With the passing of Buffalo Bills superfan Ezra Castro AKA Pancho Billa, the NFL fandom was reminded just how fragile life can be. Fans and players of all teams came together to mourn a man that loved his team, family, & everyone that came in contact with him.
Thirty nine years is not enough for most people, but in those years Ezra gave a lifetime worth of kindness and love. After every kind act shown to him, Ezra was shocked & often humbled at the kindness that people gave him. He never got that people thought he was a big deal and downplayed his importance. In a social media world where the need for attention and self importance is the norm, Ezra was a regular guy and a breath of fresh air.
When Greg Dresko and I did our podcast with Ezra, it was obvious he did not feel good but he rarely cancelled anything. Even on his bad days he would do interviews with a smile. After our podcast I created a prayer night for him that Greg & I promoted. Literally thousands of people got involved praying for Pancho and all of those battling cancer. We did a second one not too long ago that was also greatly supported. People really cared and it was inspiring.
Buffalo was the perfect team for Ezra. It is a team that is set back in the time of the old AFL. A team that has not yet been ruined by the greed of NFL owners who’s only loyalty is to the money they can make. They have an old stadium, the second lowest ticket prices in the NFL, and a raucous loyal fan base. While everyone else changed, Buffalo didn’t. It is a special place.
With fancy, expensive stadiums pricing out many fans, the Bills are stuck in a wonderful time warp that allows for a foundation that continues to come to the games year after year. A loyal following that braves bitter cold and wind to support their Bills. From Jack Kemp to Joe Ferguson, to Jim Kelly to Andre Reed, the Bills rich tradition is steeped in a blue collar us against the world mentality. What an amazing place.
I don’t think any fan base or team other than Buffalo could have survived losing 4 Super Bowls while still coming back with dignity and grace. Through all of the jokes and taunting, winning 4 conference championships is still among one of the greatest achievements in NFL history & they are very proud of it.
Ezra & the Spirit of Buffalo:
In true Buffalo Bill spirit, Pancho Billa battled until the end. Just like Steve Tasker making an amazing play in a Super Bowl that had long been lost, Ezra never gave up. Adversity was what Ezra faced each day after being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Even in his darkest days he would show a positive, caring spirit that inspired so many. We DM’d each other on Twitter and his last message to me was a smiling emoji with a halo over his head. He knew. He also though remained positive asking people to never quit praying for a miracle. Giving up was never an option.
In reality the biggest gift Pancho Billa gave to people was the way he handled his illness. Even with social media bringing out the worst in people, he showed a spirit of pride and kindness that touched so many. He remained positive at the worst of times inspiring us all to not take ourselves too seriously. In a world where many get angry at the drop of a hat, he showed a calm passion and compassion for others during his fight.
The Power of NFL Fans:
Ezra reminded NFL fans everywhere that we are not gang members or part of a football militia that should hate anything not affiliated with our teams. He showed that in reality we are all on the same team of life and that football is a fun outlet & family to belong to. Happiness, health & supporting each other during the best and worst of times is what life is about. We all saw how our hearts are more powerful than any owners money or new stadium. It’s about the fans and the amazing relationships that we create from being fans. The simplest of things.
How I’ll Remember Ezra & You:
What I’ll remember most about Ezra, was how he brought everyone together. For a moment in time fans in New England and Oakland were on the same team. Dallas and Philly fans prayed for a miracle together and people began to realize all of the petty arguments and hate was not what being a fan was about. It’s a willingness to help when hope is hard to find, and being there to support and love someone during great times as well as their darkest hour.
Many of you have really touched me with your sincerity and compassion and I’m very proud of everyone. Your kindness touched Ezra and helped him and his family get through such an unspeakable tragedy. As much of a gift people felt Pancho was, he felt the same about you. He brought out the best in all of us and it sure felt good.
How to Keep His Legacy Alive:
If you really want to keep his legacy alive, lets be like him. Give as much as you can to others and show kindness with a calm spirit. As Ezra once said, “don’t bring flowers to my funeral. I hate flowers. Bring backpacks full of school supplies for kids”. Think of others first, and show love and appreciation and support to one another. Most of all do it without judgement or opinion. Love completely without complete understanding. What an amazing legacy that would be. And nothing would be more pleasing to the great Pancho Billa.
After the last Super Bowl, I made a decision to write more on a national level. Even though I knew something on every team, I realized I had to have in depth knowledge on all of them so I’ve spent the last 6 months analyzing each team.
As many of my new followers are finding out, I think for myself. I’m not a homer and I just don’t go by what others say. I actually try to do research and base my decisions on facts and not hope or any biases I may have. It doesn’t matter if I like or dislike the player or the team; I tell it like it is. In today’s sports world that is rare, and at times not very popular but that’s why people follow me. Be entertaining, be right, and be honest I say.
