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Other Al Davis traits: loyalty, persistence, late nights

Al Davis was an early bloomer and a late riser.

The NFL icon, who became the Oakland Raiders’ head coach at 33, was known for keeping very late hours and making middle-of-the-night phone calls to football confidants and team employees.

Agent Leigh Steinberg remembers getting those calls.

“If my home phone would ring after midnight, I knew it would be Al,” Steinberg said Saturday, hours after learning that Davis, 82, had died. “He would ask questions about every player I represented, every other team in the league, every college player I knew anything about. He was a sponge for gossip. He had more information than the CIA.”

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Former Raiders linebacker Matt Millen got his share of night-owl calls from Davis too. Sometimes, the legendary owner would just call to chat. But one particularly memorable topic was the health of Millen’s father, who a decade ago was preparing to undergo heart surgery.

“Al called me just about every night about my dad,” Millen said. “Wanted to fly a heart specialist in from the Mayo Clinic. I don’t even know how Al first heard about my dad. He just said, ‘You get him on this plane and fly him to the Mayo Clinic.’ I said, ‘Coach, he’s 80. I have a hard time getting him to my car; he’s not getting on a plane.’”

Davis offered to fly the specialist to Pennsylvania, but Millen declined. Finally, Davis had a world-renowned heart surgeon call the doctor treating Millen’s father in case he needed a consultation.

“That was all Al,” Millen said. “That’s how he was.”

That’s not to say Davis was all soft side. He bullied people. He stubbornly held onto grudges. He rarely admitted mistakes. But he also had qualities that his peers respected.

“The thing that really got me was his total loyalty,” said Eddie DeBartolo, former owner of the San Francisco 49ers. “He was so loyal to his people. That was a really great trait.

“Al had a different side. He wasn’t the grump and the type of person people always thought he was. You’d get all that barking and no biting. He knew what he wanted. He wanted the Raiders to win.”

In DeBartolo’s eyes, Davis also had what poker players call a “tell,” something about him that tipped off his motives.

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“You always knew when Al was trying to con you because all of a sudden he came up with a Southern accent,” DeBartolo said with a laugh. “You don’t get a tough guy from New York, like Al Davis, to all of a sudden become a Southern belle. He was truly a Damon Runyan character in the NFL.”

Longtime football coach Barry Switzer met Davis in 1961, when Switzer was a first-year assistant coach at Arkansas and Davis coached offensive ends for the fledgling San Diego Chargers.

Davis spent a lot of time hanging around the Arkansas team, recruiting receiver Lance Alworth to sign with the American Football League instead of the NFL.

“Al continually lived with us,” Switzer said. “I’d see him after practice talking to Lance. I’d see him under the goal posts talking to Lance. My memories of Al Davis were his persistence in recruitment and securing the signature of one of the great players who was 20 or 25 years ahead of his time.”

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Alworth signed with the AFL, was a star player for the San Diego Chargers both before and after the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, and eventually was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“Al knew that the league had to have him,” Switzer said. “And it made the difference for the AFL, securing players like that.”

A.J. Smith, the current general manager of the Chargers, had dozens of discussions with Davis in which they talked about players, strategies, philosophies and the like.

“I never met a man who looked, acted and talked with more confidence and self-assurance than Mr. Davis,” Smith said. “We always talked football before the draft. I did most of the listening.”

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Steinberg can relate. That brings him back to those phone calls in the wee hours of the morning.

“Al would talk and digress into some of his favorite subjects, which were the history of the Greek wars, the politics of Machiavelli in Italy, the Civil War,” Steinberg said.

“I lived above the Berkeley campus, and I remember the bell tower would ring five times. Dawn was just breaking, and Al was still talking.”

sam.farmer@latimes.com


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