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Wednesday, January 22, 2003
Real heroes have flaws

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Do the 2003 just-plain Raiders stack up to the traditional, hellzapoppin' Raiders we used to know, grumble about and often secretly admired? Or have they left that part of the business behind, to the muscle inside the Black Hole? Are these attache-case, effete, vulnerable, Olan Mills Raiders?

Well, I'll leave it to you and Gruden's Bucs to find out. I really don't know. The Raiders I knew best were the 1981 Super Bowl Raiders. Kinlaw. Stork. Tooz. Art and Uppy. Killer Lawrence, preaching the Bible just to stay normal, just so the others wouldn't rub off on him. Cliff Branch, licking his fingers and talking way too fast. Judge Hayes smearing Kwik Grip Hold Tite Paste all over his uniform, his hands, his ankles, on top of his helmet. Mike Davis intercepting Sipe in the end zone ... and getting Christmas cards from Sam Rutigliano and Ozzie Newsome until this day. Plunk, the Undead QB, to Kay-Kay, Kenny King, Kay-Kay finding the slipstream for 80 yards and a touchdown down the left sideline, quickly realizing, along with Dick Vermeil, that the Eagles were too slow. The Death Grip of Rod Martin squeezing life out of three footballs and any runner. Wilbert Montogomery disappearing like they turned out the lights.

Jim Plunkett
As good as they were, the Raiders only went as far as Plunk took them.
Rod Martin was my favorite Raider. He was also the Raider I would have least predicted to intercept three passes in that Super Bowl, X-V. I'm not saying Rod should have been MVP. That would be disrespectful of Plunk. Enough guys have been disrespectful of Plunk, including me. I'm just saying, I never heard of a guy getting three interceptions in a Super Bowl and not being named Super Bowl MVP.

I was also surprised Rod got three picks because of his hands. Not that he had bad hands. Just the opposite. He couldn't catch the ball without cutting it in half. The first time I shook hands with Rod Martin, I supressed a scream and drew back a mass of quivering, broken flesh covered by skin. I typed one-handed for a week after. No, it's not that he had bad hands, it's that he didn't have hands at all, he had two rock-crushing Terminator-style meathooks attached to his arms. He was also like a brick wall when you ran into him. For a few years, he was ahead of his time. He'd fit in with the Raider LBs today, except they run faster. Anybody wearing a 50 and playing defense for the Raiders now is not linebacker so much as velociraptor.

Another thing about Rod was the fact that he wasn't clean-shaven. I'd be hard pressed to recall one of the Raiders of the Lost Art of Being a Raider who was clean-shaven, but many guys in the league from SC were; Swannie, Juice, Bobby Chandler, Dennis Smith, Ronnie Lott, even Charles Phillips, the Raiders safety they called "Face." They called him that, because according to their tastes, he was not the most handsome guy, and they liked him to know it.

But John Vella and Rod always had thick rich black beards, a smile splitting the middle of Rod's. If anybody ever asked him to shave, he'd just threaten to shake hands with them.

I'd gone to the Super Bowl the year before, in 1980, to Pasadena, to see Stallworth run 60 Slot Hook and Go for the TD that beat the Rams. Figured the next year's Raider edition would go 8-8. Only problem was, I wrote this in the local newspaper, which earned me a crooked finger from Art Shell. Not yet knowing Art's preferred method of debate, and having not had time to take out an insurance policy, I spoke to Art from across the room.

"Hey," he said. I calmed down, realizing I had no next of kin anyway. "Not bad," Shell said. "But you're wrong."

From then on that season, whenever he said, "Hey," he would go on to talk about something interesting but totally unrelated to football, or to the Savage and Wild Raiders.

"Saw what you wrote about Richard Pryor on the editorial page," Shell might say. "He's good; cusses too much."

"But Art, the cussing he does is accurate, authentic, it's true, and that's why you laugh. I mean, if you laugh."

Richard Pryor
Sorry, Rich. Art is not a fan.
Shell paused. "I understand, but he loses people with the profanity before they get to what he's trying to say."