First off I love history and I LOVE the AFL. It was before my time but I’m fascinated by it and Buffalo was definitely a part of those AFL days. They’ve also put their stamp on the modern game as well. From Jack Kemp to Joe Ferguson to Joe DeLamielleure to Jim Kelly, the Bills have an amazing tradition. John Madden says to this day if an old AFL team gets into the Super Bowl, surviving members of the AFL will often call them before the game to wish them luck. It still matters.
Even though a dreaded ex is from upstate NY, I’ve learned to really appreciate the people there. Resilient and hearty and they love their football. When it comes to the NFL it’s hard to find better fans. With some of the worst weather in the country, to be a football fan in Buffalo means to be there through wind, rain or snow. I’ve forgiven Scott Norwood but boy I wish they would have won one of those Super Bowls.
When I began looking into the Buffalo Bills 2018-19 season a few months ago, it was amazing for me to see how so many national publications and writers had them doing so badly in 2018. Sports Illustrated was the harshest. They eventually had the Bills going 2-14 and getting the #1 pick for next years draft after being the worst team in the NFL. I read other national publications and they didn’t have much better of a tale. Even biased Bills fans that were writers were not very happy with their prospects. I decided to again, look into the Bills of 2018-19 to see if I had missed something because I never thought they were that bad. Let’s take a look at their position players and see if we can figure out if they are as bad as the experts say and if I dropped the ball on this one.
How to Prognosticate a Teams Season:
The problem with 90% of prognosticators in my opinion is that they only look at how good the team is. I think it’s more complicated than that. I think you evaluate an upcoming season by 3 things; how good is the team, how tough is their schedule, and how tough is their division. Take the Raiders for instance. Two years ago they had the second easiest schedule in the NFL and went 12-4. They won a lot of close games against a lot of bad teams. Last year they had the second hardest schedule and went 6-10. Let’s face it, if you have a bad game it’s a lot easier to beat the Cleveland Browns than the Eagles or Patriots. Now lets look at these 3 things in regards to the Bills.
The Bills signed free agent AJ McCarron. Most feel he’s a stopgap for the Bills and I agree. I see him more as a backup than a starter but he will do in a pinch. I never thought Nathan Peterman was much of a prospect to start in the NFL, but wow I still remember his game at Death Valley when Pittsburgh beat Clemson for their only loss of the year. Tyrod Taylor was never the answer in my mind and the Bills agreed, but is Josh Allen?
There are two camps for Josh Allen; those that think he will do well, and those that think he has bust written all over him. I personally think he was a horrible pick but time will tell. In his last year at Wyoming he was average at best. Three times he threw for under 92 yards in a game and only once did he throw for over 234 yards and that was against Gardner-Webb University. I just don’t get how a QB can be average in a smaller college conference and then all of a sudden be a world beater in the NFL. Again, time will tell who is right. He has a powerful arm and that can’t be debated, but accuracy and reading defenses will be his challenge.
ESPN did a great article showing just how bad the NFL experts and teams had become in drafting players and the position they drafted the worst was quarterback. If you are tall and have a big arm, it seems that you are an NFL QB prospect.
I still remember years ago being kicked off of a large Oakland Raiders website for pointing out how newly drafted Jamarcus Russell was going to be a big bust because he struggled so badly against pro style defenses in the SEC. Three years later that site apologized to me and asked me to come back (always follow people that are right most of the time). That being said I think McCarron handles the QB position for at least part of the year if not most of it. Injuries do happen though and I’m sure Allen will play some this year.
In the last 3 years, Buffalo’s running backs have lead the entire NFL with 4.6 yards per carry. New offensive coordinator Brian Daboll will have to rely on LeSean McCoy to man this offense like he did last year. McCoy is still one of the best in the league. A very underrated signing that Bills writers need to talk more about is the signing of veteran Chris Ivory. He’s a physical runner who makes plays and is a great backup for McCoy.
If Kelvin Benjamin is your third option you have a nice array of WR’s but when he’s the #1 option, you may have problems. The wildcard is Zay Jones who has been a huge disappointment so far and had a bizarre domestic issue to deal with. Tight Ends Charles Clay and Nick O’Leary will definitely get their targets with a very average group of veteran WR’s in the fold.
Here is where most experts say the Bills are in trouble. Some feel versatile Ryan Groy will take over at center if newly signed Russell Bodine doesn’t work out. Bodine didn’t exactly wow the NFL starting for the Bengals. After guard John Miller struggled and was benched, Vlad Ducasse took over at right guard for the rest of the season and played fairly well, but in the spring he’s been at mostly left guard. If Groy goes to center, Ducasse will be a key player at the guard position. Rookie Dion Dawkins played well at left tackle last year. There are still questions on who plays where and the pre season will clear that up.
