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Way Back When: Al Davis and the Raiders

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Whenever the Denver Broncos face the Las Vegas (nee Oakland) Raiders, all kinds of images come to mind, usually involving some form of hatred for Broncos fans.

This animosity stems largely from the fact that from 1963 through the 1976 season, Denver was only 2-24-2 against the Raiders — by far the worst 14-year stretch in Denver franchise history against one opponent.

But the Broncos and Raiders have this in common also: they are two of five teams to play in the Super Bowl in four different decades. (The others are Pittsburgh, New England and the New York Giants.) In the modern era, common success has only increased bitterness by Bronco fans.

The funny thing is, both teams started off as the dregs of the American Football League, with the Broncos playing in old Bears Stadium — and the Raiders were worse off. There was no suitable place to play in Oakland, so they actually played their first two seasons entirely on the road, with home games at San Francisco's Kezar Stadium in 1960 and in Candlestick Park in 1961.

When the threat of the Raiders leaving Oakland (the beginning of a theme for the franchise) forced the city to build a new "stadium" for the Raiders, they built Frank Youell Field, which seated only 22,000 and was shared by the pro football team and area high schools.

But what changed the Raiders, the Denver-Oakland rivalry and in many ways, pro football itself, was the arrival of Al Davis to the franchise.

Explaining Al Davis and his history is like peeling a head of lettuce — no matter how much you do, there is always more lettuce. After a lot of meandering around football, Davis served as the team's head coach from 1963 through 1965 and part owner from 1966 to 1971.

He also served as the commissioner of the American Football League in 1966, at the height of both the rivalry between the AFL and NFL and a time when secret merger talks were taking place — something Davis wanted no part of.

Fitting with his personality, he did not want to merge with the senior circuit. Rather, Davis hoped to drive it out of business by poaching all the top quarterbacks. He was the all-time maverick, and was constantly at war with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.

Yet no one was ever more kind or generous to Raiders who had fallen on hard times. Included are Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Otto, former Broncos tight end/fullback Hewritt Dixon and scores of others. His generosity extended beyond the playing field as well. Last December I wrote a piece about George "Run Run" Jones, who was befriended by Davis and supported in one way or another until he died. By the way, Run Run died while wearing a Raiders shirt and cleaning the team's locker room.

Loyalty? Run Run's son Tom now is an executive with the Raiders under Al's son Mark.

His philosophy was, "once a Raider, always a Raider."

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Davis led the way in the area of civil rights, refusing to allow the Raiders to play in any city where Black and white players had to stay in separate hotels. He was the first NFL owner in the modern era to hire a Black head coach (Art Shell), the first to hire a female chief executive (Amy Trask), as well as the second NFL owner to hire a Latino head coach (Tom Flores). Flores, by the way, was the first visiting quarterback to start against the Broncos, in old Bears Stadium, and most recently he was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Davis remains the only executive in NFL history to be an assistant coach (the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers), head coach, general manager, team owner and commissioner. That is a combo that seems impossible for anyone else to match.

After resigning as AFL Commissioner, Davis returned to his old club as one of three general partners, along with Wayne Valley and Ed McGah. He owned just a 10 percent stake in the team, but Davis was cunning, and he soon had complete control over football operations.

They became a burr in the Broncos' saddle, winning six division titles during the 1970's.

In 1972, Davis took over as the managing general partner and received almost full control over team operations. He got McGah to sign the new partnership agreement, making it binding under California law. When Valley returned from the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, he sued Davis, but lost. Davis was well on his way to becoming the man whom Raiders fans revered but much of the NFL loathed.

Serving as his own general manager until his death in 2011, Davis had a longer stint as a football operations chief than anyone else in the league at the time. From 1967 to 1985, the Raiders won their division 13 times and made 15 playoff appearances, and they won an AFL title (1967) and three Super Bowls (XI, XV and XVIII).

He loved the idea of being a maverick. Denver fans remember him patrolling the sidelines during pregame warmups in his classic image: slicked back hair in sort of a 1950s-style "ducktail," dark sunglasses and a white track suit.

We could go on and on with Al Davis stories, but after his death, Al's son Mark created the Al Davis Memorial Torch. Most recently, upon the team's move to Las Vegas in 2020, the torch moved with the team, and now the Allegiant Stadium Al Davis Memorial Torch stands 85 feet tall and rises above the main concourse. It is the largest 3D-printed object in the world, and Bronco fans going to the game will undoubtedly see it.

The torch lives on, and in a way, so does the one and only Al Davis — a Hall of Famer and pioneer of modern pro football.

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