Sunday, July 27, 2008

Pat Toomay's Take on Al

The following is excerpted from Pat Toomay's ESPN Page 2 article "Al Davis the Awkward Genius."

Al Davis, then as now, possessed a reverence bordering on awe for the sheer physicality of many of his players, particularly his great ones. There was something almost childlike in his veneration. Seeing a player perform a trick with a football, Al would try the trick himself. Inevitably, he would fail, looking foolish in the process, much to everyone's glee. Discomfort with his own body led to long sessions in the weight room, which prompted more teasing, since Al tended to focus on his upper body at the expense of his legs. This "arms first" approach gave Al the proverbial toothpicks-for-legs bodybuilders' syndrome. "Ol' Baggy Pants" was the inevitable nickname. But Al's willingness to reveal his vulnerability to his players endeared him to them. It created a bond between players and owner that existed nowhere else in football.

Ol' Baggy Pants, Al Davis, had toothpicks for legs. There were limits to this, of course. If a player challenged Al in the sphere of money or power -- as some did -- Al would annihilate him without giving it a second thought. It was just something you didn't do as a player. Not if you were smart. It violated the psychological contract. But the obverse was also true. If Al overstepped his bounds, mixing up power and performance issues, say, the player could respond with equal vehemence, and Al would suffer the abuse with equanimity. For those of us who were unfamiliar with the code, this could lead to some startling exchanges, as happened late that Sunday afternoon in Cleveland after we beat the Browns in Municipal Stadium.

After games, three buses left at staggered times for the airport. The first bus departed 45 minutes after the game, the second bus 15 minutes later, the third bus 15 minutes after that. Generally, most everybody got on one of the first two busses, but I found that the older I got, the longer I liked to linger, so I usually found myself on the third bus, along with a few other stragglers.

On this day, Snake was the only other player on the bus when I climbed aboard. He'd taken a seat on the left side all the way back. Settling down behind him, I accepted a paper cup half full of whiskey, a fifth of which Snake had stashed in his briefcase. We toasted, drank and, after a minute, Freddy came back. Still sweaty and wired from the game, Freddy plopped down across from Snake, fired up a cigarette as he threw down the whiskey Snake had passed him. "Let's go, bussy!" Fred yelled at the driver. "Who's left anyway?" The driver held up his hand. "One more," he said. "Come on, let's go!" Freddy barked. But the driver insisted on waiting. Then we saw why. The one person left was Al Davis.

As Al got on the bus, he grabbed the pole behind the driver and was about to swivel into his seat when he caught sight of us in back. "Hey!" Al shouted at Freddy, pointing a rolled up game program at him. "You cost me another $2,500 today with the way you butcher your uniform every week!"

Fred recoiled, as if his trust had been violated and he had been called a traitor. His response was immediate and assaultive, for he was defending hallowed ground.

"F--- you, you no-legged baggy-pantsed mother------," Freddy snarled. "You told me 'Whatever it takes!' "

Hearing this, I cringed, slid down in my seat until I'd disappeared from view. In my experience, this was unprecedented. Violence, I was sure, was imminent. But then I could hear Al start to laugh. Slowly, I raised my head. Sure enough, Al was laughing. Head thrown back, he was laughing and laughing.

"I guess I told him, huh, Tombstone?" Fred said to me. Now chuckling himself, Fred tossed off more whiskey.

"Zhivago, you're some piece of work, man," Snake remarked.