silver and black
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While I missed out on the Raiders of the 1970's, Peter Richmond has given me the next best thing.
John Madden and His Badass Oakland Raiders
Paperback. 358 pp.
2010. It Books/HarperCollins
I am a football orphan.
I love the NFL and, all my life, I have loved the Oakland Raiders. Even as a toddler, I apparently took a liking to the silver and black uniforms and the logo of a pirate with an eyepatch. The only problem was that every single person in my family -- on both sides -- were die-hard San Francisco 49ers fans. My grandfather even had season tickets for the 49ers. No matter who I spent football Sunday with, I was always the outcast because I was a Raiders fan and nobody else that I was related to could stand my favorite team. My grandfather was so loyal to the 49ers that he had a room in his house called the "49er Room", decorated in red and gold, outfitted with a big screen television, a mini refrigerator and two reclining chairs, and devoted to all things 49ers. When I was 9 years old, my grandfather decided that I was old enough to handle going to Candlestick Park in San Francisco with him for a long day of football. My first NFL game was between my grandfather's beloved 49ers and my misfit Raiders. The Raiders won the game and I boasted about it all the way back to Sacramento. Guess who didn't get to go to any more 49er games?
There's always been a mystique about the Raiders, although it has dimmed in the last decade or so due to numerous losing seasons and a carousel of head coaches. Beginning in the 1960's, however, the legendary owner of the Raiders, Al Davis (who died in October 2011), built a team in his own image. There was something rebellious about the team in the late-1960's and throughout the 1970's. They played in gritty Oakland -- only a short skip across the bay from San Francisco, but two cities that have always seemed world's away from one another. The team seemed to be a magnet for the NFL's outcasts. Players that other teams gave up on or who nobody ever gave a chance in the first place found a home in Oakland. While opposing teams and opposing fan bases often saw the Raiders as bad guys, the great Raider teams of the 1970's were really what Peter Richmond calls them, "Badasses".
Since I was born in 1980 (on Super Bowl Sunday, no less), I missed out on the glory years of the Raiders. Since everyone in my family despised my favorite team, nobody was interested in filling me in on those glory years. Instead, they tried to brainwash me into becoming a 49er fan. There are baby photos of me in 49er clothing, but I overcame my family's propaganda! Finally, with Peter Richmond's Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden's Oakland Raiders (2010, It Books/HarperCollins), I've been able to understand the wonderful history of one of the most colorful teams in all of sports.
Richmond writes about the Raiders of the 70's from the perspective of a fan who grew up loving the team despite his decidedly un-Raider upbringing on the East Coast where he attended Princeton and Harvard. The Ivy League is a far cry from Oakland, but in Badasses, Richmond quickly shows that he is a true member of the Raider Nation who bleeds silver and black just like me or Ice Cube or the crazy Raider fans in the Black Hole at the Oakland Coliseum.
Badasses looks at how a young Al Davis, possessing one of the most brilliant football minds of all-time, rose quickly through the coaching ranks, found his way to Oakland, and built a legacy -- first as a coach, then as a managing general partner, and finally, as a veritable dictator once he wrangled the franchise from the majority owners who had brought him to Alameda County. Davis joined the Raiders in 1963 and between his arrival and the Raiders last Super Bowl appearance (a losing effort in 2002), the team only had 7 losing seasons.
The focus of Badasses is on the incarnation of the Raiders led by head coach John Madden. Before Madden was a lovable and legendary broadcaster or the namesake of the most popular video game franchise, he was the gregarious, intense, and incredible successful leader of a team that won a Super Bowl and reached the AFC Championship game on six occasions during a relatively short coaching career. As Richmond shows, there was no better coach for the badass Raiders of the 1970's than John Madden, who somehow managed a wild, rowdy, hard-drinking, party-loving group of fearsome athletes. The Raiders gave opponents nightmares and most authority figures headaches, but Madden's focus was on winning and having fun, and it was the perfect strategy for his teams.
Richmond interviewed many of the most important pieces of the Raiders puzzle -- Al Davis, Madden, Ken Stabler, Fred Biletnikoff, Willie Brown, George Atkinson, Jack Tatum, Ted Hendricks, Phil Villapiano, Pete Banaszak, and others -- in order to get to the bottom of what made a team full of unique, often very strange athletes come together and become one of the greatest teams in NFL history. Badasses is a perfect title for the book, but Richmond also writes about how hard the team worked and how the team's culture was built around having fun but also the famous Davis motto of "Just win, baby". The Badasses were a football club full of heart who never forgot that they were playing a game, yet never settled for anything less than being the best.
With loads of funny stories, Badasses would stand alone if it solely focused on the personalities of the players, but Richmond also recounts the grueling battles between Oakland and their hated rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and other great teams of the 70's like the Miami Dolphins, the New England Patriots, and the Kansas City Chiefs, culminating with a commanding victory over Fran Tarkenton's Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI following the 1976 season.
There aren't football teams like the badass Raiders of the 1970's anymore, and there are rarely sports books like Peter Richmond's Badasses. I may have been born too late to have experienced the glory years of these Raider teams, but with Badasses, it's almost as if Richmond has transported me back to the noisy, raucous Oakland Coliseum so that I could see for myself as "The Assassin" Jack Tatum and Foo Villapiano smashed an opposing receiver, cheer as Rooster Banaszak or Marv Hubbard rumbled behind blocks from Hall of Famer offensive linemen like Gene Upshaw and Art Shell, and get fired up by the charismatic, fun-loving Coach Madden. Badasses is a wonderful book -- for sports fans and for those who enjoy stories about fascinating people. While I missed out on the Raiders of the 1970's, Peter Richmond has given me the next best thing.
Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden's Oakland Raiders is available now from It Books/HarperCollins. You can order the book from Amazon, or download it instantly for your Kindle. Peter Richmond has written several books and contributed to GQ, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times Magazine. His website is peterrichmond.com.
Anthony Bergen, Senior Literary Editor: Anthony Bergen is a writer and Presidential historian based in Sacramento, California. His historical work has been published by numerous outlets and historical associations including pieces for the New Hampshire Historical Society's Franklin Pierce Bicentennial, ConsiderableThoughts.com and the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration. Anthony has also been a contributing joke-writer for several touring stand-up comedians and "The KiddChris Show" on Portland's KUFO FM.