NAPA, Calif. -- Thirty years.
That's a generation.
Actually, by NFL standards, that's an eternity. So my hair felt slightly grayer after I visited an Oakland Raiders training camp in northern California for the first time since I covered the last of the vintage crazies in silver and black three decades ago for the San Francisco Examiner.
Now there is talk everywhere that the Raiders will rise from purgatory this season after an absurd NFL record of accumulating 11 losses or more for seven consecutive years.
If this is a Raiders renaissance, I wanted to see for myself. I wanted to compare and contrast the past with the present. I wanted to start with Al Davis, still the heartbeat of the Raiders, even though his 81-year-old body doesn't work so well these days.
Among other physical issues, it takes forever for Davis to maneuver in and out of cars. Three decades ago during training camp, he was a gum-smacking, omnipresent figure in all white that patrolled the sidelines during practices and even pumped iron in the aftermath. Now he rarely attends any of the Raiders' sessions.
The unofficial count is six Davis sightings at camp, and when he does stop by, he is wheeled around in a golf cart.
"You talk to him when you can get to him, and this is a person who does not live in the past," said Nnamdi Asomugha, the Raiders' extraordinary cornerback, referring to Davis, the team's managing general partner since 1963. He invented all of those Raider things -- the colors, the slogans (Commitment To Excellence; Pride And Poise; Just Win, Baby), the pirate logo, the legacy that produced 13 Pro Football Hall of Famers, AFC dominance, three Super Bowl victories and a fan base that is strikingly loud and loyal no matter the status of the team.
Added Asomugha, "(Davis) wants you to be good now. He wants to always to be winning. There is not a point where he says, 'Well, it's OK. We won last year. We won 20 years ago. We were great. It doesn't matter about what's happening right now.'
"No, he wants us to be great right now."
When comparing and contrasting, that sounds like the old Davis, the frequently omniscient one who told me early during the 1980 season that the Raiders would win the Super Bowl.
The Raiders did, and they did so despite everything.
You had prognosticators saying the Raiders would struggle due to the trading of Ken Stabler and Dave Casper before the season. You had that talk about a pending move to Los Angeles. You had their 2-3 start. You had the loss of the starting quarterback to a broken leg when the supposedly washed-up Jim Plunkett replaced Dan Pastorini. You had the Raiders entering the playoffs as a wild card.
You also had Davis shrugging over it all, and I wanted to see if he would do the same regarding this team.
It's just that Davis rarely talks. He did chat the other day on Sirius satellite radio with old pal Gil Brandt. During the interview, Davis compared new quarterback Jason Campbell to Plunkett, and he compared this Raiders team to that 1980 bunch. And, no, according to those who know Davis best, his mind isn't as feeble as his legs by saying such things.
Here's what I know: After studying the blocking and the tackling here in the middle of wine country, this Raiders team that is loaded with nice draft picks, gifted holdovers and decent newcomers is fermenting just fine when it comes to the physical and the mental.
Is that Super Bowl stuff?
I don't know, and neither does Richard Seymour.
"Talent-wise, we're as talented as any team in football, but it takes more than talent. It takes attention to details. It takes doing the little things, because the margin of victory is small in the league, and there has to be consistency," said Seymour, the Raiders' accomplished defensive tackle who is an expert on everything he mentioned.
For verification, Seymour has three Super Bowl rings from his tenure with the New England Patriots.
But consider this, and it bodes well for Davis' bold expectations this season for the Raiders: despite Seymour spending eight years with the Patriots and entering just his second season with the Raiders, and although his old employers have been dominant for a decade while his new ones have been dreadful, Seymour feels more tradition, more aura, more something with the Raiders than the Patriots.
"Oh, absolutely," Seymour said, easing into the widest of grins. "My wife, she'd tell you. She always tells me that I seem like a kid in a candy store whenever I put on that Raiders' silver and black. I don't mind wearing our white jerseys, but if we could wear black, and if that was our only color to wear every game ... I mean, there is something about putting on that black. It's unlike putting on any other jersey in the NFL."
Sounds like Lester Hayes.
Three decades ago, Hayes was an all-everything cornerback with 13 interceptions while helping to push those 1980 Raiders toward the second of three world championships in eight years. Hayes told me back then, "No question, there is magic in our black jerseys. Whenever we wear them, we feel like we have extraordinary powers."
Speaking of Hayes, there's another comparison that works: He was the game's best shut-down corner, and so is Asomugha (below), who was selected to the USA Today's all-decade team courtesy of opponents ignoring his side of the field for long stretches.
The contrast between Hayes and Asomugha is striking, though. Hayes was popular with interviewers, but he also was a notorious stutterer. Asomugha is as smooth as they come as a Cal-Berkeley graduate in corporate finances and as a noted philanthropist who was chosen by Bill Clinton to become part of his global initiative project.
Still, the comparison stiff-arms the contrast.
"I talk to Lester all the time," said Asomugha, 29, in his eighth season with the Raiders. "Those guys from the past come up and watch practice all the time, so it's great, because they always speak to us about how it was. I know Jack (Tatum) would come up before he passed, and so would a bunch of other guys. They don't let you go without making you understand what they went through to build the Raiders into greatness.
"It's something that we make everybody understand when they come here, and that's the history of the Raiders, and that it's important for each of us to get us back to that point."
Take massive offensive lineman Robert Gallery, for instance. He understands that history after eight seasons of moving between the tackle spots and battling a slew of injuries.
Now he is established and prospering at left guard, where Gene Upshaw was THE guard 30 years ago along the way to a bronzed bust in Canton.
Said Gallery, "You watch those guys in the old NFL Films, and they obviously paved the way for us to be here. When they played football, they were some bad dudes."
Yes, they were, but they also were funny dudes. They were part of an NFL rarity since Davis bucked tradition by ignoring the college-dorm routine during training camp and holding practices next to a fancy hotel in Santa Rosa, Calif., called the El Rancho Tropicana.
For comparison's sake, that approach hasn't changed since the Raiders' current site is next to a Marriott resort hotel.
The funny dudes aren't around anymore, though. Thirty years ago, you had everything from John Matuszak being the Tooz (since this is a family website, I can't give details) to Ted Hendricks charging through the middle of a training camp on a horse to Matt Millen getting into a three-point stance before bursting head-first into a wooden fence surrounding the old training-camp facility.
Why did Millen do such a thing? He said he just wanted to see what was on the other side of the fence.
They won, too.
"Yeah, we understand all of that," Asomugha said. "We understand that at the start of every decade, the Raiders have been in the AFC championship game, and 2010 should be no difference."
That's another comparison: pleasantly cocky.
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