Now let’s look at the bright spots of the Bills and it starts with the DL. The Bills way overpaid for DL Star Lotulelei, but he’s good against the run and that was a weakness last year for the Bills. Harrison Phillips out of Stanford was a sleeper pick in the third round. As with most Cardinals, he is well coached, physical and makes plays. He’s not much of a pass rusher but he’s excellent stopping the run. I love this pick and with he and Star in the game, running against Buffalo probably just got a lot tougher. Bill’s fans will love Phillips personality as well. He was a fan favorite at Stanford.
Kyle Williams has lost a step but he’s still an excellent player. Trent Murphy has to get healthy but he can help if and when he gets on the field. Shaq Lawson is the key. The hopes are for him to have a breakout season to help the pass rush and I like him to improve his numbers.
Buffalo traded up for Tremaine Edmunds and head coach Sean McDermott has handed the keys of the defense over to the 20 year old. Edmunds was an uber athlete at Virginia Tech with an amazing football IQ. As a kid he actually began breaking down film with his father, ex NFL tight-end Ferrell Edmunds. The Bills hope he will be a mainstay at MLB for years to come. Matt Milano was a pleasant surprise and he will man the left side spot and hope to continue to improve. The right side will be wide open for competition with 34-year-old Lorenzo Alexander hoping to start.
The Bills have excellent versatility with safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer leading the way. They are good in coverage and against the run. Tre’Davious White had a great rookie year and he can only get better. Vontae Davis was signed in the off-season and is recovering from groin surgery which sidelined him for much of last year. With the depth of the Bills DB’s, this will be one of the best groups in the NFL if Davis can regain form.
I like their coaching staff, and if they can stop the run and put consistent pressure on the QB, this could be a really good defense. There are a lot of holes in their offense and that is going to be an issue off and on all year.
Schedule & Division:
Now the bad news. The first 8 games of the Bills schedule are brutal. They will have road games with Baltimore, Green Bay, Minnesota, and Houston, and then have home games with New England, San Diego and Tennessee. If some how and some way the Bills can go 3-5 or 4-4, they could get into the playoffs. In the final 8 games, they have very winnable contests playing the Jets and Dolphins twice each, and hosting the Bears and the Lions. They will also host Jacksonville and play at New England.
The AFC East scares no one outside of New England and even they are not the same team they once were. The Patriots should win the division but the Bills could sneak into the playoffs with some breaks and a huge year by their offense. These are all big ifs. If Tom Brady gets hurt or breaks down at 41 years old, this division is very wide open.
At 9-7 last year, the Bills snapped a 17-year playoff drought but it wasn’t as magical as some are laying it out to be. The AFC last year was not very good and it took a miracle 50-yard TD pass by Bengals QB Andy Dalton on 4th and 12 with 49 seconds to go in Baltimore for the Bills to get in.
That being said I see a 7-9 season. I think if McCarron plays over his head and they get some momentum in the first half of the season, a miracle playoff journey could happen with a 9-7 record. Worst-case scenario is they tank in the first 6 games and struggle the rest of the way and go 5-11. With this defense I doubt that happens. The Bills are also one of those teams that always seem to have their share of injuries and bad luck so it could get ugly fast if they don’t stay healthy.
That first half schedule though is a killer and you will know what kind of season the Bills will have after week 6. Next year the Josh Allen show will start and you will see what the near future will hold. It won’t be pretty but the Bill’s hope to shock all the experts and grind out as many wins as possible in 2018-19 in the hopes for another taste at the post season. Everyone in the AFC has some sort of issue so there is much hope in Buffalo. This is the NFL kids and even though it may look like a pipe dream, crazier things have happened.
With the announcement of Oakland Raiders star pass rusher Khalil Mack’s hold out, some began to worry if there was a possibility the Raiders may eventually lose Mack after this season. I love social media and it already has many comments on the subject. Some are tweeting Mack is done with the Raiders and others are saying he won’t be there week 1. As we always do, let’s be realistic about this situation.
I said after the Super Bowl that if I was Khalil Mack, I would not play another play without a long term deal. If Mack plays the last year of his contract and gets hurt, he will lose money, and maybe a lot of it.
Some said that they want Mack to just show up and play because he is making a good salary now but that would be ridiculous. At 27 years old, this will be Mack’s biggest contract signing of his career, so he needs to cash in on it big time.
Last year the Rams all world DT Aaron Donald held out until the day before the season started wanting a new contract. Rams fans/writers were losing their minds saying he ruined his season and he was done in Los Angeles. After a few weeks Donald was back to form terrorizing offenses while being double teamed most of the year. I do agree that it remains to be seen if the Rams burned a bridge with him but the hopes there is that they can work out a long term deal.
