Al Davis loved size. My goodness, he loved size. Everybody in the NFL loves size, of course, but Davis, who died Saturday at 82, took it to an entirely new level. If football is a bully sport — and it most assuredly is — then Al wanted his Raiders to be the biggest, baddest team of all.
Check out the defensive line on his first Super Bowl winner in 1976. At left end was a 6-foot-8 monstrosity named John Matuszak, the celebrated “Tooz.” Backing him up was a 6-9 rookie, Charles Philyaw. The nose tackle, Dave Rowe, measured 6-7, as did the pass-rushing right outside linebacker, Ted Hendricks.
Imagine being a quarterback and having 6-8, 6-7 and 6-7 coming at you — arms raised, fangs bared. It was like lining up Dave Butz next to Dave Butz next to Dave Butz (though Hendricks, at 220 pounds, was built more like a praying mantis). And this, I’ll just remind you, was 35 years ago. As large as they seem now, they were even larger then — like a lab experiment for Human Growth Hormone.
It’s no coincidence that the only 7-footer in pro football history, Richard Sligh, played defensive tackle for the Raiders in the ‘60s. Sligh didn’t last long — he was all legs and too easy to get under — but he made the kind of statement Davis liked to make. As Al explained to a dubious veteran one day, “You can’t buy 7 feet!”
Those Raiders teams — the best Raiders teams — were like a circus sideshow. Davis had tremendous tolerance for nonconformists, being one himself. As long as you performed on Sunday, you could be from the University of Mars (the purported alma mater of defensive end Otis Sistrunk) for all he cared. If the Bearded Lady could have run a 4.3 forty, Al would have signed her in a heartbeat. Heck, who else, besides him, has ever had a 48-year-old kicker-quarterback (George Blanda)?
I tend to think of him as an updated version of George Halas. Halas’ early clubs, the Monsters of the Midway, were pretty nasty, too. Al, like George, believed in pushing the rules as far as you could push them; and if you occasionally went over the line, well, this wasn’t a game for pantywaists.
Halas was villainized in some quarters because of that, and Davis was regarded with similar revulsion. The crippling blows delivered by Jack Tatum, the concussion-causing forearms thrown by George Atkinson, the clotheslines so gleefully dispensed by Phil Villapiano were seen as an extension of Al. And they were. That, to him, was Raiders football. You stepped on the field with them at your peril.
But he won three Super Bowls and an awful lot of games playing that way (even if recent seasons haven’t been so successful). In one of those Super Bowls, you may recall, his team trampled the Redskins, 38-9. This wasn’t just any Redskins club, either. It was the ‘83 club, which many consider the best ever assembled by Joe Gibbs and Bobby Beathard.
So Washington has that (unpleasant) tie to Davis — and one other obscure one: In the early ‘50s, a decade before he took over in Oakland, he coached the Army team at Fort Belvoir, the Engineers. Indeed, the ‘53 Fort Belvoir squad, featuring former Tennessee All-American Hank Lauricella and erstwhile Maryland star Bob “Shoo Shoo” Shemonski, beat Toledo 62-14 and almost went to the Poinsettia Bowl. (Alas, it lost a Thanksgiving Day game at Griffith Stadium to the Quantico Marines, who wound up going instead.)
Who knew at the time that the Fort Belvoir coach would go on to make football history — as the architect of the mighty Raiders, the owner who hired the NFL’s first black head coach since the ‘20s (Art Shell) and, yes, as the scalawag who did as he darn well pleased, including playing hopscotch from Oakland to Los Angeles and suing the league on several occasions.
Al Davis wasn’t for everybody. Many fans, especially those of opposing (read: losing) teams, no doubt found him a tad Machiavellian. But the 1960s — and the war between the NFL and Davis‘ AFL — were, for my money, the 10 best years the pro game has seen; and Davis‘ competitiveness, his self-described “commitment to excellence,” had much to do with that.
You didn’t have to love him, or even like him, but you should have been glad he was around — if only for the entertainment value. Besides, you don’t have to worry about another Al Davis descending on the NFL, kicking it in the shins and spitting in its eye. Some people can’t be replicated.