When I was growing up, two villains made huge impressions on me: Darth Vader and Al Davis.
The movies, of course, need villains to move the plot forward. Screenwriters know that a great antagonist is the one who makes the hero’s journey worth taking. Without a villain to conquer, a hero would be left sitting around patting himself on the back.
The same is true of sports. Conquering foes on the way to a championship is what makes winning it so gratifying. And for 5 decades, Al Davis embraced the dark side like no one had ever done before. He knew that having a team every other fan base cheered against was good for the game; and he wanted the Raiders to be that team.
As the figurehead of the franchise, he played the role of the ultimate villain, just like Darth Vader.
First of all, they both looked the part. Vader’s outfit may be the most famous costume in film history, but Al Davis did his best to dress just as memorably. As former Raiders executive Mike Lombardi explains in A Football Life, Al wore his white jumpsuits and black turtlenecks because he was actively marketing the Raiders. He was branding the team and considered villainy to be part of that brand.
Secondly, they both had a plan. Vader wanted to destroy the Rebel Alliance and Al Davis wanted to destroy every other team in the league. Thing is, Al Davis succeeded. From the time I was born in 1974 to my 10th birthday, Davis and the Raiders won three Super Bowls. For some teams, they call that a dynasty. When it was the Raiders, it made the rest of the NFL cringe.
The other thing about villains is that underneath their tough exterior, they’re capable of truly generous acts. By all accounts, Al Davis was a loyal friend and a giving philanthropist.
That humanity was often missed because the persona of a great villain invokes fear. Based on the one time I met Al Davis, I can promise you that he had a presence as intimidating as Darth Vader’s.
Actually, I didn’t meet him – I only saw him from across the room. This was at the 2005 Hall of Fame ceremonies, where he presented John Madden for enshrinement (it was Davis’ 9th time as a presenter – by far the most in HOF history.) I was at a cocktail party and had no problem talking with imposing figures like Jack Youngblood and Deacon Jones – but I couldn’t work up the courage to approach Al Davis.
Now I wish I had, because Al may have been the last of his kind: someone who embraced the role of villain, accepted the negatives that came with it and made few attempts to hide or apologize for “The Raider Way.”
Maybe the days of Darth Vader and Al Davis are gone. But I wonder if the world would be a better place if it was still as easy to identify villains as it used to be.