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Book review: 'Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death and John Madden's Oakland Raiders' by Peter Richmond

The book suffers from lore reported without corroboration and from an overly fawning writer.

November 08, 2010|By Eric Noland | Special to the Los Angeles Times

One of the most enjoyable experiences for many sports fans is to spend time with a former player or coach and listen to war stories — particularly if the tales involve some of the lesser-publicized shenanigans that occurred off the court or playing field.

This has also been a reliable source of material for sports books, certainly since the publication of pitcher Jim Bouton's seminal "Ball Four" in 1970. But to make the concept work, it's essential that the principal characters in the anecdotes are willing to spill all, and that is the fatal flaw of Peter Richmond's "Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death and John Madden's Oakland Raiders."

Perhaps the old Raiders are a little embarrassed by their behavior in the freewheeling '70s. Or a little ashamed. Maybe they're simply weary of the retellings. Whatever the reason, the key figures have suddenly clammed up here.

Did quarterback Kenny Stabler really tack panties to his wall as trophies of his numerous sexual conquests? Stabler talks at great length with the author about various games and the personality of the team, but he's mum about the trophy wall. (In fact, his only comments about his wild behavior as a player are lifted from "Snake," a 24-year-old autobiography, when his tongue was looser.)

Did wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff, in an attempt to sneak out after a training camp curfew, put a lamp in his bed to simulate his sleeping form but forget to unplug it, so that when Madden came by for a bed check and flipped on a wall switch the bedding lighted up? Biletnikoff is quoted extensively on other subjects, but he doesn't want to talk about that alleged incident, and Madden isn't asked about it.

Did tackle Bob Brown pull out a handgun one night and shoot up his TV set? Brown declined to be interviewed for the book.

Absent the voices of the actual people involved, the book descends into hearsay about dusty anecdotes, which renders them legend. As a result, veracity takes the kind of beating that safety George Atkinson routinely meted out on the field.

Even the central figure in the book, Madden, shows little interest in taking the bait about all this rogue-Raiders stuff. Not surprisingly, the guy who coached that bunch and then moved on to a successful career as a TV analyst and namesake of a computer game would rather talk about football. "The further you get away from the '70s, the more of the lore you hear," he says. "But the truth is that we had a great core of very strong individuals, and if we had some guys who were a little off, they were the periphery."

He emerges as the best part of "Badasses," a coach who was animated and engaged — the embodiment of a players' coach at a time when no-nonsense figures like Green Bay's Vince Lombardi and Dallas' Tom Landry had set the standard. His paramount concern was on-field performance, so he gave his menagerie a lot of leash on such issues as hair length, attire and debauchery.

The book suffers from Richmond's fawning, unapologetic ardor for this franchise. In the epilogue, he refers to "my Raiders" and contends that the team won the Super Bowl after the 1976 season because Greek gods (he honestly does invoke them repeatedly) grudgingly conceded that the Raiders were "overwhelmingly, inarguably excellent."

He chronicles the players' nonstop bacchanal only with a wide grin and a nudge to the ribs. So in the case of two deceased Raiders, it is left to Dave Dalby's ex-wife to reveal that he was an alcoholic, and John Matuszak's fatal drug overdose merits one sentence.

Neither is the Raiders' reputation for on-field mayhem presented with any kind of critical eye, whether it's the paralysis of New England's Darryl Stingley (a "completely legal" hit by Jack Tatum, the reader is told) or the concussions of Pittsburgh's Lynn Swann from Atkinson's forearm clubbings (simple retribution).

"The game at its best relied on licensed brutality," Richmond writes. "And no one practiced it better than the black and silver."

A source of great pride, presumably, for any badass.

Noland covered the NFL for the L.os A.ngeles Daily News from in 1982-1998, including the Raiders beat for 12 of the 13 years they spent in Los Angeles.

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