"Well, he can't strip the authenticity of his stuff just to make a few people comfortable who are not going to get it anyway."

"Wonder if he thinks we'll go 8-8?"

And then there I was, stuck, with Art Shell grinning at me.

Gene Upshaw wasn't always this great union leader you constantly see coming on TV to explain some screwup. Once, he was this monster left guard who, unlike Art Shell, could get offended by what local writers offered up. One of my colleagues wrote something Uppy didn't like, and so, on a plane, possibly even the plane going to the Super Bowl, Uppy suggested that my colleague take a sip of something. Not really, but you get my drift, don't you? You do if you ever were around those Raiders. My colleague had a good reply though, "I wouldn't stoop that low," he said, snapping off a decent line and mollifying Uppy all at the same time, once Uppy figured out what he wanted it to mean.

I kid because I care -- well, not really. But I do respect and did share all the foibles those Raiders had. That's why we grew to love them, as we do our insane older brothers, as we did Paul in "A River Runs Through It," even when we hated them for forcing us to know what it was to live not the safe little lives we lived, but outsized, outlandish lives like theirs. They were kind of a flip side of us. Too human. Deeply, deeply flawed. Fun-loving. Worked hard. Well, worked, anyway. Played hard. Definitely played hard. Us basically.

Even Raider Haters were fascinated by them in some odd yet undeniable way, by this outpost of outcasts, retreads, banished indulgers, and occasionally good and surprisingly smart and decent men. Good stories? All over.

Judge Hayes, the Raiders corner, was the most fun-loving, the best athlete. A linebacker at Texas A&M who was moved to corner, Judge had a stutter that made Bob Love sound like Sir Lawrence Olivier. When I wrote about him in a column, I mentioned this, and said that this was one reason he didn't get more notice in news stories and from marketers as being the best athlete the Raiders had.

Later, Judge Hayes stormed up to me and said, "R-Ralph, w-w-w-why y-y-y- ..."

Three minutes later, it came out that he was asking me why I wrote that he stuttered. "Ohhhh," I said, "well, only because you do stutter, Judge."

Judge later got speech therapy and then you couldn't shut him up at all; Lester Hayes became the most quotable Raider, and that was saying something back then, and this was still during his playing days. By the time of the 1984 Super Bowl, Judge was offering up running commentaries during the games. If they'd miked him up for the 1984 Super win, he'd have made Hank Stram in 1970 sound like he was on Seconal.

Judge Hayes
When you are as big as Judge you stutter all you want.
The Raiders did stuff like that then. They lived their lives in more concetrated doses, faster, faster.

Tod the Bod read and actually took seriously something I'd written in a Saturday column; all babies in the media jungle know the Saturday column is a total throwaway, where you put all your junk tidbits, notes, notions and o-pines that you can't use anywhere else. I'd also had a bad oyster down on Jack London Square.

So, to kill time, I made up this list of the 10 Best Athletes Ever In football, and just for fun, just to see if anybody was awake, I put Jim Brown at No. 2. At No. 1 I put Lynn Swann. Now you must understand, telling an Oakland Raider of 1981 that Lynn Swann was the greatest football athlete ever was like slapping him in the face with a wet Atlantic salmon.

I thought Bod was going either apoplectic or right through me. "You complete idiot!" he said.

I just thanked him for reading. "Nobody else did," I said sadly. But not that sadly. Just enough to throw Bod off my trail for the time being.

The Raiders all had their peccadillos, as did we all at one time or another back when our bodies could still take it. Be it sex, drugs or rock 'n' roll, the Raiders were susceptible to them all, as they were young men on the loose at the time. Frankly, I envied them their red-eyed looks at dawn, their sheepish smiles, their ability to shake it off and get dressed in the black of the brave old Army team, the silver of the Detroit Lions and just act a fool on somebody out there.

Plunk was their leader, and Plunk was all chin and head and hands, a Redwood with black curls, a quiet guy, a forgiving-type guy who always looked strangely sad, as if he had some great secret he couldn't share. Never berated guys for dropping balls or getting it wrong when they wrote about which of his parents was blind and which was deaf. Plunk's face was craggy. Good stories all over it. I asked him once what was the craziest thing he ever did, and he just looked at me and gave me the longest answer he ever gave.

