‘Mean’ Joe Greene remembers legend Al Davis
As I and the rest of my Pittsburgh Steelers teammates prepared that week in late December 1974, we knew one thing: The road to the Super Bowl in the AFC went through Oakland.
To achieve your dreams as a team, you had to slay the Oakland Raiders. They were the barometer of what it took to be a championship team. They were the embodiment of Al Davis’ hard-driving style, nurtured by his devotion to them and their reciprocation. They were together in the very essential meaning of the word “team,” joined in purpose the way you design an organization.
To beat them, you had to be that same kind of force as a group.
That is what I admire most about Mr. Davis and his leadership of the Raiders. He may have passed away Saturday, but his imprint on the NFL is forever. As much as the Steelers and the Raiders spent the better part of a decade battling for supremacy in one of the fiercest rivalries in the history of the game, I have a place of admiration and appreciation in my soul for Mr. Davis. You may not have liked him, you may not have agreed with him, but you damn sure needed him.
With Mr. Davis, you knew the most important thing was the game. Yes, he had his team and he wanted to win. Ultimately, however, he was doing what was in the best interests of the game, of the NFL. Sometimes you need that contrarian, that person who pushes you because he’s not afraid to say what he thinks.
[Related: Raiders owner Al Davis dies at 82]
Most important, Mr. Davis built the Raiders based on a standard of play that permeated the league, his so-called “Commitment to Excellence.” That excellence came as the NFL was growing from two competing leagues (the NFL and AFL) to a merged league. Over a 10-season stretch from 1967 to 1976, eight Super Bowl champions either were the Raiders or had to beat the Raiders in the playoffs. The Jets, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Baltimore Colts, Miami, the Steelers each of the first two times … we all had to deal with the Raiders. That started with Green Bay in the 1967 season’s Super Bowl and ended with Oakland beating Minnesota in the 1976 season’s Super Bowl. During that stretch, the Raiders made the Super Bowl twice and had eight appearances in the AFL/AFC championship game.
I learned that reality early. My first season with Pittsburgh was 1969. We were still in the old NFL. My second year, we moved to the AFC when the leagues merged. I went to the Pro Bowl that season, and there must have been nine Raiders and nine Chiefs. I got to know all those guys. We’d sit and drink and smoke cigarettes. None of that meant anything when we played.
The Raiders were just what the name and the symbol on the helmet indicated. They were marauders, tough, physical men. You had Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Jim Otto and Bob Brown on the offensive line. Dave Casper at tight end. They were killing people. They set the stage for what happened in the NFL. With the Raiders, what I want to emphasize is that when you played them, you didn’t just show up to play football. You showed up to kick their ass. Otherwise, you’d get your ass kicked.
That first AFC title game for us in the 1974 season is the game that propelled us. It started our run of four Super Bowl titles. We knew all week that the matchup of Ernie Holmes against Gene Upshaw was going to be pivotal. So Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood and I spent the whole week telling Ernie about how Gene was going to kick his ass. Ernie didn’t say a word all week. He just stewed. After we get on the field for the first drive, I was standing at the line and Ernie is next to me. Ernie started yelling, “Eugene! Eugene!” He called Gene by Eugene. After about the fourth time, Gene looked over from the Raiders huddle and yelled, “What?”
Ernie started screaming, “I’m going to kick your [expletive, expletive, expletive] ass.” L.C. and Dwight looked at each other and yelled, “Far out, let’s go.” That’s the kind of game it was; that’s how you had to play. It was competitive and it was tough. There was hatred at times because that game tested you mentally and physically. It was deep. It got to the core of what kind of competitor you were. But there was respect.
[Related: Al Davis revered, respected, reviled]
I know that people make a lot out of the lawsuits that went back and forth. When Oakland safety George Atkinson sued Steelers coach Chuck Noll and then Pittsburgh cornerback Mel Blount went at it with Chuck, it got ugly. But I never got involved in any of that. Those were side issues. It probably heightened some things, but it wasn’t the foundation of the rivalry. When Atkinson knocked Lynn Swann out of the 1975 AFC championship game with a concussion, that was ugly. I went out and carried Lynn off the field. It was vicious.
But that’s what you were in for with the Raiders because they played with a purpose. Again, they played together because Mr. Davis brought them together. I’ve talked to a lot of former Raiders players over the years, and not one of them has ever said anything negative about Mr. Davis. He cared for them. That’s the feeling you get. He was out there on the field with them. He understood the game because he was a former coach. He knew what they did and who they were.
That wasn’t any different than what Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney did with the Steelers, working his way up from working in the locker room. Dan had a great understanding of the game and of the players. That’s why those two men were and are so important to the game. The game was the most important thing to them. Mr. Davis isn’t the most important person in the history of the NFL, but the NFL isn’t the same thing without men like him and Dan and so many others.
A lot of the time, especially now, you get the feeling that people in suits, the marketing people, have a lot of influence on the game now and they don’t necessarily care about what’s best for the players. With Mr. Davis, he understood that. He understood there was a point of diminishing returns with what you can ask of the players, such as when they started talking about the 18-game schedule.
Mr. Davis put the players and the game first. In turn, his players gave back to him. They played with purpose. The style of how they played might have been different from what we did with the Steelers, but the essence of what they were was the same. They were a team, everyone working together and being on the same page to accomplish something great.
I remember when I was on the coaching staff in Arizona and we all got fired, I was called for an interview with the Raiders. I had the pleasure of getting to sit down with Mr. Davis. Of course, I had met him many times before when I was playing. I’d see him at the Pro Bowl or wherever, he’d look at me and say: “We could have had you. The Steelers were thinking about trying to get rid of you. We talked about trading for you.” I’d just laugh because I knew he was just trying to stir things up.
[Photos: Al Davis through the years]
When I went for the interview, he showed me the trophies and all the memorabilia. He talked about all the things he and the Raiders had accomplished. He didn’t do it to show me up and talk down about the Steelers. He had sincere pride about what they had done. He talked about helping make Willie Wood the first black man to start at quarterback in what’s now the Pacific-12 Conference. That was back in 1959, before the integration battles reached the violence of the 1960s.
Mr. Davis was the kind of man to do and say things like that, to take a stand. Some people look at him as a renegade or maybe even an agitator. That’s fine. Those are the type of men you need to keep people on their toes. They make you think about what you’re doing.
I looked at Mr. Davis as a sportsman. He was there to compete, to push himself and his team to be better. In that way, he pushed us all to be better. It was like in that first AFC championship game. It was 3-3 just before halftime when Terry Bradshaw threw a pass to the left corner of end zone for John Stallworth.
Stallworth reached out with one hand and caught it but was ruled out of bounds. It was potentially a big play for us that didn’t turn out. As I was walking off the field, I was looking down, focused on what we were doing, reminding myself, “That’s OK, that play doesn’t matter; we have enough still to beat them.”
Later, I saw Mr. Davis and he said: “We had you in that game at halftime; I know we had you. You were down; we just didn’t finish.”
I had the pleasure of saying, “No, you didn’t. More important, though, I want to thank you for pushing us that hard.”