Le’Veon Bell didn’t show up for Pittsburgh until September 1st and after a sluggish start, began to dominate in week 4 becoming maybe the best all around RB in the NFL. After the season ended, ridiculous rumors started popping up that the Raiders were in the lead to get Bell. I reminded a national writer and several local writers that this was nonsense. For a year Pittsburgh said that they were going to franchise Bell and that was that. Well, that is exactly what happened.
You have to think these things through and not just throw things on the wall to get a rise out of people. Thus when you hear rumors, read the people you trust and do your own homework and see that most rumors are nothing to worry about.
The Reggie McKenzie Factor:
Just like with Derek Carr, Reggie McKenzie isn’t the type to want to wait until the last second to sign a player. They want to sign Mack quickly before his final year begins. Both sides are reasonable, want to have a relationship, and feel good about getting it done. Remember that Derek Carr signed on June 22nd of last year so there is no need to panic. I would not overreact to all of the nasty nipping and fighting that may occur during these types of negotiations. When a deal is done, most everything is forgiven no matter how nasty the negotiations.
Last year in a nice interview with NBC Bay Area, Mack stated that he knows this is a business. He also said he wanted to be a Raider for life and that it’s a no-brainer for him to stay with Oakland for the rest of his career. Mack has shown himself to be honest and level headed. Nothing has changed and I see Mack signing something long term most likely sooner than later.
Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald are playing a cat and mouse game to see who signs first, so the other player can get an idea of what to ask for. As for head coach Jon Gruden, he just wants him on the field again. Even in a couple of press conferences this week, Gruden said that what the Raiders do in contracts is private, but he said they would like to have Mack back signed as quickly as possible and he’s hopeful they can reach an agreement. He also commented that part of coming back as a coach was to coach for Mack.
Should Raider fans be worried right now? No. If I was Mack I’d hold out until the season started if needed, and then I’d tell the Raiders the time to talk ended and I’m opting out for free agency at the end of the season. Of course during the season I’d still be negotiating and trying to sign a deal.
I personally think Mack will sign in late June or even July. I don’t think it could play out until August but who knows. Either way I’d be shocked and stunned if he kept holding out. It’s the same thing I told fans back when Derek Carr signed and people got worried. If Khalil doesn’t have a contract after the season starts then I’d worry, but even then I wouldn’t lose my mind.
The Raiders are not going to be pushovers and just cave in to his demands but as long as he’s not hurt, Mack is holding all of the aces. With him there are still some big questions on defense for the Raiders but without him there are HUGE issues. The Raiders are not going to let him go because they need him big time. This is not Jr. High School loyalty folks, this is the NFL and it’s business. In the end I see Mack playing for the Raiders for a long, long time and I’d worry more about other things in life like what you are having for dinner and who will win the World Cup.
The NFL draft has always been fascinating to me. It’s an amazing thing to see how teams choose who they want to create the foundation of their team. It’s not a coincidence though that with the greatness of the Raiders of the 1960’s into early 1980’s, most of their drafts were excellent getting at least 2 good starters in many drafts. Director of Player Personnel Ron Wolf was a key element of these drafts and he is now in the HOF. As John Madden said, “Al listened to only one person and that was Ron Wolf”.
To establish a great team you have to have excellent drafts. Back in the day, a guy that could scout and pick out a good player was worth their weight in gold. A recent ESPN study showed just how bad the NFL teams of today draft, especially missing on so many QB’s that it’s ruined some franchises for years. In the olden days they relied on game films and occasional interviews with the players and their coaches. Now they over analyze and see things that aren’t there and refuse to see things that are. Paralysis by analysis. If you look at something long enough you begin to see flaws.
For now though, and look to the draft picks that did work out well often leading to wins and championships.
#5: 1974 Draft:
1st Henry Lawrence T
2nd Dave Casper TE
3rd Mark Van Eeghen
4th Morris Bradshaw
Henry Lawrence was a pillar in the OL for 13 years for the Raiders with much of it being as a starter. He has 3 Super Bowl rings and in the last 2 Raider titles he was a starting tackle. Dave Casper is a HOF player and was one of the best all around tight ends in history. With his tough and physical blocking and his amazing hands; Casper, Biletnikoff, Cliff Branch, and Ken Stabler made one of the greatest passing combinations of all time.
