Is it possible that nothing works anymore? What else is being mocked these days? How about loyalty? How did that get to be a joke?
Raider players continue to be the best paid in the league. Lyle Alzado once got a $100,000 raise he didn't ask for. But Davis's devotion to his players is best measured in other ways. Upshaw recalls that Davis chartered the biggest jets for his team, giving each player his own row of seats. Pregame meals were catered according to individual players' tastes. The assumption was that nothing was too good for a Raider. Like Super Bowl rings. The NFL pays for the rings, but Davis designed such outrageous diamond-studded fixtures that in 1981, after Super Bowl XV, the league set a maximum base value for each ring.
For an owner, Davis has always been strangely considerate of labor. He flew former Raiders to Super Bowl games, back when the team was in them, and he continues to fly former players to home games throughout the season. Whenever a Raider is inducted into the Hall of Fame—there have been six, and they have all asked for Davis to present them—he arranges for former teammates to be on hand. One former Raider, long since traded away, got into trouble with drugs, and Davis secretly financed his rehabilitation. And, says Upshaw, "If a player passes away, like Dan Birdwell did in 1978, he flies us all in for the funeral."
Now, Davis is not a modest man. Somebody who keeps weights in a room off his mirrored black-and-silver executive suite to keep up his looks is obviously a man of some vanity. Front-office workers recall with delight the time he emerged from his suite in new sunglasses and asked a secretary what she thought of them. Not much, she said. The sunglasses were never seen again. Another favorite story: Presentation of the trophy at Super Bowl XV was delayed while an assistant searched for a comb to smooth the Davis ducktail.
Still, he defers as much acclaim as possible to the players. He rarely goes to awards banquets for fear of denying the players their proper due. The gesture occasionally backfires. He got some heat in 1983 when he stiffed the Los Angeles Press Club; friends say he was just being careful not to steal attention away from the team.
When Upshaw and Davis visited Irwindale, Calif., to see one of several proposed sites for a new Raider stadium, Upshaw asked if it would be named Al Davis Stadium. Davis was surprised at the suggestion. "Not in a million years," he said, adding that the hall of fame he intends to build with the stadium will be devoted entirely to the players.
So why then did Marcus Allen hold out this summer? Gil Brandt, former personnel director of the Dallas Cowboys, says Davis was shocked by the holdout. "He had a hard time understanding that," Brandt says. "Al had a hard time believing, as well as he treats his players, that Allen would hold out. That never happened before. Maybe players have changed."
Oh, what doesn't change? The NFL has changed. Twelve years after Rozelle removed Davis from the competition committee, he reappointed him to the inner circle, embraced him once more as "a football man," the kind of guy who could bridge the widening chasms among owners. Al Davis? Wasn't it just yesterday that the league paid a fortune for interfering with his move to L.A.? And here's Modell, as representative of the old guard as any, saying, "I'd rather have Al inside the league than outside."
Ever since Davis was chosen commissioner of the old AFL, with the apparent order to force a merger (other NFL owners still believe Davis was disappointed he couldn't destroy their league first), he had been a stick in the NFL's eye. Even as a colleague he was a nettlesome presence. Davis was the "1" in too many 27-1 votes to have been anyone's favorite, but until he began hauling owners into court they had conceded that he had a certain charm. Former Browns coach Sam Rutigliano intended a kind of compliment when he said, "Al can steal your eyeballs and convince you that you look better without them."
His mischief in the AFL days marked him forever as a scoundrel—signing players under goalposts, more or less kidnapping them in planes and offering contracts with the inflight meals. There is a story that Davis once saw Brandt in a hotel men's room and quickly called the front desk to say Brandt would be taking all his calls in Davis's room. Davis then fielded all the scouting reports while Brandt studied his wallpaper. "I don't see how that could happen in a hotel, and I find it hard to believe," Brandt says. "But let me say this: I wouldn't put it past him." Lore like that was hard to live down.