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For Ben Davidson, the quintessential Raider, football was the ticket to a great life

CROWE'S NEST

Renowned for his famed Miller Lite commercials as well as for his 1960s exploits in Oakland, the 6-foot-8 former defensive end, married 49 years, has parlayed NFL, show business and real estate income into a satisfying, globetrotting lifestyle for him and his family.

July 25, 2010|Jerry Crowe

From San Diego — From the backyard of his hillside home outside San Diego, Ben Davidson can look out and enjoy nearly two dozen fireworks displays on the Fourth of July.

"I'm kind of ruined now for gyms," notes the former Oakland Raiders defensive end, motioning toward a stack of weights nearby, "because I can stand here and, while I'm doing my curls, make sure everything's all right in Tijuana and San Diego."

Football, in short, has accorded Davidson a pleasant, comfortable lifestyle, not to mention a breathtaking view.

"It's been very, very good to me," he says, a smile creasing his bearded face.

So good, in fact, it's surprising to learn that Davidson, whose later fame as a Miller Lite pitchman outstripped his football notoriety, had virtually no use for the sport in the 1950s while growing up in Boyle Heights.

At L.A. Wilson High, the 6-foot-8 Davidson played basketball and was a hurdler, high jumper and shotputter.

Son of an LAPD officer and a librarian — his mother, he jokes, used to tell him, "Read, or I'll have you arrested" — Davidson says he wasn't much of a basketball player either.

"I was just kind of a big guy who got a rebound and put it in every once in a while," he says. "I think I averaged eight points in my senior year, which was pretty sad."

So Davidson, who turned 70 last month, wasn't exactly shunning a potential NBA career when finally, as a freshman at East Los Angeles College, he went out for football.

"I think I just decided that I'd try it," he says during a midday interview in his living room. "I didn't know the positions. I knew the center was probably in the middle, but I'd only been to one or two games . . . and I never really paid much attention to it. . . .

"I have no idea what kind of stance I got into, but that was a major project. The coach had me so fixated on getting a good stance that I'd be looking down at my legs, trying to make sure everything was right, and they'd snap the ball."

Undeterred, Davidson kept showing up every day, his tremendous size eventually drawing interest from recruiters.

"I think there was a lot of word of mouth back then," Davidson says, "and I think the coach would say, 'This guy's really stupid, but he works hard and he'll do what you tell him.' "

At Washington, where he played on teams that won the 1960 and '61 Rose Bowls, Davidson started only two games but was taken before any of his teammates in the 1961 NFL draft.

As a rookie, the fourth-round pick played on a Green Bay Packers team that won the NFL championship.

But, Davidson says, he was still learning how to play.

Finally, after two forgettable seasons with the Washington Redskins, Davidson landed in the AFL with the Raiders, a symbiotic melding of extrovert and iconoclasts.

"We had fun," Davidson says of the dawn of the Raiders' heyday.

Al Davis, who as a USC assistant years earlier had tried to land Davidson for the Trojans, made him a starter. A three-time AFL All-Star, Davidson played in Super Bowl II, three AFL championship games and the first AFC championship game.

All the while, he helped establish the Raiders' swashbuckling, renegade identity, growing a distinctive mustache.

Years later, blogger Matthew J. Darnell would deem it the greatest in NFL history, noting with envious gusto, "It's a well-rounded and versatile mustache that can intimidate on the field and say, 'Yes, I'd love a martini' off it."

Davidson's intimidating physical presence and equally outsized personality made him a natural for Hollywood bit parts, starting with Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H" in 1970.

In his most famous role, he played himself in more than two dozen commercials for Miller Lite, part of the popular, long-running "Tastes great, less filling" push that Advertising Age deemed the eighth-best advertising campaign of the 20th century.

"I'm not Catholic," Davidson says, "but sometimes when I say, 'Lite beer,' I make the sign of a cross. If I could have designed a job for myself post-football, it would have been exactly what I did."

A tireless pitchman, he curtailed his acting career to travel the world making promotional appearances for Miller Lite.

Married 49 years to wife Kathy and father of three grown daughters, he has invested successfully in real estate, building on what he started when he bought a three-unit Seattle apartment with his $5,194.78 winner's share from the Packers' 1961 title.

Former teammate Tom Flores, in his book "Tales from the Oakland Raiders," called Davidson a "hard-nosed defensive lineman whom people would not have figured for a good businessman," but, "Indeed, he has great business acumen."

Davidson, about 40 pounds lighter than when he played, still enjoys traveling and making appearances. With former teammate Tom Keating, he once rode a motorcycle to the Panama Canal and later, during a four-month, 14,000-mile trip, they rode throughout the United States. More recently, Davidson has made more than a dozen multiday, long-distance bicycle trips in the U.S., Mexico and Europe.

During his travels he gathered some 3,000 beer cans and bottles, a collection his wife recently talked him into donating to the Blind Lady Ale House in San Diego.

"I hate to say this for print," Davidson says, laughing again, "but I'm 70 years old and I've never had a real job."

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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