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08 October, 2011

The Day I Met Al Davis

   By Gus Ramsey

   The year is 1977. I am 10 years old and embarking on my first, full-fledged season of NFL watching. I have not gleaned too much from the sport other than this; I love the Broncos. I hate the Raiders. It seemed like that was all I needed to know. Life was all about good and evil. That same year Star Wars was released. A pretty clear depiction of good vs. evil, if ever there was one. Darth Vader was the face of evil. Or, at least the face behind the mask of evil. At age 10, it was easy for me to tell the difference.
In my NFL-viewing world, it broke down this way, Broncos = good. Raiders = evil. At the forefront of Evildom was Al Davis. He was the living, breathing (wuuuuhhhhh-puuuurrrrhhh) Darth Vader of the NFL. I hated everything about him and his team.

   The year is 1990. I am 23 years old and embarking on what I hope is a full-fledged, successful sports-journalism career. In May of that year, the NFL owners meetings were held out at Disney World. I was dispatched to interview some of the owners and get some soundbites about whatever the important issues happened to be. When I arrived, my cameraman and I went upstairs and as we walked down the hall, there he was, Al Davis. His hair was slicked back, he had on his famous eye glasses, he was wearing some kind of studded Raiders jacket. He looked like The Fonz's great uncle. He was talking to another owner, so I positioned myself about 30 feet away, in his line of sight, hoping that he would see I was waiting to speak with him. After about ten minutes of waiting, stirring, contemplating how I would handle my showdown with Darth himself, and general nervous passing of time, I was approached by another man. He was a smaller fellow with a beard. He looked up and said "Are you waiting to speak with Mr. Davis?"
   "Yes. I was hoping to ask him a few questions."
   "OK. Just wait a few minutes and he'll be free," the man said. (I would later learn that man was Al LoCasale, Davis' longtime right hand man.)

   A few more minutes passed and finally Mr. Davis waived me over. So here I was, pacing towards one of the biggest villains in sports. I was prepared for a terse, grumpy, son of a gun who would dismiss me as quickly as a speck on his famous spectacles. I expected him to wreak of Aqua Velva, Grecian formula and gin and tonic. I was ready to ask the tough questions (whatever those were). I was ready to represent Broncomaniacs everywhere. I planted my feet shoulder width apart, gripped my mic like Rambo just before he says, "Murdock, I'm coming to get you," and braced for the showdown.
   "Mr. Davis, I'm Gus Ramsey from the NBC station here in town," I said steadfastly.
    And then he spoke. He spoke without the Darth Vader wuuuuhhhhh-puuuurrrrhhh. He didn't smell like anything. What gives?
   "Hello, Gus. Nice to meet you? How old are you?"
   "Um... twenty three, sir. (about 90 years younger than you, gramps)"
   "Are you just starting your career?" he asked.
   "Uh, yessir, I am," I said, completely perplexed by the sincerity of the dastardly leader of Raider Nation.
   "Good for you, son. Good for you. Keep at it. If it's your dream, go after it and don't let anyone tell you you can't do it. I wish you the best of luck. Now, what did you want to ask me?"
   Somehow I conducted the interview (I have no idea what I asked), and shook Mr. Davis' hand when it was over.

   The year is 2011. Mr. Davis died today. He lived 82 years and milked them for all they were worth. He was a pioneer, a rebel, a visionary, an owner, a champion and a maverick. He was someone I hated, for no reason other than the team he owned, until the day we met. On that day he wasn't an evil tyrant, he wasn't Darth Vader without the mask, he was kind. I'll always remember and appreciate that.
   Rest in peace, Mr. Davis.    

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