seattle pier once surprised me.

When Davis passed, I wrote a respectful column about his enormous impact upon the sport of football and his admirable mentorship of Jackson. For all of our past differences, our sensibilities had started to align on some key issues, including the firing of Jackson's predecessor, Tom Cable, who (as Davis noted in the press conference to announce the move) had embarrassed the organization with an admission of having committed domestic violence and an argument with assistant coach Randy Hanson that sent Hanson to the hospital with a broken jaw.

My penchant for ending up on Davis' side of the fence was a trend that would gain steam in the years following his death -- and I did not see it coming. Strange sensations began to come over me: On the day after Davis passed, I was at Candlestick Park, getting ready to cover the San Francisco 49ers' game against the Bucs, and the Raiders were in Houston, fighting to fend off the Texans in the final seconds of a game they led 25-20.

Watching on a small press-box TV, I saw Oakland make a game-ending interception in the end zone -- while playing, it would turn out eerily, with only 10 defenders -- and let out an involuntary scream of joy, then started tearing up.

What the hell is wrong with me? was the first thought that came to mind.

As the 49ers get ready to play host to a Super Bowl in their newly constructed stadium, with the Raiders' future still very much in limbo, I find myself wishing that Davis could play at least a small part in the festivities. I picture him holding court in a hotel lobby, perhaps to the small group of veteran reporters who weren't on his bad side. I have no illusions that I'd be part of such a group, or that Davis and I would even be on speaking terms. Yet, I take solace in the knowledge that, if he were still alive, a whole lot of folks would be cursing the two of us in successive sentences, based on the way the Earth has spun in the ensuing years.

And I'm also grateful that, on one magical morning on a Seattle pier, I got to have a lively and illuminating phone conversation with one of pro football's most polarizing and prolific pioneers. At one point, Davis expressed displeasure with the NFL's handling of exiled 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.'s legal troubles in Louisiana, an opinion I happened to share, given my high personal regard for the man in question.

"I'm with ya," I said, indicating that I understood Davis' point and position.

He stopped and audibly scoffed. "Oh, you're not with me," he declared, before resuming the discussion.

Even as I scribbled furiously in my notebook, having stopped to sit on a bench near the end of the pier, I remember taking a few pauses to appreciate the surreal quality of it all. His quotes were terrific. I would only end up using a couple in my SI profile, but he helped me a ton, providing specific examples of Trask's leadership, loyalty and ascent to her role as his de facto heir apparent.

The experience is still lodged indelibly in my memory bank: It was cold and misty and smelled of saltwater. My hand was starting to hurt, and my ear stung from the cellular radiation. I started to ask Davis a follow-up question about Trask's infamous shouting match with former 49ers president Carmen Policy -- and defiance of then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue's repeated orders to stand down -- at a 1997 league meeting, when Davis cut me off abruptly.

"Michael Silver," he said in that thick, inimitable Brooklyn accent of his, "I've given you 51 minutes of my time this morning. I believe that's quite sufficient."

I started laughing, and on the other end of the phone, I could swear I heard him laughing, too.

"Mr. Davis, you're absolutely right," I said. "Thank you for your time."

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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