Excerpt: Hell with the Lid Off

The following is an excerpt from Hell with the Lid Off: Inside the Fierce Rivalry between the 1970s Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers by Ed Gruver and Jim Campbell (October 2019).

Chapter 2: Darth Raider and the Mad Bomber

If the Dallas Cowboys of the 1970s were America’s Team, the Oakland Raiders were America’s Most Wanted.

The Cowboys were clean-cut and corporate-like in comportment and appearance, computer complex in their game strategies. The Raiders were renegades, rebels, but with a cause. Like their baseball counterparts in Oakland, Charlie Finley’s famed “Mustache Gang,” the Raiders looked, as A’s star Gene Tenace said of his squad, like a biker gang on a three-day bender.

The face of the Cowboys franchise was head coach Tom Landry, whose calm, controlled demeanor was as much the iconic sideline picture he presented on game days as was his fedora, bright-blue blazer, crisp white shirt, and patterned necktie. Raiders coach John Madden, by contrast, wore blousy shirts unbuttoned at the neck and bellowed at officials, “Hey, throw the damn flag!” Madden was described by one observer as resembling an “unmade waterbed.”

Quarterback Roger Staubach was called “Captain America,” and the bright-blue star Dallas wore on its helmet could have been part of the original Captain America’s costume. Raiders QB Kenny Stabler, by sharp contrast, was nicknamed “the Snake,” and his ferocious team-mates had monikers such as “Big Ben,” “Assassin,” and “Dr. Death.” It was all perfectly fitting for a squad whose swashbuckling logo bore the visage of a pirate—his head covered by a silvery Raiders helmet, his right eye covered by a black patch—and a pair of crossed swords. The Raiders’ logo was reportedly a rendition of Randolph Scott, a square-jawed actor who was an action hero and leading man in movies and had a significant role in the pirate movie Captain Kidd.

These were the original Darth Raiders, and the outlaws of Oakland took their cue from their emperor, Al Davis. If the Cowboys were known for their blue stars, the Raiders could have been known for the Death Star made famous in the 1970s by George Lucas and Star Wars. Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson took it a step further, stating that Al Davis made Darth Vader “look like a wimp.”

Davis declared, in his oft-parodied Brooklyn accent, that his Raid-iz would “rather be feared than respected,” and the man who spent his adult life in football as a scout, assistant coach, head coach, general managing partner, and owner created a culture in Oakland unlike any other in pro football history. From the opening kickoff to the final gun, Oakland’s opponents were going to get hit, stated George Atkinson, an All-Pro safety for the Raiders from 1968 to 1977. They were going to get hit hard, and they were going to get hit often.

The Raiders wanted to leave opponents with the conviction that football isn’t a contact sport; it’s a collision sport, as Vince Lombardi often stated. And that’s what Oakland did, Atkinson said. The Raiders created collisions.

Atkinson’s partner at safety was Jack Tatum, also known as the Assassin. A huge hitter for Woody Hayes’s Ohio State Buckeyes squads that won a national championship in 1968 and fell just shy of national titles in 1969 and again in ’70, Tatum found the Raider Way to his liking when Davis drafted him in 1971.

It was appealing to Tatum that once he became a Raider he was going to go out on the field and destroy opponents. Oakland was going to hit opponents and intimidate them, said Tatum, who liked to believe that his best hits bordered on “felonious assault.”

Oakland linebacker Phil Villapiano said he and his mates hit as hard as they could because that was the “Raider Way.”

The Raider Way was established in the late 1960s when they began winning league and division championships in the American Football League. The more Oakland won, the more prominent and feared its image became. Villapiano said some teams would lie down and let the Raiders beat them. Opponents, he opined, were afraid of the image.

The Silver and Black’s bullying led to a mystique that left the rest of the league wary. Like those who faced the Philadelphia Flyers’ brutally physical Broad Street Bullies teams in the 1970s, opponents of the Silver and Black knew what awaited them on game day.

Kansas City head coach Hank Stram hated seeing those silver and black uniforms on game days in the Oakland Coliseum. Miami Dolphins wide receiver Nat Moore said players were aware of the Raiders’ mystique and knew going into games that they were going to get hit hard. The key question, Moore stated, was simple: Were you going to get hit fairly, or was it going to be a cheap shot?