"Play football," he said.

The Raider coach and conduit to Al Davis, Tom Flores, had a real connection with Plunk. Flores never said anything that loud that I knew of. Probably was afraid that if he did, he'd wake himelf up. He, Tom Flores, backup AFL quarterback of Hispanic descent, was now head coaching the Oakland Raiders, and pretty much coaching the hell out of them, unless you know of that many guys who have coached two Super Bowl wins.

Tom Flores answered questions in such a bland featureless way, untelling of anything in case the opponents hear of it; might as well have been Tom Landry. Dry as a bone. Gave me nothing, like Bernie Casey gave the assassin nothing to feed off in "Sharkey's Machine."

We -- and I say "we," because any beat guy or columnist who covers an NFL team and says he doesn't want that team to go to the Super Bowl, doesn't care if they win or lose, is either lying to you, or crazy; you want the cachet, you want the greater meaning for your work, if dodging mustard stains and quoting ballplayers can be seen as work; you want these mugs you've been spending all this time with to fool you, and actually be worth something, to have import in the fullness of time and history, you want the noteriety with your friends, you want the power over your in-laws, you want the freaking road trip, you want the per diem, all that -- anyway, we set about as a wild card team to go to the Super Bowl. The Raiders sort of snuck up me as a title team, although Face and Rod had warned me they were a team of vets like Stork, Art, Uppy, Plunk, and they knew how to take it up a notch when it counted.

They won three games and took us all to New Orleans, where they had many strange and wonderful adventures on their way to the Sunday kickoff. I don't know about theirs, specifically, but my own adventures were strange and wonderful, and I'm pretty sure they outdid me.

A friend of mine from Oakland was asked by a real smooth operator from Philly if he was willing to wager five large, since he felt so strongly the Raiders would win. Marbles moved all around in my boy's face, but he didn't have five large. Hell, he might not have been worth five large at the time. Still talks about it like it's his money though. By then, I was convinced too and took home Dr. Z's traditional small pot for predicting the final score of the game. Small? It was nearly 200 bucks, which as I recall, was more than I made in a week.

The final was 27-10. I picked 26-10. Rod Martin intercepted the three Jaws passes, and I wrote a "sidebar" piece about him that I wish I'd had sense enough to frame.

Of course, the candle that burns brightest lasts only half as long -- whoever said that, I liked it very much, so I stole it. But it is true, you can't burn it at both ends like the Raiders of the Lost Art of Being a Raider did and last very long, like these Raiders of the Lost World of today.

Al Davis
Pete was less than happy to hand over the trophy.
What stands out to me most about Ye Olde Raider He-Man Fight & Motocycle Club of those days of the early '80s is how many of them are dead now.

The blonde-bearded mountain man of a center, Dave Dalby. Dead.

The little SC wide who got his spleen punched out by a vicious hit, Bob Chandler. He was a real hard-liver ... hard charger too. Dead.

The great and powerful Tooz, who stole "North Dallas Forty" in less than a minute's worth of screen time: "Every time I call it a game, you say it's a business; every time I say it's a business, you call it a game." As Tooz had learned by then, it ain't no game. Long dead.

Lyle Alzado of '84. Dead.

Haven't anything from Kay-Kay, Kinlaw, Killer, Mickey Marvin and a lot of those guys, not in a long time.

No way can you live like those Raiders lived without dying far too soon. No way to do it and not die young. No way you can live like those Raiders lived and play until you're 40, or 37, like Jerry Rice and Tim Brown and Rich Gannon, who weren't built to party, or romp, or howl at the wolf moon, or amuse us, so much as they were built to last.

When at look at today's Raiders, I know that they have four or five LBs as good as Rod Martin. I can see that the body types are different, leaner, harder, more like God intended when God made athletes. I can see how much faster they are now over what was then a very fast team. That makes me think about Plunk and Judge Hayes and Stork and Tooz and Rod even more.

