On another thread on this blog, someone wrote that Al Davis, who died today, would likely soon be playing a spirited game of poker with the Chief. I'm not so sure the sainted Mr. Rooney would find time to play cards with Mr. Davis, even if we're talking all eternity.
There is no question that Al Davis was a towering figure in NFL history. He was one of two or three people who should be given the most credit for the AFL-NFL merger. He built a franchise that was the powerhouse of the AFC West for more than a decade. His hiring of Black and Latino coaches paved the way for the league.
But Al Davis and his team hated the Steelers, and the Steelers hated them. And it was far more than gamesmanship.
Like John Madden, Al Davis never got over the Immaculate Reception. And, like Madden, Davis believed Steelers' groundskeeper Dirt DeNardo soaked the field at TRS before one playoff game, and allowed the field to turn to ice, thus negating the speed advantage of Oakland's wide receivers. But those were just the preliminaries..
In the 1975 AFC championship game, Lynn Swann was nearly beheaded by Oakland defensive back George Atkinson. Swann was knocked unconscious and was sent to the hospital, having suffered a severe concussion. Fortunately there were two weeks between the AFC championship and the Super Bowl, which allowed Swann to recover. Swann recovered enough to be voted MVP of that Super Bowl.
As coincidence would have it, the next game regular season game the Raiders played was the 1976 season opener against the Steelers. On a broken pass play, Terry Bradshaw scrambled and found Franco Harris for a short gain. Away from the play, the same Atkinson came from behind and blindsided a defensless Lynn Swann with a forearm to the back of the neck. Swann fell to the turf with another concussion. Swann never saw what was coming from behind him. Nor did any official. But Swann's injury caused him to miss the next two games.
At his weekly news conference that week, an angry Chuck Noll called Atkinson part of the "criminal element" that should be kicked out of the league. Atkinson turned around and sued Noll for defamation of character. He also sued a sports reporter for the Oakland Tribune, who wrote that - after a shot as dangerous and dirty as the one he had leveled on Swann, Atkinson was lucky he wasn't facing a murder charge.
It was clear to just about everyone that Al Davis was behind the lawsuit. After the pretrial motions and discovery were completed, the jury trial began on July 11, 1977 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. Davis had the home field advantage. BTSC's maryrose, also known as Tim Gleason, wrote a splendid piece about the trial, from which this description is liberally taken.
The trial could charitably be described as a three ring circus, with witnesses named Madden, Rozelle, Rooney, Davis, Bradshaw, Harris, Bleier, Swann, and Atkinson. The Oakland side, represented by Willie Brown (later SF Mayor), showed video clips of Steeler players leveling vicious hits, late hits, and hits that could be construed as similar to Atkinson's shots on Swann. Chuck Noll, on the stand, had to admit that.
The Steelers had the backing of the NFL, and NFL Supervisor of Officials Art McNally told the jury that Atkinson's hits on Swann were an attempt to deliberately and maliciously injure a player, and that rose to a different level that the Steeler hits that were introduced as evidence.
The jury took four hours find Chuck Noll not guilty.
It was a costly victory, however. In July they should have been preparing for another Super bowl title. Instead, their coach, ownership and key players had to fly across the country to defend themselves in a trial that lasted ten days. Most damaging, after the Oakland lawyers trapped Noll into lumping Mel Blount in Atkinson's "criminal element" category, Blount was enraged. He sued Noll for $5 million for defamation of character and vowed that he would never play for Noll again. Blount missed nearly all of training camp.
Eventually, tempers cooled and Blount dropped his lawsuit against Noll. But the Steelers came out of the gate slowly, starting started the season at 4-4 and eventually having to settle for a road game in the first round of the playoffs. Traveling to Mile High Stadium, they lost to the Broncos, 34-21. Al Davis may have lost his lawsuit, but he won the war that year, helping ruin Pittsburgh's season.
Over time, the hatred between the Steelers and Raiders cooled. They ceased to dominate their divisions, and they simply didn't play that often. But the Rooneys continued to be the insiders in the league, respected by nearly everyone. And Al Davis remained the outsider.
Davis was one of those people you either love or hate, and, in one sense, the Raiders are like the Marines. Once a Marine, always a Marine. And once a Raider, always a Raider. His sense of loyalty within his organization was always a strong point. His willingness to hire and promote minorities and women will always be to his great credit. He was to the Raider Nation what the Chief is to Steeler Nation, and Raider fans may well be the second-most loyal and second-most crazy in the NFL. Steeler Nation may be a nation, but sometimes it seems like the Raiders have a planet all to themselves.
Several years ago, NFL films listed the league's greatest feuds, and the Al Davis - Pete Rozelle feud was listed as number one. Davis, it seems was always suing somebody. It seems like he took everybody to court except Santa Claus.
Al Davis was sort of a like a WWE cartoon figure who parachuted into the AFL half a century ago, did some amazingly brilliant things, created a lot of havoc, and kept Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue, Roger Goddell, and maybe the devil on hold for nearly fifty years. Not a bad run. Not bad at all.
It is a tradition of the Jewish faith that the very best and the very worst among us die on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonenment. Al Davis died on Yom Kippur. Al's many, many friends and fans would say it is appropriate that he died this day. So would some of his detractors, but for completely different reasons. It is also tradition that we should not judge, so I will simply say that Al would probably chuckle at the irony.
Whatever you thought of Al Davis, he helped make today's NFL possible, and proudly marched to the beat of his own drummer. May he rest in peace. Condolences to his family and friends. He will be missed, especially by the legions of trial lawyers he so enriched throughout the years.