Mark Van Eeghen took over for Marv Hubbard and could do it all. He wasn’t fast, but he was amazing at following his blockers and soon became one of the best all around RB’s in the NFL. A great pass catcher, Mark also was a key pass protector for his ability to pick up blitzing LB’s. Even though he ran for over 1,000 yards in the 1976 season, Oakland’s game plan was for Mark to be the lead blocker for most of the game and the speedy Clarence Davis (who ran for 516 yards the same year) would get the bulk of the carries against an older Minnesota Vikings team. The plan worked to perfection as Mark had an amazing game blocking and Davis ran 16 times for 137 yards. Van Eeghen ran for 73 yards and the Raiders rushed for 266 yards which is still the 3rd highest Super Bowl rushing game in history. You wonder if players of today would sacrifice like that.
In the 4th Round the Raiders got WR Morris Bradshaw who became a key member of their special teams unit for 8 years. He also was a part time starter with his best year being 1978 when he caught 40 passes for 552 yards.
#4: 1972 Draft:
1st Mike Siani WR
2nd John Vella OL
4th Cliff Branch WR
4th Dave Dalby OL
7th Alonzo “Skip” Thomas DB
To be honest you could interchange the #4 and #3 drafts and still have winners. What a problem to have. Mike Siani was a poor man’s Fred Biletnikoff and while he never lived up to his #1 status, he was a vital contributor in the Raiders passing game with many key pass catches in important games. John Vella and Dave Dalby were part of what many consider the greatest offensive line of all time. Their size and toughness wore opponents down. Dr. Death Skip Thomas was a key member of the famous “Soul Patrol” that many feel is the greatest defensive backfield in NFL history.
Cliff Branch will eventually get into the Hall of Fame but he remains one of the greatest deep threats the NFL has ever seen. During a talk show Raiders great Ken Stabler said, “I had a great offensive line, Casper, Biletnikoff who caught anything and Cliff Branch who could outrun half of the cars in the parking lot”. This amazing draft class is just another reason why the Raiders were so dominating.
#3: 1977 Draft:
2nd Mike Davis
4th Mickey Marvin
5th Lester Hayes
5th Jeff Barnes
8th Terry Robiskie
12th Rod Martin
Maybe this draft didn’t have the iconic talent of other drafts, but it definitely filled a lot of holes with excellent players. Mike Davis was a key member at safety and his interception against the Cleveland Browns in the playoffs helped propel the Raiders to eventually win a Super Bowl. Mickey Marvin was an excellent OL for years. Lester Hayes started out slow, but eventually became one of the best cover corners in the game and should be in the HOF. Jeff Barnes and Rod Martin were excellent LB’s that helped the Raiders shore up their defense after the Villapiano, Willie Hall and Monte Johnson era. Terry Robiskie was a great special teams player and backup RB.
#2: 1971 Draft:
1st Jack Tatum DB
2nd Phil Villapiano LB
4th Clarence Davis
5th Bob Moore
12th Horace Jones
“They changed the rules because of Tatum and Atkinson”, said HOF QB Fran Tarkenton on San Francisco’s KNBR radio. “The 5 yard chuck rule was created because of them and the other Raiders DB’s because the WR’s literally could not get off of the line against them. They were so physically imposing and strong.”
Jack Tatum hit harder than any DB in history and should no doubt be in the HOF. Phil Villapiano said, “Tatum’s shots just sounded different. His hits sounded like a car wreck”. George Atkinson added, “I once saw Jack hit Denver’s Riley Odoms so hard that I thought he killed him. It sounded like a car wreck”. He was a star at Ohio St. where Woody Hayes loved his hard hitting style and instinct to be where he needed to be, and he brought that to the Oakland Raiders. Jack’s timing was unmatched. If it wasn’t for the Darryl Stingley hit, Tatum would already be in the HOF. RIP to both of them.
A huge get was Phil Villapiano. Supposedly an undersized LB out of Bowling Green, most teams had him as being too small. Almost everyone had him as a possible 3rd round pick, but most had him going into the 4th round. The Raiders; who were the only team that would not share information with other teams; picked him in the second round. They knew that Phil was really 225 and not the 210 that everyone else said he was. Villapiano became a key element shoring up their back 7 on defense. He could tackle and stop the run, and with his lateral speed and timing he was a great pass defender. There are many that feel Phil should be in the HOF as well. His personality and fun spirit is classic Raider. The below video shows Phil Villapiano leading the Raiders on and off the field.
Clarence Davis was a fast and clutch player. His catch in the famous “Sea of Hands” game and his amazing performances in post season including his 137 yards rushing in the Super Bowl win against Minnesota are immortalized. Bob Moore was a solid NFL back up tight end and Horace Jones was an important defensive starter for four of the 5 years he played for the Raiders.
#1: 1968 Draft:
2nd Ken Stabler QB
3rd Art Shell T
4th Charlie Smith RB
7th George Atkinson DB
11th Marv Hubbard
Now finally the greatest draft in Oakland Raiders history, the 1968 draft. If you can draft 2 quality starters in your draft, usually your draft is considered pretty good. Draft 5 key starters and 2 Hall of Famer’s and I’d say your draft was awesome.