I know this Raider team's secret is the same as that old Raider team's secret. It's got nothing to do with personality. It's got to do with knocking somebody down. The large, open secret back then was Shell, Uppy, Dalby, Otto, Vella, Lawrence, Buehler, Marvin ...

The same Big, Huge, Obvious Secret now is roughly 90 pounds larger and two inches taller per man. Kennedy, Collins, Robbins, Middleton and Sims.

Raiders of the Lost Art? Lost Art Shell, you mean.

Don't be fooled by the fact that the Raiders can be out-personalitied now, by Warren Sapp or Keyshawn Johnson.

It's really déjà vu all over, up and down the defensive front.

It's going to be tough for Sapp to talk with a mouthful of black jersey and history. Good stories, all over.

***

Apparently, Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb didn't get the memo.

You know, the one we wrote a couple of weeks ago now about the new paradigm of the Physicality of Playing Quarterback.

In today's hyper-fast NFL, there are times when the defenses dictate that the quarterback become an effective, if not punishing, ballcarrier. The Eagles forgot. Reid called plays against Tampa as if Koy Detmer was playing QB. And McNabb seemed as if he had some shame in his game, as if breaking contain, breaking down or beating the defense with his legs was something to feel guilty about. He became a stationary. A Sitter.

Andy Reid
You didn't get the memo Andy? Also, we are putting cover sheets on our TPS reports.
Seven-step drops and reading the full clock, against that Tampa defense? Are you kidding me? McNabb got the ball knocked out of his hand twice while standing back there like the Statue of Liberty, like he was ... Brad Johnson or somebody. He threw a pick-and-go to Ronde Barber, when he should have been running the ball in to make it 20-17 Tampa with three minutes to go. Then the game's on.

McNabb and Reid must have felt bad later, when Steve McNair and Rich Gannon put on the kind of show McNabb was capable of. Both quarterbacks in the AFC title game were their teams' leading rushers. Once, when Garcia did it against the Giants, maybe you could say it was an accident. Three times is trend. Reid took maybe the best weapon in football other than Mike Vick and made him a sitting duck.

McNabb did it to himself, too. He deserves blame, too, because he was so busy answering people who wanted him to stay in the pocket and "prove" he was a "quarterback"; he developed shame in his game. Hey, Donovan, next time, be yourself. Don't worry about what people think. Do what Gannon and McNair do, whatever is necessary to win the game. You'll never prove to some you're acceptable, so why worry about it? Just win. Good story, second act.

Having said all that, you've gotta give Chucky his due. He had an offensive scheme that brought one more blocker than the Eagles had defenders to the point of attack, and attacked in the air with three-step drops and occcasionl five-step max-protect plays away from Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent.

Gru-dog went straight after Blaine Bishop, a decorated veteran who threw a wheel with the Titans three years ago. He had nothing. The Eagles tried to hide him at strong safety. Gruden beat Bishop on the goal line slant to Keyshawn, and Jurevicius ran away from Bishop and sub LB Barry Gardner. Gruden's scheme found the holes and exploited them. But the real credit due Jon Gruden is the fact he watched "The Outlaw Josey Wales," before the game and then alluded to it afterward. Gru-dog, I feel ya.

Why, this is a man occupying the same ozone as myself. Way to read it, Chucky! "The Outlaw Josey Wales" is one of the three or four best Westerns ever. From now on till the end of Super Bowl Uncensored Thought Balloons, whenever we talk Chucky, we will make some grand allusion to a rough quote from "The Outlaw Josey Wales," since now we know he's a Josey kind of guy, one way or another.

Do your thing, Chuck:

CARPETBAGGER: "Do you really think you can kill all those men before they get over here? No, no, no, Mr. Josey Wales, there's something in this country called Justice!"

JOSEY WALES: (bringing up Henry rifle to shoot tow line) Well ... Mr. Carpetbagger ... there's something in this country ... called The Missoura Boat Ride ..."

