By Leigh Steinberg
It would be late at night, usually after midnight,at my home in the Berkeley hills overlooking Oakland and San Francisco and the phone would ring….”uh,uh Leigh, it’s Al, whaddayouknow”. The accent was a blend of Brooklyn and the deep South. Throughout the 70’s,80’s and 90’s the calls would come like clockwork. Al would pick my brain for every last morsel of player and agent gossip. He was more wired throughout the world of football than the C.I.A. He spent hours every day with the phone glued to his head calling owners, general managers, coaches, players, agents, scouts, football secretaries, and trainers. As we talked he would digress into other areas of interest - the Greek Wars, the politics of Renaissance Italy, the Civil War. He taught me as much about how to evaluate talent and mold a winning franchise as I could have learned majoring in the NFL at the University of Football. The dawn would be breaking, the Campanile from the Berkeley campus ringing five bells, and still he would be talking.
I went to undergrad and law school at the University of California at Berkeley and fell in love with the Raiders as a student. I purchased season tickets back in the days of Stabler, Hendricks, Biletnikoff, Shell, Upshaw and held them until recently. Little did I dream in school that I would become intimate with the owner.
We need to remember the Al Davis in his prime, the genius innovator of Raider Pride and the vertical passing game. He engineered the survival of the American Football League and forced the NFL to merge. He was on the cutting edge of progressive ways to sign, develop, and mentor players so they played better in the Silver and Black. He pushed the limits and perameters of team marketing and winning over public interest in a game that was then a distant second to Major League Baseball. He championed African-American capability to coach and be executives and labor leaders. As time passed, he aged, and the game started to pass him by. When I was giving the presenting speech at the 2006 Hall of Fame for Warren Moon, Davis was presenting Coach John Madden. He spoke eloquently at the podium, but he had grown frail and was taken to events in a wheel chair.
In 1976, my second year as a sports attorney, I signed “The Tossin Tulsan” Jeb Blount, a quarterback from Tulsa. It came time for the Raider pick in the second round and their braintrust voted 9-1 to select Chris Bahr, PK from Penn St, the pick—Jeb Blount. The 1, Al. I had a series of lower round picks with the Raiders in the late 70’s - players like LB Jeff Barnes, WR Rich Martini, who embodied Al’s keen eye to see Raider qualities in college players that no one else perceived. And he was brilliant for years! In 1981 I represented their first round draft pick, Curt Marsh, LT from the University of Washington. The Raiders had the most confusing front office imaginable. I negotiated with eight different representatives over the years, including Al, Ron Wolf, and Steve Ortmayer. Curt was huge, Al loved huge lineman, big bodies and characters. He selected a 6’9 DE named Charles Philyaw, who was large enough to play the whole defensive line. Al asked if I could help Charles, who was from the Deeeeep South. Charles asked me questions like why FB Mark Van Eeghan got to have “both names” on the back of his jersey.
Al developed an interest in my client Jim Lachey, All Pro LT, then playing for the San Diego Chargers. Jim was unhappy at San Diego and wanted to be traded but the Chargers were in the same division and couldn’t block very well without Jim. I told Al he would never pull off the trade, but somehow he got his old employee Steve Ortmayer to trade Lachey for Napoleon Kauffman and a lower round draft choice. At the end of his career Howie Long, my client, wanted to redo his contract one last time. I was worried because Al could get stubborn with players he felt crossed him—like Marcus Allen and Steve Beurlein—and not treat them very well. Howie was holding out and my apprehension grew. Howie was calm and confident. “Don’t worry, Leigh. I’m one of Al’s Boys, we got something special going”. Al gave in and gave Howie the contract he was asking for. Al loved his core of loyal players and took care of them forever. He paid for medical treatments and helped his alumns out of financial problems. And he was totally prepared to pay top dollars to his favorite players.
Remember Al Davis as one of the greatest innovators and pioneers in the history of the NFL. Not for some of his mistakes in later years. Al, I’ll miss the calls but I know you’re up their keeping tabs.