In 1967 the Raiders drafted HOF guard Gene Upshaw who would help anchor an amazing offensive line. In 1968, they chose other big pieces that would lay a foundation for their success in the 1970’s.
This draft was the key to the Raiders success in the 60’s and 70’s and this draft topped them all. They now had one of the greatest QB’s in history in Ken Stabler, and another HOF player on the OL in Art Shell. With Charlie Smith and Marv Hubbard they had a set of starting RB’s that could run and catch the ball. All 4 players were big parts of the success of the Raiders in the 1970’s and late 1960’s.
Then oh by the way add 7th round pick George Atkinson who was considered too small to be a full time safety. What teams didn’t get is that Atkinson was as tough as nails, hit like a ton of bricks, had a bad attitude on the field and was as fast as lightning. Early in his career he was a great kick returner on both punts and kickoffs and held records for a number of years in the return game. He was also the voice of the famous “Soul Patrol” defensive backfield.
So there you have it. These are the 5 greatest draft classes in Raiders history. The hope of all fans is that their favorite teams draft choices will reach their full potential and step up to be great players. In the following years we will find out how the draft choices of the new millennium rank. History shows us that if you consistently draft poorly, you will eventually erode your foundation and have to start over. If you excel in the draft, you create a winning team for years to come. When the Raiders had great drafts, they succeeded and were the winningest franchise in U.S. sports. When they didn’t, they failed and struggled breaking records for futility. Here’s to a future of great draft picks and great success to this amazing franchise.
Al Davis has been called many things. Innovator, rebel, leader, dictator; and many other things that are not for print. One thing many will remember him for though is as a civil rights leader. Al Davis had one goal in sports; winning. And because of that spirit, he didn’t care what color or sex you were. Just win baby.
Davis Stand against Racism in the 1960’s; The AFL makes history in a boycott:
The 1960’s was a heck of a time. It had a lot of turmoil due to military conflicts and racial injustice. From the college game to the NFL game, there were still many fans, coaches and administrators that didn’t like having blacks on their teams. We applaud the storied Alabama football program for it’s winning today but we forget it didn’t integrate black players until 1971 when John Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson first played for the Crimson Tide. Even though the civil rights bill threatening to take away federal funding to schools that discriminated against African Americans was enacted in 1964, it took years for some schools to comply. In fact, even though they have tried to hide it, look at the Mormon Church and BYU’s history in the 1970’s in regards to race. Quite a read.
The same was seen at a smaller level in pro football. Even though there were many African American players, they were not welcomed by everyone with open arms. Al Davis really helped in opening doors for many people.
The AFL and Al Davis especially were different. In a 1963 exhibition game in Mobile, Alabama, Al Davis demanded the contest be moved to Oakland because he was not going to separate his players in segregated hotels. He also tried to do this in many other games through the 1960’s. When Raiders outspoken star Clem Daniels complained about the way black players were treated at the 1965 AFL All-Star game in New Orleans, Al Davis supported them when they voted to boycott the game unless it was moved. Other owners and commissioner Joe Foss joined the outcry. Even many white players including Ron Mix stated that they would no longer play in the game if it stayed in New Orleans. The organizer of the All-Star game went so far as to tell the minority players that they and their families were welcome in New Orleans but that was far from the case. African American players were left stranded at the airport with some not being able to get taxi’s while others were not allowed to go into restaurants and bars in the french quarter due to the color of their skin. Eventually the game was moved to Houston and even though it was a spur of the moment thing, Houston did a good job of hosting. AFL Commissioner Joe Foss wrote a letter to the people of Houston thanking them for the classy way they supported the AFL’s players. The actual letter is below. Pretty cool letterhead.
African American Colleges Play a Big Role in Player Drafts:
When he took over for the Raiders, Davis was one of the first to specifically target black/small colleges. Some of the greatest Raiders were from small or black colleges including Hall of Famer’s Gene Upshaw ( Texas A & I) and Art Shell (Maryland St.). Both Hall of Fame players were thought of as somewhat risky picks because they were from schools that were too small or too abstract.
When Raiders all world WR Warren Wells was in Texas state prison serving time, the Raiders had an important team celebration. Mr. Davis contacted the state of Texas stating that he would pay for security for Warren to attend, but the state denied the request. It didn’t matter that Warren was an African American to Al Davis. What was important was that he was a Raider.
The Good Old Boys Network Get’s a Shakeup:
When Davis hired Art Shell to be the first African American head coach, it had broken down decades of prejudice. It was groundbreaking and even today name all of the GM’s in the NFL that are African American or Hispanic? There aren’t very many, but of course the Raiders have one of them in Reggie McKenzie. Al Davis also hired the first Hispanic head coach in Tom Flores, and the first female executive in Amy Trask. If he thought you could do the job, he didn’t care if you were a blue smurf, he would hire you.
