Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another


The Autumn Wind Takes Al Davis

One of the most important figures in football history dies at 82

Print Email
Al Davis in 1989.(George Rose/Getty Images)

Born on the Fourth of July, Al Davis died on Yom Kippur at the age of 82. He was the owner of the Oakland Raiders. But he was the Raiders: tough, brash, obnoxious, with a truly heroically sized chip on his shoulder. Many have tried to figure out where that chip came from, and one of the most frequently proffered explanations—for why Davis felt like an outsider who constantly had to antagonize authority, all the while having the canny and willpower to succeed—is that he never stopped being a Jewish kid from Flatbush.

As I wrote earlier this year, Davis was one of a few Jews who was central to the success of the American Football League, the upstart that merged with the National Football League and whose noisy, sensationalistic aesthetic came to define the game. As the second and final AFL commissioner, he waged brilliant war with the more powerful NFL, creating an environment where the dealmakers could strike a peace (which Davis, characteristically, compared to FDR’s bargain with Stalin at Yalta). Meanwhile, with “the Raiduhs,” as coach, then part-owner, then principal owner, and all the while, for more than four decades, as “general managing partner” (translation: the Lord our God, who is one), Davis revolutionized the vertical passing game; invented the “bump-and-run” style of pass defense, which is now as elementary to the game as the handoff; and upended the popular understanding of players, who no longer needed to be cogs who fit tidily into predetermined systems but could instead be electric athletes whose improvisational genius enabled their teams to win. (Davis also was the first to understand that players with character issues were just undervalued assets waiting to be utilized—he has made the comebacks of Ben Roethlisberger, Plaxico Burress, Michael Vick, and dozens of others possible.) Deadspin’s A.J. Daulerio was right on the money in publishing an obituary of Davis that was essentially a rewrite of Steve Jobs’. It is difficult to say whose was the more original mind and who more powerfully shaped his field. Think different, baby.

Davis hired the first black and Hispanic head coaches in NFL history; the current Raiders CEO is the highest-ranking woman in NFL history. By moving his franchise to Los Angeles (he later moved it back), Davis established the primacy of owners, paving the way for the present, where owning an NFL franchise is a license to print money. He was the very last figure—George Halas of the Chicago Bears and Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals are others—who embodied their team wholly. Davis recruited at historically black colleges when such a thing was looked down upon. He gave Bill Walsh, arguably the greatest coach of all time, his first job in pro football. He gave John Madden, the winningest coach of all time, his team. He drafted Howie Long, Art Shell, Marcus Allen, Ken Stabler, Tim Brown, Charles Woodson, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Darren McFadden. His emphasis on speed and toughness, his self-cultivated renegade image, and even his leather jackets, Brylcreemed hair, and Brooklyn accent made the Raiders arguably the most distinctive, mystique-laden franchise in professional sports. In his last years, Davis’ stubborn insistence on maintaining control was probably in error, and resulted in a fallow period. But still—and, he would say, most importantly—he guided the Raiders to the final three AFL title games (winning one), 11 post-merger AFC title games, five Super Bowls, and three world championships.

Earlier this year, I spoke to Ron Mix, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman who knew Davis when the former was a player and the latter a coach with the San Diego Chargers of the early 1960s. Mix, who is Jewish, kept up with Davis through the years (he is the guy who looks like Norman Mailer in this picture of Davis’ induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame). Mix told me that he attributed Davis’ me-against-everyone mentality to the climate of anti-Semitism he experienced and the recent history of the Holocaust.

“I’ve never seen anyone as loyal as he is to his former players,” Mix added. “He’s given more jobs to former players in scouting, coaching, front office, than I would bet any other three owners combined. He has secretly helped more former players who have had problems than you can imagine. He is the best friend there is of former players.”

On Saturday, America lost a great man. On Sunday, the Raiders won. All in all, not a bad weekend for Al Davis.

Al Davis, the Controversial and Combative Raiders Owner, Dies at 82 [NYT]
Remembering Oakland Raiders Owner Al Davis [Grantland]
Davis Lived Up to the Label of Maverick Until His Death [NYT]
Steve Jobs Al Davis Is Dead (UPDATE) [Deadspin]
Related: The Other League [Tablet Magazine]

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

Unless I’m mistaken, I couldn’t find a single reference to Al Davis’s being Jewish the New York Times obit.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

The Autumn Wind Takes Al Davis

One of the most important figures in football history dies at 82

More on Tablet:

Obama: Denying Israel’s Right to Exist as a Jewish Homeland is Anti-Semitic

By Yair Rosenberg — The president draws a line in the sand in his latest interview