New England Patriots star tight end Russ Francis thought some of the Raiders were outstanding athletes but that other members of Oakland’s outfit weren’t very good. The latter, Francis stated, were intimidating types who tried to hurt people. Joe Namath believed opponents knew they were playing a rough football team in the Raiders. The New York Jets’ Hall of Fame quarterback adopted his half-cage face mask—notable in an era of single- and double-bar looks—late in 1967 after his cheekbone was smashed by the clubbing fists of 6-foot-5, 270-pound Raiders lineman Ike Lassiter. Some of the Raiders, Namath asserted, kicked and bit and hit you in the back of the helmet. The proof, he insisted, was in the game films.

Davis was as distinct in his appearance as his Raiders were in their play. He wore his hair slicked back and mirrored his team’s colors by wearing black suits with silver ties and, in his later years, black or white satin running suits. His office was styled in similar fashion. When hulking defensive lineman John Matuszak was cut by the Washington Redskins and signed by the Raiders in 1976, an assistant led him into Al’s office. What the self-styled “Tooz” saw was quintessential Raider. Everything in Davis’s domain was silver and black. Black walls, black couch, black telephone, silver drapes, silver carpet, silver chairs. Seated behind a big black desk was Davis, who looked to Tooz as if he had just stepped out of the fifties: hair slicked back in a pompadour, a ducktail creeping down his neck.

Davis maintained that the fire that burns brightest in the Raiders organization is the will to win. His most oft-repeated creeds—“Just win, baby!” and “Commitment to Excellence”—reflected beliefs that Davis grew up with.

Houston Oilers original owner Bud Adams, one of the eight founding members of the AFL’s “Foolish Club,” said Davis was a football man whose entire life revolved around the sport he loved. “He worked his way up through the ranks and had a knowledge of all phases of the game,” Adams said. “That experience aided him as an owner.”

Along with the Bengals’ Paul Brown, Davis was the only other owner in the NFL in the seventies who had been a pro head coach. Because of that experience Al did things other NFL owners didn’t dream of doing. He studied film, scouted players, and constantly worked the phones in search of trades. Davis made it a point to always be at the Raiders’ full-contact practices on Wednesdays and Thursdays and in some weeks the practice before the game. He kept a low profile on the practice field, standing alone on the distant sideline or beneath a goalpost. But his players and coaches always knew he was there. Davis had a presence, and he had something else—a deep love for his team. He amazed his players by knowing the name of every one of them, even during training camp, when there were dozens of rookies and free agents trying to make the team.

On some NFL teams players might see the owner three or four times the entire season. Because their roots are in other businesses they rely on others when faced with football decisions. Matuszak said some owners didn’t know Red Grange from red wine; they thought Bronko Nagurski was some kind of tropical disease. Not so with Davis. Al’s greatest love, besides his wife, Carol, and their family, was his Raiders.

Adams believed Davis differed from other owners because of his background. Al was an AFL guy who helped push the rebel league forward. Like Pittsburgh patriarch Art Rooney Sr., Davis is one of the most important figures in pro football history. He proved to be a pivotal figure in hastening the historic merger between the upstart AFL and established NFL.

Like his beloved AFL, Davis was a rebel with a cause—a renegade coach, commissioner, and owner who bucked NFL authority for more than three decades. He is the only executive in pro football history to be an assistant coach, head coach, commissioner, general manager, and owner.

Unlike Rooney, Davis did not prefer being in the background. Al was an out-in-front, in-your-face Type A personality. When a reporter asked a young Davis how he would adjust to California’s laid-back lifestyle, the former Brooklyn street kid bristled. “Adjust?” Davis said, spitting out the word as if it were ashes in his mouth. “You don’t adjust. You dominate.”

Davis dominated because for him football was not just his sport, not just his profession, but his life. The tough-minded coach and owner of the Oakland Raiders transformed a failing franchise and turned it into one of the more iconic in all of sports.

“When you think of Al Davis,” Madden said, “he gave his whole life to football. He’s done nothing else.” Madden would tell Davis, “You’ve got to do something.” But Davis never hunted, fished, or played golf. Al’s job, his profession, his free time, Madden said, was football.

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