In an episode of HBO’s amazing series “Real Sports”, they talked about the lack of support and care for retired NFL players. One owner had an idea of building a hospital in Utah or another inexpensive state for the retired players that would be funded by the NFL retirement plan through the profits of the league. Who was the owner that created the plan and was the only one that voted yes for it? Al Davis.
There have been many white owners, coaches and players in pro footballs history who have done their part in helping to cross the barriers of prejudice and hate. None of them though did it with the confidence, fire and flare that Al Davis did. On the field Mr. Davis didn’t want to lose and he didn’t want to tie. He wanted one thing and that was to win. And if you could help the Raiders get to that goal, he wanted you and you were a Raider brother for life no matter what your religion or race was. Especially in today’s America, wouldn’t it be nice if that was the way things were?
Sadly we still have a long way to go in eliminating hate and prejudice, but it’s people like Martin Luther King Jr.; and to an extent Al Davis; that gets us closer to that goal. I know today is MLK day but on this day I always think of Mr. Davis. From Terry Bradshaw to Derrick Thomas to the countless number of players from other teams that he supported during bad times, Mr. Davis really cared about them. The football world is not as fun without Mr. Davis but few see his other side because like most men his age, they didn’t want the attention it gave. The thing that everyone in football knows about Al Davis is that even though he loved the Raiders tough, renegade image, he had an awful soft heart under that ugly white jumpsuit.
When Ken Norton was released from being the defensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders, it started the ball rolling. According to some reporters, the ball is still rolling.
With Offensive coordinator Todd Downing being the scapegoat to all of the Raiders offensive problems, he is probably gone. He definitely didn’t do a good job, but there was a lot of blame to go around. People forget the main reason to hiring him was to make Derek Carr happy before negotiations to his huge contract. Carr loved the hire. Todd Downing was not ready for the job but it is what it is.
The blame is also being given to OL coach Mike Tice now which is puzzling. He’s a good coach and I feel something is fishy here and we will talk about this in a bit.
Going back to Downing, Some complained about the play calling but Derek Carr has the final say on what plays are called. He can audible any time he wishes but usually doesn’t. You can’t blame Downing without giving blame to Carr. And that’s the tip of the iceberg on offense and defense.
Is Del Rio Still The Answer?:
When JDR was hired, only a few would say that the hiring of Jack Del Rio was not as great as many thought. Most Raider fans loved Jack Del Rio; “in Reggie we trust; in Jack we trust!” was all you heard all off season on social media. Now the same loyal soldiers are carrying pitchforks and torches.
As is the norm, I took ton of heat for my article on Jack Del Rio when he was hired but many of the things I warned fans about are now coming to fruition. It was a safe hire but there were many others I liked more.
To refresh our memories, Jack Del Rio went through 19 coaches during his 9 years at Jacksonville. Usually when coaches are fired and the head coach isn’t, that means the blame is being put on the coaches instead of the head coach. (Insert Mike Tice’s name here). In 2016 when Mike McCoy kept his job for the Chargers, most of his staff was fired. John Pagano the defensive coordinator of the Raiders was one of them. Frank Reich the Offensive coordinator of the Eagles was also fired by the Chargers, who before their Qb’s injury was the #1 offense in the NFL. His staff was sliced and diced but Mike McCoy Survived another year before he was fired.
Gary Radnich of KNBR 680 and KRONTV fame, is a media icon in the bay area and he never says insider information unless he has facts to back them. When Norton was fired Gary said he knew people in the Raiders front office and there were grumblings about Del Rio. The complaints were mostly about the same issues he had at Jacksonville. Jack was a control freak and didn’t let the coordinators or other coaches do what they wanted. Jack also manipulated people so that he deferred blame to some players and coaches when things didn’t go well. The magical kingdom was crumbling.
The question is will the Raiders give Jack Del Rio three years of free money to go away and get nothing in return? It’s hard to think they will do this but crazier things have happened.
Every teams fan base is pretty much the same. The New York Giants fans last year raved about their front office and coaching staff when they made the playoffs. Now after a terrible season, the fans want their entire front office fired; which most will; even though this was the same coaching staff that lead them to the playoffs last year. I guess they all have Alzheimer’s now and forgot how to coach. The fact that they had more injuries than any other team in the NFL might be more of the reason but that would be too easy. Many fans give all the credit to the players when they win, and all the blame to the coaches when they lose. And if the player is on the field but not playing well, then he has to be hurt. Personally I don’t get it.
