For years Al Davis sought out the NFL's new owners to form alliances or just to find out what made them tick. One such relationship began at the league meetings at Palm Springs, Calif., in 1989, when Davis met Jerry Jones, who had recently purchased the Cowboys. It was the beginning of a 22-year bond that grew to be a close friendship.
Al Davis could be charming. I can't tell you how many times he'd call my house and my wife, Gene, would answer, and they would talk for 20, 30 minutes. She always appreciated what he had to say about the tremendous adjustment from being a regular family to being so scrutinized in the public, and how the family should deal with the criticism. Then he and I would talk for a solid hour, two or three times a month. Nighttime, weekends—it didn't matter with Al. In all those hours and hours of conversations, Al gave me a Harvard Business School degree in pro football. It's something I could never repay.
I'll always owe Al for his football lessons—about players, about what it takes to win. After our first year, Michael Irvin was hurt and was falling down our depth chart. We didn't know if we had anything great in him. Al called one day and said, "Jerry, you've got to start him and let him play. He's the one guy you've got right now who knows where the end zone is. I don't think you want to go down the road without him." Of course Michael went on to be a Hall of Famer.
Al would critique our team like an independent scout. You could tell he studied us. When Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith were getting near the end of their careers, he told me, "You better pay attention, Jerry. The defenses are trying to collapse the middle of the pocket on Troy because he can't move as well as he used to, and Emmitt can't get outside anymore. The league knows it, believe me." He was telling me what other scouts were saying about our team.
That kind of loyalty was vital to him. When we played the 49ers in the playoffs in San Francisco one year, he called me the morning of the game and said the field was going to be in bad shape because of rain. He said he'd have long cleats delivered to our locker room if we wanted them. We already had the long cleats, so we didn't need them, but for him to think of that on the morning of the game shows the kind of friendship we'd developed. He knew the greatest gift he could give me was something to help my football team win.
In 1992 we were talking to the 49ers about making a trade for defensive end Charles Haley. The Niners told us there was another team interested, and I knew how much Al loved Haley, so I figured it was the Raiders. Al and I never talked about it. But when I completed the trade for Haley, the first call I received was from Al. He said, "You've just won the Super Bowl, Jerry. That's what you were missing—pressure on the quarterback." And that year Haley was very big for us, and we beat Buffalo 52--17 to win the Super Bowl. So many times Al would tell me something like that, and most often it turned out to be fact.
But there was a toughness, an independence, about Al that was important for me to see too. I watched how he could stand alone against the rest of the league when he felt he had to, and those lessons became important to me in 1995, when we struck out on our own to sell a stadium sponsorship to Nike; the league at the time had a national apparel and shoe deal with Reebok. The league sued me, but I felt strongly that we were right, and I stuck to my guns. I could do that because I'd seen Al do it. Those were lonely days for me. I was cast aside by the other owners, but Al gave me support that I'll never forget—psychological support. He taught me it was possible to go against your partners if it was something you believed in, and if you believed it would enhance not only your team but every team in the league. From then on I stuck up for Al in the league meetings. I didn't mind being one of the only ones on his side on a lot of issues. He'd been there for me. You think it's any surprise nine of his former players and coaches asked him to speak for them at the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
It's sad, Al leaving us now, for a lot of reasons. After so many frustrating years, the Raiders are showing signs of being the kind of team he loved to build. Exciting football, lots of big plays, players with personalities. Al was always kind of a film director. He wanted to win, but he also wanted to make it fun—he wanted to make a good movie. That was important to me when I bought the Cowboys in 1989. I always wanted to know that what we were doing was important, really important ... worth striving for excellence every day you wake up. Al set a great example. Though I'll miss him deeply, that's a pretty good legacy to leave.
SUMMIT TALKS Davis provided Jones (left) tips on everything from personnel moves to business matters.