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Davis did more than 'just win'

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / October 12, 2011

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On Oct. 19, 1979, Carolee Davis suffered a heart attack and lapsed into a coma.

Fortunately for her, she had married Al Davis.

Most “normal’’ husbands would seek the best possible medical care, or, at least, the best they could afford. That’s a given. But Al Davis was not a normal husband.

As recorded by Gary Smith in the May 1981 issue of the legendary magazine “Inside Sports’’ - I get misty just thinking of this short-lived publication - Al Davis went into what can only be described as his Takeover Mode.

For the first time in anyone’s memory, he stayed away from the Oakland Raiders facility. Not content with a mere nighttime bedside vigil, he talked Merritt Hospital into getting him a bed in the foyer.

He talked with noted doctors across the country, and flew one in to Oakland. He appointed one doctor to report to him. But these are things any man of means could do.

Al Davis was determined to get his Carolee back. He sat next to her and carried on lengthy one-way conversations, repeating phrases he knew would have personal resonance. He’d look into her eyes. “I swear from time to time I’d meet eyes with her,’’ he said. “No one would believe me, but I knew something was there.’’

Al Davis was at her side, 24/7, and on the 17th day Carolee Davis awakened. After a lengthy rehabilitation, Al Davis got his Carolee Davis back.

“I’d have given 1,000-to-one odds against that woman coming back as anything but a vegetable,’’ said Dr. Robert Rosenfeld, the Raiders’ orthopedic specialist.

Call that the Good Al.

In the summer of 1972, Wayne Valley traveled to Munich for the Summer Olympics. Wayne Valley is the man who had hired 33-year-old Al Davis as the head coach and general manager of the Raiders nine years earlier. When he left the country, he was one of the Raiders’ three general partners, the other two being Ed McGah and, yes, Al Davis. When he returned, he discovered that he was out of power. Al Davis had taken over.

It had been a preemptive strike. Fearing that Valley was planning on removing him when their agreement was to be redone in 1976, Davis prevailed upon an aging McGah, who had not been what anyone would call an “active’’ partner, to enter into a new partnership agreement that would leave Davis in charge. A simple summary of how he accomplished this: It took only two of three partners to make any changes in the agreement.

Valley would sue, of course, and Valley would lose. As Pete Rozelle would discover, Al Davis was King of the Courts.

Call this the Devious Al.

But even the Good Al was essentially unfathomable, even to the very spouse whose life he had helped save.

Asked what she had learned from the ordeal, Carolee Davis replied, “That he loves me.’’

The Al Davis take?

“Everyone thinks it was based on love,’’ he explained. “It wasn’t. I just had to get it done. I had to. I’d do it for anyone I knew or was close to.’’

Clearly, Al Davis was driven. In that same article, Smith suggests that the root of it was an extreme commitment to competition instilled in him by an exacting father. Whatever caused it, Al Davis grew into an adult who was as fixated on winning football games as anyone who ever has lived. Toward that end, the world was divided very neatly into the people who could help him accomplish that goal and the ones who couldn’t.

ESPN’s Tom Jackson has been getting great mileage this week from a story that illustrates the Al Davis mind-set. Sent by ESPN shortly after his retirement from the Broncos to do a Raiders piece, he was denied entrance to the practice field with his cameraman. Al Davis couldn’t get beyond the fact that Jackson, now a full-time TV man, once had been a Bronco. Jackson explained that the last thing he would do would be to reveal information gained from the Oakland practice.

That made no sense to Al Davis. “If you were a Raider and you had a chance to see a Broncos practice,’’ Davis explained, “I’d expect you to tell me everything.’’

Most rational people don’t think like that. But Al Davis was wired quite differently from most people, which often manifested itself in very positive ways.

In the Al Davis world view, anyone could become a Raider, or, as the Brooklyn-bred Davis would say, “Raid-uh.’’ Thus he pioneered in hiring an African-American coach (Art Shell), a Latino coach (Tom Flores), and a female chief executive (Amy Trask). His better teams often consisted of players deemed to be misfits or rejects of some sort. In the highly socialistic NFL world, the Raiders were an odd renegade cult, led by a man who continually sued the league. And always won.

He marched to a private symphony orchestra. “I’m not really part of society,’’ he said in that same “Insides Sports’’ piece. “I never wanted to be part of the codes, the hypocrisy, the moral judgments . . . I stay away from social events. It’s not, ‘My country, right or wrong.’ It’s not, ‘My league, right or wrong.’ I’d rather be right than consistent.

“I don’t think the idea is to be totally human. I don’t want to look like the other owners. It’s establishment. I’ve always been closer to the players. Why the hell should I have to wear shirts and ties to fly to a game? My hair, I’ve always worn it this way.’’

Secrecy and paranoia governed his life. He came and went as the ultimate Man of Mystery. There is some question as to whether or not he really was born in Brockton, as the record states. No official cause of death has yet been given. The first and last laugh belonged to Al.

He really only cared about himself and the Raiders, who, in his mind, were one and the same.

Al Davis is dead, but guess who’s in charge of the Raid-uhs? Why it’s Carolee Davis and her son, Mark. Through them, Al Davis speaks from the grave.

Bob Ryan can be reached at ryan@globe.com. Follow Bob on Boston.com at Globe 10.0.

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