McGrath: Raider memories with silver & black tint
JOHN MCGRATH; STAFF WRITER
John Madden’s teams won five straight division titles during a reign that culminated with the 1976 Raiders’ victory in the first Super Bowl won by Oakland. The Raiders developed a reputation for carousing, brawling and general mischief-making during the week, and then on Sunday, the Pride and Poise boys turned their attention toward the more honorable task of terrorizing opponents.
Their season typically began with a fib. Three or four days before the veterans were scheduled to report to training camp, many of them would tell their wives about a phony deadline.
“The guys made up excuses to get to camp early,” author Peter Richmond said Thursday during a phone conversation from his home in upstate New York. “They just wanted to hang around and drink beer while the rookies worked out, because there was a tavern that literally was 15 yards from the team’s summer-camp site. Anyway, after a day or so of throwing down beers, they’d look at each other and figure: It’s football. We’re football players. What the hell, let’s go to work.
“Can you imagine NFL players showing up for camp three days early nowadays? It was a different world back then.”
A fascination with that world compelled Richmond to write the story of the pro-football renegades who came to be known by the gruffer term – “Badasses” – that is his book’s title. Richmond was drawn to the Raiders while working on a previous book about Frank Gifford and the 1958 New York Giants, whose championship-game defeat in overtime, to the Baltimore Colts, delivered the NFL into the Television Age.
“I was struck by how many players were so happy to share their memories of the old days,” said Richmond. “They had jobs their parents were ashamed of – $500 a year to bang their bodies against each other in half-empty stadiums – but they played because they loved football. It made me wonder: What was the last true NFL team that won together and stuck around together before the big contracts and free agency came along? It seemed to me it was the Raiders.”
The 1976 Raiders immediately preceded the coronation of the Cowboys as “America’s Team,” but it was the Raiders who embodied the spirit of democracy: You were free to either love them or hate them, and camps on both sides were vigilant.
Of course, beyond the Oakland Coliseum, where members of the Hell’s Angels and the Black Panthers gathered to form a fandom that might best be called unique, the Raiders didn’t much care what anybody thought of them. Their loyalty was to each other on the field, and to Madden – their rumpled coach roaming the sideline with his shirt sleeves rolled up – and to their owner, Al Davis.
“There’s this misconception that Davis was a maniacal dictator, this Darth Vader who sat alone in his upstairs suite,” said Richmond. “In fact, he was an ideal owner. He gave everybody what they wanted. If there was a fine to be paid for a fight, Al paid it, no questions asked. If you were down and out and unwanted in the NFL – John Matuszak, for example, who turned out to be the missing piece in 1976 – Al was willing to give you a last chance. His players were incredibly grateful for that.”
Madden, on the other hand, was a first-chance hunch. The youngest coach in NFL history was hired by Davis at 32. The ex-Occidental College lineman, whose own pro career was doomed by a knee injury, realized he didn’t have the name recognition or the cache to attempt a hands-on coaching style with the likes of such future Hall of Famers as Gene Upshaw and Art Shell. So Madden, unburdened by self-esteem issues, stayed out of the way.
“He knew he didn’t have to do a lot of tactical stuff,” said Richmond. “The offensive plays were called by Kenny Stabler. The defensive plays were called by Monte Johnson, one of the linebackers. It was all pretty basic.
“But that’s not to say he wasn’t a great coach. He retired with a winning percentage better than Vince Lombardi’s, and he went out his way, like Jimmy Brown did, at the top of his game. Madden was only 42 when he quit, but he’d had an ulcer, and realized he was never going to be to be able to top the thrill of that 1976 Super Bowl season.”
Richmond found Madden eager and open to sharing his memories about the Raiders. Finally, Madden might’ve thought to himself, somebody sees me as a guy who used to coach a terrific football team, instead of the broadcaster who analyzed games on TV.
More surprising to the author was his encounter with the late Jack Tatum. Nicknamed “The Assassin,” the fearless cornerback was known to teammates as “The Reverend,” a source of guidance and friendship for those rookies intimidated by the Raiders culture.
“One of the sweetest people I’ve ever met,” Richmond said. “I asked him what he would have done had he not played pro football, and his answer was, ‘I’d have been a farmer.’ He was gracious and thoughtful, but I sensed he never really got over the collision that paralyzed Darryl Stingley.”
Another revelation was the influence Phil Villapiano had on his teammates. The New Jersey-born linebacker from Bowling Green personified the rough-and-tumble aggressiveness of the Oakland defense – “his definition of a poor tackle,” said Richmond, “was one that didn’t produce blood, either his own blood or somebody else’s” – and though he was never officially named team captain, the label stuck.
Four decades after he was drafted by Oakland, Villapiano still keeps track of all his teammates. If any former Raiders are planning a golf tournament, a charity function or a weekend reunion during the season, it’s Villapiano who’s got the up-to-date addresses and phone numbers.
“The team remains extremely close-knit,” said Richmond. “And that’s because they were able to stay together on the field, season after season. Today, with free agency, players accept the best offer and are off somewhere else after three years. I don’t blame them – I’d take the money, too – but it’s not football. It’s ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ only with uniforms.
“I still love the NFL, and I’ll watch a game any night of the week. But it’s impossible for teams to have the kind of identity the Raiders did.”
The last comprehensive reunion the Raiders held was after the death of Upshaw, whose teammates were invited to attend the funeral with all expenses picked up for transportation and lodging. More than 100 former players were able to pay their respects.
The man whose generosity made all that possible ?