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Super Bowl XXXVII | Bill Plaschke

Shades of Gray

At 73, Al Davis, the silver- and black-hearted visionary, is still a mass of contradictions

January 26, 2003|Bill Plaschke

SAN DIEGO — He has raised the dead.

It was 1971, and an Oakland Raider employee named Del Courtney suffered an attack of Guillain-Barre syndrome, causing paralysis, freezing even his eyelids.

Doctors said he had one hour to live. The newspaper prepared an obituary. Family paid last respects.

Al Davis ignored them all, visiting Courtney's motionless body every day for three months, updating him on the football team, assuring him that his medical bills were paid, urging him to fight.

"I still remember his voice," said Courtney, now 92 and retired in Hawaii. "He would say, 'You're a Raider. And Raiders don't die.' "

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He has buried integrity.

It was 1994, and former Raider team doctor Rob Huizenga wrote a book critical of Raider medical practices.

Al Davis asked longtime trainer George Anderson to discredit Huizenga in the media.

Anderson refused because Huizenga had just successfully treated his wife for Hodgkin's disease.

Unmoved, Davis forced Anderson to resign.

"Al Davis invented the color black," Huizenga said.

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He is the most influential owner in the history of professional football.

He is the most vindictive human being in the history of professional sports.

He is on the sidelines in a white jogging suit, inspiring his players, designing his victories, a 73-year-old treasure.

He is in a luxury suite in a black jogging suit, cursing at the officials, snarling at subordinates, a 73-year-old coot.

Who exactly is Al Davis?

After spending nearly five decades cloaked in mystery and madness, today he emerges to give us perhaps one final look.

His Oakland Raiders have come here in search of their fourth Super Bowl championship, arriving to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a game that, despite all the metaphorical hype, has only one true pirate.

It is Davis, who has lost much of his swash, and most of his buckle, but none of his mystique.

He was first seen leading the Raiders off their team plane Monday afternoon. But his frail body needed time, and assistance, in walking down the steps.

He was next seen two days later, the featured speaker at the unveiling of a statue honoring the deceased San Diego sportswriter Jack Murphy. But his movements were slow and pained.

He hasn't been seen, or heard from, since. And now he's surrounded by the sort of questions that usually haunt only presidents and popes.

Is he sick? Is this his last game? Is this still the same old Al Davis?

That last query was perhaps answered after last week's AFC championship victory over the Tennessee Titans, when a new reporter asked him for an interview.

"Why should I talk to you? I don't know where you're from," he barked. "You could be from Florida! Or Afghanistan!"

That Davis has chosen to spend what could be his last shining moment in the shadows is typical of the contradictions that have marked his life.

His legacy is filled with influence and intelligence and a foresight that changed the NFL. But he doesn't trust anyone to understand that legacy.

His call to "Just win, baby" is a mantra for victory at any costs. But he is unwilling to pay for that victory with his ego.

"It's important for Al to be not defined, not known, not understood," said Todd Christensen, a former Raider with two Super Bowl rings. "He obfuscates reality to create his own reality."

Davis' reality is that today certifies him as the smartest man in football history because he has taken teams from four decades into the Super Bowl.

The other reality is that Saturday, a victim of one of his famous grudges was elected into the football Hall of Fame, while today, another victim will be leading the Buccaneers against him.

Can it really be a Commitment to Excellence if it involves a lack of commitment to the likes of Marcus Allen and Jon Gruden?

In Al Davis' world, it can be, and is, and if you don't think that makes sense, then he will treat you as his goons treated a diminutive reporter one Christmas Day in Los Angeles, stuffing Tiny Tim in a trash can.

It would be wonderful if today could be a tribute to the brains behind the AFL-NFL merger, the curator of the downfield passing game, the first football executive to hire both a Latino and an African American head coach, the only owner whose successor probably will be a woman.

But it's hard to hand over your heart to a guy who used to make his equipment man fall to his knees and clean his shoes when he entered the locker room.

"My most memorable scenes were the time Al was having his shoes cleaned while he was holding up a mirror and combing his hair," Huizenga said. "That happened a lot."

The black-and-white nature that resides in the colorblind Davis is epitomized this week in how he turned his back on one of his greatest creations.

Raider Nation, the rowdy fans who have built a cult based on Davis' renegade theme, were certainly a factor in the Raiders' two home playoff victories.

Yet only 2,000 of their 30,000 season-ticket holders were given a chance to buy Super Bowl tickets.

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