We all know what he does. He lingers. He hovers. There was a moment a few years ago during Raiders mini-camp when Al Davis came down from his office to get a closer look at Norv Turner's practice. Clad in his standard white nylon track suit, the team logo over his heart, Davis crept towards the sideline like a ghostly apparition. An aide rolled out two large barrels and Davis, unable to stand for very long, leaned on the barrels and trained his gaze at the starting defense. On the snap of the ball, Napolean Harris, then the Raiders outside linebacker, buzzed to the flat. The ball was thrown to another area, but before Harris could get back to the huddle, the old owner offered a tip. "When you make your drop, come all the way out to the sideline," Davis growled. Harris answered with a crisp "Yes sir," and jogged to the huddle. Was it good advice, or a quickly thrown-away tip from a sargent of the old wars, wandering onto the battlefield of the new?
We know what he does, but why? Why does a 79-year-old man, one of the truly iconic figures in sports, get so thoroughly engrossed with his creation, so embroiled in its affairs, that he risks its demise?
Maybe it's because Davis fears death.
That's what a former member of the Raiders' coaching staff says. "That really shook him up when his wife got sick," said the coach. About 25 years ago, when Davis' wife, Carol, suffered a heart attack, Davis admitted that his powers were limited to running his team, jousting with his league, and driving Pete Rozelle crazy. "I can control most things," said Davis at the time. "But I don't seem to be able to control death."
Just a few months after the passing of Gene Upshaw, one of the most revered members of the Raiders family, Davis is mourning. But even in a time of grief, especially in a time of grief, he still has control of his team. As the Raiders prepare to play the New Orleans Saints, consider this the beginning of the end for Tom Cable. At least that's what a former coach says. "He can't win," says the coach. "Even if he wins, he can't win."
He says Davis' own experience as a coach, which is unique to the owner's experience, shapes his interpersonal skills, which can be rather, shall we say coarse. "I remember a time when he was speaking to one of the guys on the staff about some scheme," he says. "Al tells him 'I could explain this to you, but you're too stupid to understand it.'"
His feelings for his players are different. "Al is in awe of some players," says the coach. Like Charles Woodson. One year, when Woodson was in a contract year, he sidled up to Davis at practice one afternoon. "I'm a gangsta," said Woodson. "I want your money."
"You already have a lot of my money," replied Davis.
"No, I want all your money," said Woodson.
Davis laughed. It was just the kind of reply he enjoys.
Fiscal ambition aside, Davis' aspired relationship with his players is best summed by the final line in his written statement after Upshaw's death. "We loved him and he loved us," said Davis. Reverence for the man, and the one in the mirror.
Former Raiders fullback Zack Crockett is one player who holds the owner in high regard. He's also one of the few who approve of Davis' latest choice for coach. "Tom Cable will do well," says Crockett. "He's an o-line coach and o-line coaches get things right."
But Crockett says there's a word missing from this narrative, and it has nothing to do with Davis' obsession with immortality. "Everyone is dancing around the main point here," says Crockett. "This is about loyalty. Mr. Davis loves this game and this team. It really is his family. Why do you think all those old heads, like Jack Tatum and Jim Otto keep coming back?"
If you suspect Crockett has an emotional investment in this ordeal, you're right. He epitomizes the old Raiders prototype. Crockett's that player who doesn't seem to fit anywhere, but once in Davis' fold, is instantly a crucial part. After spending his first three years in Indianapolis, Crockett was unceremoniously released and sent on a brief journey through the league which included a stint in Jacksonville. After the Jaguars cut him, Crockett ended up in Oakland. While there, he found a niche as one of the league's premier short yardage backs.
After eight years in Oakland, Crockett was released before the '07 season. Though he insists no one beat him out for his position, and the reason given for his release was the tried and true "we're moving in a different direction," Crockett has nothing but love for Davis and his Raiders. "The organization has been good to me," he says. "They've always treated me well and with respect."
The respect factor was surely in play when Davis gave Art Shell, a Hall of Fame tackle, a second tour of duty as head coach in 2006. Another former Raiders assistant says that Davis also hired Shell because of Shell's respect for the organization and his ability to sell the Raiders to his players. But Davis didn't factor the generational divide. "The new guys didn't know who Art Shell was," says the coach.
Crockett suggests that ignorance of history is still the problem. Since Warren Sapp told us about Davis calling down plays from his box, Crockett says the conversation has gone terribly awry. "You have to look at who's doing the talking," says Crockett. "You have to look at where they've been. When was Warren Sapp there? Was he there when we went to those AFC Championship games and the Super Bowl?"
But it's the here and now that has more resonance than the past. On Sunday afternoon Al Davis will take his seat in the rafters of the Superdome, a place where just three years ago, football took a back seat to real life. And death.
Alan Grant played in the NFL for five years. Now he writes for us. Check out more, here.