By Nolan Harrison
We all know the legend, Hall of Fame owner, former commissioner of the AFL, head coach, and “Maverick” who was the first NFL owner to sue for his own team’s free agency and win. We know the precedence that he set in being the first NFL owner to hire an African-American head coach, the great Hall of Famer Art Shell, to the hiring of the first and ONLY female CEO in the NFL, Amy Trask.
In fact, the Raiders have hired more former players on their staff and front office than any other NFL franchise.
There are many more Davis stories that occurred behind-the-scenes and are yet untold. My bet is that if more people heard some of these stories, they would have a better understanding, and appreciation, for what Al Davis was really all about. So now I will share with you one of those stories, my Al Davis story.
I will never forget the day I was drafted and heard his East Coast accent for the first time “Congratulations you are a Raider!” For me, a sixth round draft pick out of Indiana University, coming off the disappointment of not being drafted on day one, those words were music to my ears.
My first conversation was with my new head coach, Art Shell. My next conversation was with Coach Davis followed by a meeting with my position coach, the late Earl Leggett. The great Los Angeles Raiders owner, taking the time to congratulate me on being selected to be in this exclusive fraternity, was a shock to me. However, I soon found out there was a reason why he was called Coach Davis.
Davis hardly ever missed a practice and I will never forget the first time I got coached by him. We were preparing to play Joe Montana and true football fans will remember how well he ran the play action bootleg play. My job, as the defensive end, was to keep my shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, keep my hand on the offensive tackle and squeeze down inside while keeping an eye on the quarterback. I performed that technique a couple times in practice, and I thought I was perfect. The next thing I knew I heard my name being yelled from 50 yards away “Nolan! … Nolan!”
It was Coach Leggett yelling my name and he told me to go down and see what Coach Davis wanted. I looked at him questioningly but aware enough, even though I was a rookie, to run my butt down the field to see what Coach Davis wanted. When I got to him I was completely blown away by what he said to me. “You have to watch the boot, Montana’s gotta kill us, you take the quarterback, (expletive) the run watch the boot!” The look on my face had to have been priceless! But I guarantee you on Sunday, Joe Montana had me in his hip pocket the whole game!
Then there was the time we were playing our arch rivals, the Denver Broncos, in Denver. I came off of one of my better games, a sack and a half, a bunch of quarterback pressures and hits, and tackles for loss. We won the game and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. In the locker room Coach Davis came in to see me and said “I already have one Howie Long, I don’t need two! Your job is to push the pocket and get your hands up so that Elway can step up and throw!” By this time in my career I understood and appreciated his coaching. It was still amazing to me that this Hall of Fame owner knew every facet of the game, and was watching so intently, that he didn’t miss my “freelancing”, knowing that the next time the outcome might not be so positive for me, or his Raiders.
Al Davis looked out for the players and their families. During the team’s move from Los Angeles to Oakland there was a year where we were still training in Los Angeles at our El Segundo facility, while playing all of our home games in Oakland. So that year all of our home games were away games.
To ease the pressure on his players and their families he chartered two separate planes for every home game. One plane was for the team and the other plane was for their wives and family members. Also during this time, he had special tailgating facilities constructed outside of the Oakland Coliseum just for family members for their pre-and post game comfort.
During all the criticism he received over the team moving back to Oakland, I once asked him,”doesn’t all the negativity and lies bother you?” He answered, “no because the greatness of the Raiders will continue, no matter what they write or say.”
When I made the decision to sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers, of course Coach Davis was not happy, I won’t use the words said to me here (smile), however those words made clear to me how much he loved his team and his players. He told me later, as only he could in his East Coast accent, that “I took you off the streets, nobody wanted you, I made you a star, you will always be Raider.”
I know I’m not the only one with an Al Davis story, and there were far greater Raiders than I, but that’s the reason why, to those who bled for the Silver and Black, he will be truly missed.