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What is Al Davis doing? He signed an undrafted kid named James Jett and is now negotiating with Rocket Ismail. Does he think that by assembling all this supersonic-sounding equipment in Los Angeles he can somehow restore the Southland's sagging aerospace industry? It has been several years since the local economy has benefited from such rocketry. And here's Davis bringing anybody with an aerodynamic name to the Raiders.
Actually, that's what Davis always does, sign fast people. This year he just happens to be interested in people who sound every bit as fast as they are. But, really, what is a Davis camp without sprint champions and Olympic medalists? Teaming Jett with Rocket, who left the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League to dicker with Davis, simply adds two more legs to what is the most extraordinary relay team ever to play pro football.
Willie Gault, an 11th-year pro who has been catching Raider passes for six seasons, is a college dash and high hurdles champion who made the 1980 Olympic team as a sprinter. Sam Graddy, in his fifth year with L.A., won a gold medal in the 4 X 100-meter relay and finished second in the 100 meters to Carl Lewis in the '84 Olympics. The list goes on. Fourth-year receiver Alexander Wright, an All-America sprinter at Auburn, has won the NFL's Fastest Man contest the last two years. Cornerback Terry McDaniel was an SEC champion dash man at Tennessee and still holds the school record for 300 meters.
To this bunch Davis has added two rookies, right off the 1992 Olympic team. The wonderfully named, if largely unnoticed, Jett was a gold medalist on the 4 X 100-meter relay team. Cornerback James Trapp, a third-round draft choice, was an alternate on that same relay team. And maybe there'll be Ismail, who can hang with any of these guys.
It's a freakish team. "There are lots of fast football players," says Gault. "It's become a speed game. But there's speed and there's elite speed. As far as elite speed, the league's got about a dozen such players. We have half of them."
Growing up in Brooklyn, Davis was intrigued by both the Yankees and the Dodgers. "The Yankees had power, size, and created fear," he says. "The Dodgers believed in speed and in development; they were willing to take chances. For the Raiders, I wanted both. I never could understand why you couldn't have both."
Speed means big plays and sudden strikes that demoralize opponents with their swiftness. Having speed puts tremendous pressure on defenses. Davis believes that his sprinters don't have to catch the ball to be dangerous. Their presence is electric enough to alter a game's dynamics, moving the defense off the line and creating space for an offense. "Speed," says Davis, "is an integral part of fear. As you know, we've always said we'd rather be feared than respected."
Davis was The Citadel's chief recruiter in 1955, when he landed an All-America sprinter out of Philadelphia named Angelo Coia. Coia enjoyed a seven-year career in the NFL and, not at all incidentally, is now a scout for the Raiders. The bias of the personnel department toward speed—Kent McCloughan, a former Raider cornerback, is another scout who was a high school All-America in track—is as natural as it is mandated. To this day, part of a Raider scouting report is a workup on the player's high school track experience.
This emphasis doesn't always pay off. Bo Roberson was a silver medalist in the 1960 Games in the long jump, and although Davis kept him on the Raiders for four seasons, he is not remembered as having been anything more than a "complement" to the offense. Jimmy Hines, one of those sensational sprinters that came out of Texas in the '60s, was picked up by Davis even though his nickname was Ooops! and two other teams had dropped him. In the end, Davis could find no better use for Hines than to fly him to camp every Wednesday, dress him, report him to the league as being there for a try-out and use him during one practice to challenge his cornerbacks. "You could do that back then," says Al LoCasale, Davis's longtime assistant. Well, the Raiders could.