IT’S THAT TIME of year again, when the California sunlight gets a little bit crisper, a little bit sharper, and mornings become brisk enough to call for a jacket or long-sleeved shirt.
Being someone who thrives in cooler weather I usually jump the gun, throwing on slippers and flannels to greet the clarity of air that’s under 55 degrees, but by late afternoon it’s 80-something outside and I’m drenched in sweat, lamenting the “so close yet so far away” nature of Fall in early September.
It’s in the midst of this lament that the start of the NFL season tends to creep up on me. Yes, those slippers I’m so eager to put on are black with silver Raiders logos, and most Fall Sundays Mr. Sensational can be found either nursing a hangover at 10am or letting a lazy afternoon slip away at 1pm, watching the hijinks of the Oakland Raiders football team.
Plenty has been written about the Oakland Raiders over the years, and I don’t want to get into too much detail here, other than to say that the team has a long, documented history of iconoclasm, anti- authoritarianism, eccentricity, and incoherence that’s brought them everything from admiration, to fear, to scorn, to ridicule. The Raiders are a team that tends to evoke a strong reaction from people, even if that reaction is one of complete dismissal.
At the root of all things “Raider” has always been team owner, Al Davis. Davis’ Castro-like tenure at the helm of the organization is what infused the Raiders with their eclectic and erratic personality, an erratic eclecticism that at times led the team to the conventional “greatness” of winning, but more recently has led the franchise into a shameful, entropic tailspin.
Bizarre hirings and firings, confusing decisions made in the shroud of paranoiac secrecy, lack of team structure and discipline, personal vendettas put above everything else–while these were all a part of the Raiders’ winning ways during their more prolific eras, they’re now hallmarks of the joke the Raiders have become in the 21st century.
Then last year, mid-season, the man who many assumed would live forever, Al Davis, died. Tonight’s Monday Night Football game between the Oakland Raiders and the hated San Diego Chargers marks the first Raiders game of the post-Davis era. Today the team is overseen, football operations-wise, not by the strange and surreal King Al, but by Reggie McKenzie, a perfectly respectable, highly touted, and most importantly “normal” member of the NFL management community.
In theory, under this new regime the strange turns taken by Raider management over the last decade will give way to sensible, efficient gameplanning and governance, and thus far there’s been nothing to suggest otherwise. While it’ll likely take Mr. McKenzie and Co. some time to lift the Raiders out of their long-suffering doldrums, it can be assumed that the personality-specific woes hamstringing the team since their 2002 Super Bowl loss are now by the wayside.
Still, while I’ll continue to follow the Raiders until I expire or the team ceases to exist, I’ll be sitting down to tonight’s game with a slight loss of enthusiasm. It’s true that for the first time in ten years I can sensibly and logically hope that the team I follow has a chance to rebuild into something resembling an NFL football team, but my admiration for the Raiders never had anything to do with them being an NFL football team. The Raiders captured my imagination because they were the Raiders. And, more importantly, they were Al Davis’ Raiders.
In an increasingly homogenized and button-down America, where popular sentiment, trending on social media, and heavily scripted social behavior carry the day, Al Davis was, as cliche as it sounds, the last of a dying breed. Cantankerous, generous, petty, magnanimous, impetuous, forward thinking, and regressive, sometimes all in the same moment, Al Davis presented himself as the embodiment of human contradiction and imperfection from behind the idiosyncratic veneer of a sweatsuit and a pompadour.
Davis had no qualms about wearing his flaws on his sleeve, nor his heart, nor his enthusiasm, nor his strange monomaniac obsession with and commitment to his artistic vision that was the Oakland Raiders. In the last years of his life, he was unafraid to follow that commitment into failure, something unthinkable in a world predicated on “success” of the most phony and superficial kind. True, Davis, by all accounts was driven by the will to “win,” but that drive took him past the confines of wins and losses and toward something much more profound: the projection of his own personal narrative and imaginal landscape into tangible form, the pinnacle of artistic creation.
Davis’ commitment to his narrative turned him into a laughing stock at the end of his life. Bay Area sports journalists found no end in the high hilarity of pointing out the man’s failures and inconsistencies. Of course he was lauded after his death by these same small-minded conformists, but in life, his refusal to cow-tow to logic or sensibility short-circuited those journalists’ own unimaginative worldviews.
And so tonight, while I’m watching the game, it’ll still be “Win, Lose, or Tie, Raiders Till I Die,” and all that nonsense, but it will be so with a feeling of loss. A messy, ugly, complex piece of authentic life has left the world, and the vacuum was probably filled by a package of Gillette razors. Happy trails, Mr. Davis. You were a freaking weirdo, but thanks for the memories. And thanks for going down with the ship, “which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.”
BTW, here is a great article about AD from the New York Times, especially of note because it was written in 2007, so long after winning had passed him by, but before the rose colored glasses of obituaryism had been busted out… http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/19/sports/playmagazine/0819play-davis.html?_r=1&ref=aldavis