Shades of Gray

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.' "


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.


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.

The rest of the Raiders' allotment -- 9,800 tickets -- were hoarded by Davis for his players and cronies.


If a Raider victory today makes Al Davis cry, it won't even be the first time this season.

When football legend Sid Gillman died, Davis was one of the first people to call Gillman's widow, Esther.

Gillman had given Davis his first pro job, as a coach with the old AFL San Diego Chargers, and Davis had remained close to him ever since.

"He was crying, he was devastated and I thought, I wish more people knew him like that," Esther said. "He is loyal beyond description."

Unless you are Marcus Allen, who disappeared on the Raider bench because Davis thought his star was too bright. Then there was Steve Beuerlein, who disappeared on that same bench because Davis was angry at a holdout.

Like every black-and-white portrait in his life, Davis' fierce loyalty is countered by a frightening vengeance against those who would wrong him.

He is known for financially supporting many former players, paying for everything from medical bills to Raider trips to, ultimately, memorial services.

But he once cut Steve Hendrickson shortly after his 2-year-old daughter wandered into Davis' office and grabbed his Super Bowl trophy.

He has been known to spot weary writers walking to games and offer them a ride on the team bus.

But he also fashioned the most restrictive public relations department in all of professional sports, with even the gentlest interview request treated like a threat of invasion.

Hearing a couple of writers negatively discussing a game in the Raider press room once, top assistant Amy Trask walked in shouting, "You come in my house, you drink my coffee and you bag on my team?"

It was no surprise that at a required media session Wednesday, several Raiders showed up late or not at all. It was no surprise that the league fined them $50,000.

It should also be no surprise that Davis will probably sue to get the money back.

Did we mention he likes to sue?

"Al has a very Machiavellian attitude," Christensen said. "He would rather be feared than loved, because love is transitory, while fear is consistent."

You can see that fear even in one of his most trusted associates, former star defensive back Willie Brown, who still hears today about how he vocally supported the players' union during a labor fuss.

"Back then he said, 'Willie, you're trying to destroy my team.' That's when I got on the list," Brown recalled. "He still brings it up today. 'Willie, you tried to destroy my team.' I don't get off that list. I'm always on that list."

Brown talks like this, in muted uncertainty, and he's a Hall of Famer sitting in the first row of the Raiders' charter flight, so imagine how the guy in the last row feels.

The notably loose Raider atmosphere is actually filled with constant tension, everybody selling their soul for a taste of that famous loyalty.

Davis is known for bringing in anonymous assistant coaches and turning them into stars. But during film sessions, he frequently would pit those coaches against each other, asking one coach to comment on the errors of another.

Davis is also unafraid of players fighting coaches. He once refused to discipline giant Anthony Smith when he knocked over 60-year-old assistant coach Floyd Peters during a meeting.

Then there are the times he unleashes coaches on players. After Allen ripped Davis on national TV during that period when he was being snubbed, Coach Art Shell was ordered to tell the media that Allen was a "liar." Once Shell did, he lost the team.

Consistent, of course, is the tugging between owner and coach. While everyone talks about the midnight phone call that sent Gruden to Tampa, more compelling was how Davis used to wait on the sidelines for Coach Mike White to walk over after practice, then he would brusquely walk away.

All in the name of football, victory, and all those things that Davis recites in his strange mix of Brooklyn and Southern accents.

Eventually, "Just win, baby" became not just a challenge, but a rationalization. If the Raiders just win today, only Davis will know if it has truly been worth it.

Everyone is twittering about the thought of Davis receiving the Lombardi Trophy from his enemy, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

But Davis may not be strong enough to make it to the field in time.

He wasn't strong enough last week, when the AFC championship trophy was accepted by his coach, Bill Callahan.

You wonder, did Al Davis look in the mirror and scold himself for a lack of hustle?

Years ago, the late Bob Chandler was in the recovery room after having his spleen removed. A phone was placed to his ear. The caller was Davis.

"Bob?" Davis said. "You know you can play football without a spleen."


The story of Al Davis is the story of Carolee Davis.

In 1979, she suffered cardiac arrest and was in a coma, and it was predicted she would never regain her senses.

Her husband Al never agreed and spent three weeks trying to rouse her.

"Wake up, Carolee, the plane is waiting for us, we have to get to the game," he would say, again and again, day after day, until she finally heard.

Today is a monument to that strength.

The story of Al Davis is also the story of Ben Davidson.

While playing defensive end for the Raiders, Davidson said about his boss, "He'll lie, cheat or steal to win."

The next day in practice, Davis approached a worried Davidson about the quote.

"It's all true," Davis said with a smile.

Today is a monument to that smile.

And so he returns to San Diego, a place where, many years ago as an unknown Charger assistant coach, he once posed as a reporter after a loss to the Buffalo Bills.

Approaching a Bill quarterback in the locker room, Davis handed over a notebook and asked him to diagram a play that had worked for a touchdown. The quarterback complied. Davis took the play back to his bosses, who later used it to beat the Bills.

It's a funny story. It's a weird story. It's the perfect Al Davis farewell story.

We knew him well. We never knew him at all.




Super Bowls the Raider franchise has played in with Davis as

principal owner.


Times Davis has moved the franchise. (Oakland to Los Angeles for 1982 season and Los Angeles to Oakland for

1995 season)


Decades the Raiders have had a team in the Super Bowl (1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 2000s) -- the most by an NFL franchise.


Millions of dollars lost by the city of Irwindale on a good-faith deposit made to Davis for a prospective stadium site

for the Raiders.


Hall of Famers who have played for the Raiders. (Davis is also in the Hall of Fame)


Jersey numbers retired by the Raiders.


Raiders' regular-season winning percentage (372 wins, 219 losses, 11 ties) since Davis joined the franchise in 1963 -- the best in the NFL in that span.


Coaches since John Madden retired in 1978.


Bill Plaschke can be reached at

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