Good Times With the Raiders
Yes, things were different then.
I had been shaken by the game. This was my first major beat and I thought the Raiders were a good team, but they had been absolutely creamed. My emotions must have showed in my face because offensive line coach Ollie Spencer walked by and said, “It’s only a game, Glenn.”
What I didn’t understand at that point was that the Raiders regarded the exhibition season only as a means of preparing for the regular season, while Chiefs coach Hank Stram wanted to win every game. Raiders coach John Rauch had his players in two-a-day workouts until three days before the regular season started, and they were running on tired legs in that game. They also lost the next week to the Denver Broncos.
Two weeks later, in the regular season opener, they beat the Broncos, 51-0. In the regular season, they beat the Chiefs twice, went 13-1 and wound up in the Super Bowl.
The Broncos exhibition was played in North Platte, Nebraska. That was how AFL teams did it in those days, taking exhibition games on the road because they weren’t going to draw at home. The next year, the Raiders played an exhibition in Birmingham, Ala.
Even by those standards, the North Platte game was unusual. It was a Broncos home game, so they selected the site, because of a centennial celebration. As the home team, the Broncos had first choice of hotels, so they got the best one, a Holiday Inn. We got the Hotel Pawnee which, instead of air conditioning, had overhead fans in the room. The game itself was on a high school field and, of course, there were no press facilities. I phoned in my story from a pay phone near the field.
That was my second trip to North Platte. The first was when my family was driving across country in 1946 from northern Minnesota to our new home in San Diego and our car broke down in North Platte. We were there a week waiting for a part to be mailed in.
I’m not planning a third trip to North Platte.
PRO FOOTBALL was a much simpler operation in those days. At the start of each season, the Raiders PR man would give beat writers a booklet of players’ home telephone numbers. Now, the only way to reach a player is to have the PR man call him and hope he’ll call you. But, that’s a function of numbers. In 1967, there were maybe half a dozen of us who had those phone numbers. Now, there are literally hundreds of media types wanting to reach players.
In training camp, it was also easy to interview players. The Raiders trained at the El Rancho Tropicana in Santa Rosa and players had rooms, usually with two players, sometimes bigger rooms with 4-5. Between lunch and afternoon practice, writers would go by a player's room and interview him.
One of my favorite players was Tom Keating, who became a magazine subject for me as well as a newspaper one. Keating and Ben Davidson used to take motorcycle trips through Mexico in the offseason. When they came back, they’d sit down with me and give me details of their trips. I wrote two magazine articles on those trips, splitting the modest financial proceeds with them.
Tom lives back in Georgetown now, but when he was living in the Bay Area, we’d have lunch once a month at Tadich’s to discuss old times, with a heavy emphasis on Al Davis’s idiosyncracies. I’ve seen less of Ben, who lives in San Diego when he’s not traveling around the world, but we have caught up on old times when we’ve played in the Alta Bates Celebrity Tennis Tournament.
At training camp, Keating had one of the big rooms, a corner room on the second floor, and he would have several players in the room talking about football and other topics. I’d sometimes sit in, with the understanding that I never wrote anything that was said in the room. If I heard something I wanted to follow up, I would approach the player later and see if I wanted to go on the record. If he did, I had a story. If he did not, I didn’t write anything.
My main purpose in sitting in on those discussions, though, was to learn about the pro game. I learned even more from Davis.
WHEN I WS was assigned to cover the Raiders, I thought I knew football. I had watched it all my life, though I hadn’t played it, because I never saw much point in doing something that guaranteed that I would get hit on a regular basis. I had covered college football, Cal and Stanford, before going to the Raiders.
But the first time I sat down with Davis at training camp, I realized that I didn’t really know anything. I just listened to him during what was a series of conversations, most of them in training camp, and learned about the inside game. Probably 95 per cent of what I know about football came from two men, Davis and Bill Walsh.
As always, Davis was into the “us vs. them” game, but beat writers were definitely “us.” He was very approachable to those covering the team on almost any subject. The one subject on which he was close mouthed was the players he put on waivers in training camp, but that was because he played games with the waiver list, often putting prominent players (Jim Otto, for example) on the list to distract teams from selecting a young player he wanted to keep. The star players were always yanked back later, of course.
But even then, he would make exceptions. One time in 1969, I joked with him about not letting us know who was on waivers. He said, “You want to know? Here are the names.”
I wrote the story. Later that day, John Madden angrily confronted me and said, “Where did you get those names?” I told him, and that was the end of that confrontation.
WRITERS TRAVELED with the team, out of necessity. Newspaper publishers would not pay for writers travel, so the Raiders paid our transportation and hotel, and also took us out for a lavish dinner the night before games. I was just getting into wine at the time, and I experimented with some very good wines at the Raiders’ expense, so it wasn’t just my football knowledge that was expanded.
There were occasional problems with sitting with players on the plane. One year, I wrote an article listing the players I thought would be cut for the season opener. Carleton Oats, a defensive lineman, was one of them. As it happened, Oats made the team, but he was still upset by my story. When I got on the plane for the first trip of the season, I couldn’t find the seat assigned to me. Oats had put the little sticker in the toilet.
There weren’t many unpleasant incidents in my five-year stint on the Raiders beat because there was seldom much to criticize; the Raiders lost only four regular season games in my first three seasons.
There were, though, a couple of memorable experiences. The first came after a loss to Kansas City, after which I had criticized Gene Upshaw and Art Shell for their failure to pass protect. After a practice the next week, they marched me out to a bench by the side of the field and, flanking me, told me of their anger at my criticism.
Shell was in his first year at left tackle. I said I understood his unhappiness because this was the first time I had written anything about him. But I reminded Upshaw of my frequent praise of him earlier.
“This one article wipes out everything else,” Upshaw said.
The athlete’s creed.
That episode behind us, we’ve all been friends since.
The other notable episode actually came after I was off the beat and a full-time columnist, after a 1973 game at the Coliseum, when the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Raiders, 17-9. That was a rainy day and the field was muddy. George Atkinson had attempted to field a punt inside the 10 and fumbled. The Steelers recovered and went on to score a touchdown. In my usual gentle fashion, I called that a bonehead decision by Atkinson. After the next Sunday’s game, he tried to come after me in dressing room but was restrained by Willie Brown.
Fast forward to 1995 when the Raiders returned to Oakland and Gary Radnich had Atkinson and me on his Sunday night “Sit Down” show on Channel 4. Before we went on, Radnich asked us if we’d ever had any experiences and, laughing, Atkinson brought up the 1973 incident.
During the show, Atkinson’s young daughter sat on my lap.
Time does heal all wounds. About 20 years ago, when Sam Spear and I were having lunch at the old Grotto, George Blanda came by the table and said, “How’s my favorite sportswriter?” He didn’t always feel that way when he was playing. One time, he said, “I should kick you through the goalposts.” I replied that, the way he was kicking, I’d be wide to the right.
THE TRUTH IS, I loved those guys. The residual good feeling led me to try to help the Raiders marketing on one occasion, when I went with Daryle Lamonica to speak at a 1995 luncheon of businessmen, urging them to buy luxury suites.
Much of that good feeling has vanished because of the institutionalized nastiness that pervades the Raiders organization these days, but it can’t erase the wonderful memories I have. Those will remain with me forever.
CRUISE WITH ME: I am organizing a sports-oriented cruise of the Panama Canal, Feb. 16 to March 3, starting in San Diego and ending in Fort Lauderdale, aboard Holland America’s Volendam. While we’re at sea, we will have sports seminars and discussions about your favorite teams. For further information and prices, please contact my travel agent, Janice Hough, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LETTERS: I’ll update this section today.
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