Jon "Chucky" Gruden, coach, Tampa Bay Bucs -- "A year ahead of schedule here, but I'll take it. Offensively, they're gonna come right at us. I know they're coming, they know they're coming, they know I know they're coming; but if I can figure a way to keep 'em off balance when we're on offense, keep us on the field, put up enough points, in spite of no real running game to speak of, unless I can scheme up an overload, which I can do, then I will be deserving of all the accolades that come to me, and worth the draft picks and the 8 mil, and in the off-season I can pursue my secret dream, to sit opposite Rogert Ebert of 'At the Movies' ... I can outscheme Roeper, don't you think? I think so ... but I'm not lacking for confidence. I guess I'm a lot like Owen Wilson or Max Kallerman in that way."

FLETCHER: "You said those men would be decently treated!"

COLONEL: "They were. They were decently fed. And then they were decently shot."

Rich Gannon, QB, Oakland Raiders -- "Geez, did you see McNair? Did you hear that shot we put on him at the goal line! Holcombe dropped a TD, Berlin dropped a 50-yarder. I would've chewed their ears. I did what I had to do. I like Jon. It's gonna hurt ... no, it isn't, no, it isn't ... it's gonna feel gooood ... if anybody screws this up on Sunday, I'm going off. Let Jolley or Porter drop one more ball, let us line up wrong one more time, and I'm gonna ... can't shake feeling that somebody has put something in my head, like a Pentium chip or something; Al Davis doesn't seem to move when I play, as if his life force ... nahhhh."

ABE THE SOD-BUSTER: "See, Lige? Pull his teeth, he's as harmless as a heel hound. You're a real bush hog, ain't you, Mister Josey Wales! Always did want to face one of these fancy pistol fighters they raise all the fuss about ...!"

Jerry Porter, WR, Raiders -- "Gruden chose me to dog out; couldn't talk that way to Jerry or Timmy, Lincoln might have pinched his head off. So I'm elected. It wasn't personal? Yeah, it was, because I took it personal. And now I see who gets the attention -- the T.O.'s, the Keyshawns. T.O. is not better than me, and Keyshawn definitely ain't. Guess I need to be more outspoken. Let me try it. Blah-blah. Why is everybody mad at me? I didn't holler at my ownself. I didn't make it up. It did twist my thong. Oh, now Rich is hollering at me, too. Okay, one little illegal procedure penalty, one little drop here or there. Let me breathe!"

ROUGHNECK No. 1: "I got him! I got me the Josey Wales! Mr Chain-Blue Lightning himself. Well, Mr. Lightning, move a muscle, twitch a finger, and I'll splatter your guts all over that back wall."

Keyshawn Johnson
Keyshawn is ready for his close up and the damn ball.
Keyshawn Johnson, WR, Bucs -- "Yeah, Whitlock, sure it's not personal. You sound like my ex-wife. One TD and one huge drop? A drop is huge and a TD is not? I like the Me-Shawn thing. That I like. I am not a possession receiver. Don't never say that. You'll jinx me. Yeah, I'm not a blazer. That's cause blazers get you fired, right, coach Guden? Right? Damn right I'm right? Now. Wonder which one, Kimmel or Letterman, will land me first? Why are the guys laughing when I say that? I have winning ways, I'm no demanding-type personality, I don't mind being second. I don't. When I am. Which is never ..."

BOUNTY HUNTER: "... man's gotta make a living."

JOSEY WALES: "Dying ain't much of a living, boy."

Warren Sapp , DT, Bucs -- "I've got to control the head bob reaction. Not the QB's head bob. Mine. Whenever I give the TV guys and big print guys good sound bite, I kind of cock my skull and raise my eyebrows as if to get a rating, to ask, 'Does that make any sense at all? Is that what you need?' Could'a gave Cuba Gooding a run for his money in 'Jerry Maguire' or what, guys? By the way, it worked way better as a love story than it did about football, but it gave me some insight as to how to carry myself. I'm just a poor kid from Apopka trying to wet my beak and cover my ass at the same time, so what do you want from me? Miracles? Conjugated verbs? Just be happy for me. Don't hate."

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."