Al Davis death is one of those, Oh, moments, because there is really nowhere else to go with the information. Its just an enormous is.
Davis role in the history of the National Football League and indeed all of American sports is seminal. It can and must be said that without him, the culture and landscape of football, franchise moves, league mergers and the general nature of sporting icons would be dramatically different.
In short, the depth and breadth of his importance is barely calculable.
But he was also bigger than even that, because he was also punished for becoming unfashionable in a style-over-substance world. That, too, is a lesson of his life. Even the magnificent fall, and only those who die too early get to claim the best reputations.
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He made friends and enemies in huge and equal measure. He could charm and shame, cajole and bully, show loyalty and disdain in equal measure, and in close juxtaposition to each other. He stood for diversity and color-blindness in the most important of ways by hiring it without concern for anything but its ability to succeed on his behalf. He was hero and villain and all points inbetween.
To say he was bigger than life is to cheat his legacy. He was bigger than bigger than life. Even in his declining years, when he rarely made pubic appearances, when he did, he had things to do and say that made him riveting. He might be offended at the free wisdom he could impart because he didnt like to give away a lot, but you could go to school on Al Davis.
But how exactly do we do that, now that he is gone? Who and what was he is easy, because he is one of the most talked-about figures in American sport. Even in this massively trivial age of 247 we-gotta-talk-about-something-after-the-commercial-break news, his name evoked imagery and feeling, so there wont be a lot new to say about him.
But even in passage, he will leave a large wake behind him. More than any other ownership figure, even George Steinbrenner and Jerry Jones, he was the face of his franchise, the first place you go mentally when you see the logo.
Nothing got done except through him, and the matter of succession raises questions not only of whom (he is survived by his wife Carolee and his son Mark, but he also has investors and silent partners to be considered) but how, and even where. With Los Angeles opening its arms to the NFL for the first time in 16 years, its penultimate tenant could surely cast his eyes southward with a few strokes of a pen.
The last time the Raiders left, it was a wrenching experience because it was Davis, the man who had made Oakland a sports town, who had done it, tearing a fabric right down the middle that even now shows the evidence of a bad sewing job. If they were to leave again, there would be only numbness, as though the natural force of his grip was the only thing holding the team here.
And even in the last few months, as his health declined, he materially affected not only himself but others in his world. He hated the new collective bargaining agreement, and he never truly warmed to the notion of a two-team stadium with the 49ers as partners. When he moved, the ripples moved others. In his absence, the possibility of some stagnancy is considerable because, after all, Al was the Raiders and the Raiders were Al.
Giants leave us, and Davis was that. His time astride his world was long (48 years in the NFL alone) and often contentious. He was, as are all men unafraid of turmoil, someone who made peoples conversations diminish in volume and tone. His legacy, which seems obvious to cite, is not yet fully written.
The family he leaves behind now deals with its hub removed. A sports organization that never functioned without him now figures out how to do so on Day 1. A city that was made more vibrant by his appearance now faces the possibility that one more of its identifying characteristics may be on the wing again.
And for all the sober-faced encomiums to him on the occasion of his death delivered by people who disliked and perhaps even hated him in life, this much remains the fact.
Al Davis was that giant. His size and stature in American sport will not be seen again. Even the biggest owners in sport now did not turn two leagues into one, or revolutionize franchise location rights, or turn city governments into jelly-legged saps at the mere mention of his name. He beat Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue had nothing on him, and Roger Goodell was a mere child.
And if he stayed too long to remain cool, that is on those who think that such things matter. Al Davis defined an epoch, and anything at which he was not the first, he was the most grandiose practitioner.
Al Davis Mattered, with a capital M. In his absence, he matters still, even dead. Let the users of the new definitions of fame and buzz and cool and needle-moving grapple with the size of that for awhile.