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On what would have been his 83rd birthday, remembering Al Davis

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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Al Davis was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992. (Getty Images)  
Al Davis was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992. (Getty Images)  

That a memorial in Las Vegas convened on what would have been Al Davis' 83rd birthday is appropriate. Even the Vegas setting -- perhaps incongruous to many, but arguably apt to those who knew Darth Raider well -- seemed likewise fitting.

After all, bedecked in his ubiquitous white or silver jumpsuit, Davis was essentially a strolling-down-the-Vegas-strip caricature. And the man was a gambler, a maverick, a character born in Brooklyn but who could have been bred in a casino, and who for years commanded the kind of spotlight generally reserved for a glitzy, high-roller Vegas production.

There are more significant heroes to commemorate on July 4, even in sports, such as former Arizona safety Pat Tillman, but there should be a few minutes of the day to recall Davis, as well.

Just as his friends and associates did in Las Vegas this week. At least four dozen NFL players were born on the Fourth of July, according to profootball-reference.com, but the most famous NFL personage born on Independence Day is Davis.

Davis died on Oct. 8, and, even nine months after his passing, it still remains a bit of a stunner to a lot of people. Davis' mother, his beloved Rose, lived to 103. Friends and foes alike, citing the longevity component of Davis' DNA, expected him to live forever. They were kidding, we think, but there was a palpable sense that, even if the game had passed the octogenarian Davis by in some ways, he might remain a part of the league's culture in perpetuity.

And so he does.

Not even the figures involved in the New Orleans bounty scandal -- or commissioner Roger Goodell, whose adjudication of the Saints' mess has, probably unfairly, made him the subject of both scorn and respect at the same time -- can supplant Davis as the most polarizing personage in recent league history. But to suggest that Davis' legacy in NFL annals is anything but critical to the league's status as the preeminent sports entity in this or any other time is terribly short-sighted.

It is both ironic and fitting that Davis shared a birthday with another late pro sports owner, the New York Yankees' George Steinbrenner, the two born only a year apart. Both, of course, were pains to the commissioners and mainstream executives in their respective sports. Both contributed immeasurably to the games they loved.

In 1992, the year in which Davis was voted into the Hall of Fame, this correspondent was still years removed from serving on the selection committee. But even as a native of Pittsburgh, who was basically reared demonizing Davis and the Raiders because of their fierce rivalry with the Steelers, I recall lobbying in person and in print for his candidacy. There was a bloc of hard-core loyal NFL traditionalist Hall selectors who vowed to never vote for the rogue Davis. Cooler heads prevailed and, despite his litigious bent and presence as a burr under the NFL's saddle, Davis was chosen for enshrinement.

Even back in '92, there was a favorite suggestion of Hall of Fame selectors, that "the history of the game couldn't be written without including [fill in the blank]," and that hackneyed refrain remains to this day. In the case of Davis, it applies, both good and bad.

Twenty years after Davis' induction, that's still worth remembering.

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