And the fact that the Raiders played the 2nd easiest schedule in the NFL last year and had to struggle to barely beat some of these teams with 7 last minute wins means nothing I’m sure. This year they had the 2nd toughest schedule. There are many other reasons but I’ve talked about it at nausea in previous articles. Firing Downing is not going to bring a Super Bowl to Oakland.
Will Jack Del Rio Survive:
As I said previously, it’s hard to think that the Raiders will pay Jack Del Rio 3 years of salary to go away. I think he gets one more year. They have other problems too. The Raiders are near the poorest team in the NFL. The Las Vegas stadium is a mess. If the new GOP tax plan passes, it eliminates any public funds to be used for NFL stadiums. This means the Raiders would have to somehow be grandfathered in, but that will take time and may never happen. That means they may now have to come up with 750 million more dollars. It could get ugly real quick.
At the end of last year there was so much hope, and now there is lots of turmoil. This is the era of the salary cap and this is how things can change so quickly. With the Raiders making changes and getting an easier schedule next year, I see them coming back and having a good season. In reality I hope this makes more fans appreciate the 3 Super Bowl Titles the Raider greats of the past won. Daryle Lamonica was 40-4-1 in his first 45 starts as the Raiders QB. Ken Stabler was 56-13 in his first 69 starts. Oakland was 18-1-1 in their first 20 Monday night games. That’s why the Raiders of the past are so revered. It’s not that easy folks.
On December 15th, 1968; the craziest Christmas story ever told occurred. And to think, this story almost was never known. In fact until Howard Cosell released the news and showed some footage on his weekly show, hardly anyone outside of Philadelphia even knew it happened. After Cosell reported it, it had a mind of it’s own and it became a part of football lore.
A Miserable Day:
It was a miserable cold December day in Philadelphia, and the fans were not in a good mood. To be honest fans in Philadelphia are rarely in a good mood but they had reason this time. Their fans are unlike any other fan base in sports. They might be the smartest in the U.S., but they also will go off in a heartbeat if they feel things aren’t going well. Fans that day had arrived to over a ½ foot to a foot of snow on their seats in old Franklin Field. In true Philly fashion, 54,000 die hard Eagles fans came to see one of the worst teams in the NFL on a terrible winter day.
A few weeks earlier there was joy with many fans thinking the Eagles would have the worst record in the NFL. This would mean they could draft a cant miss super star in USC tailback OJ Simpson. Sadly, they won 2 meaningless games so they now had the #3 pick in the draft. Buffalo chose Simpson #1 and the Eagles chose Leroy Keyes, a RB out of Purdue. He showed so little promise at RB that they moved him to Safety after 1 year. Keyes was out of the league in 4 years and OJ became one of the greatest RB’s in history. Their fans knew.
Philadelphia fans are as passionate as any fan base in history. They treat their teams like family members. Tough, rough and hardcore, if their teams do well they will be favorite sons. If they fail, they will rip them to shreds like newspaper. Not every athlete can play in Philadelphia. Thin skinned, sensitive athletes need not apply.
Philly fans are the “schleprocks” of the sports world. They feel there is a black cloud over them at all times, just waiting to drop down a curse that will eventually ruin even the best of seasons. I remember a tweet by a Philly fan a week ago. He said, “I’m so freaking scared; things are going too good. I know something is going to happen”. The next game star QB Carson Wentz tore up his knee and is now out for the season.
On this cold day in 1968, there was nothing to play for. The Eagles lost to the Vikings but that was not the story. Already in a bad mood, the Eagles fans wanted nothing to do with cheer or with crappy halftime entertainment. The temperature had now dropped to the low 20’s with wind gusts to 20-30 mph. At half time the Eagles had promised a small parade. The Philly cheerleaders would be in cute elves costumes followed by a large band. They also had a Santa float. The Santa float started to go across the field but fans booed because it got stuck due to the bad conditions. The worst part is that the Santa that they had hired, didn’t even show up and wasn’t in the float as expected. There are still stories that he may have possibly had too many adult beverages after seeing how cold it was outside, but that isn’t confirmed.
Eagles Entertainment Director Bill Mullen had an idea. He saw a 20 y/o fan by the name of Frank Olivo in the stands who was dressed as Santa Claus. At 5’ 7” and about 170 lbs., he was a poor imitation at best. Nicknamed “beefy”, Frank was a small, portly Italian man who had lots of personality and he loved to ham it up. Never shying away from attention, Frank agreed.
Olivo found out quick that Eagles fans were in no mood for second class entertainment. Seeing a wannabe Santa was too much for them to take and they started to boo. After someone in the upper deck chucked a snowball at Frank, it created a domino effect. First a few and then dozens of snowballs from all over the stadium started to rain down.
Matt Millen Remembers:
At 11 years old, a young Matt Millen knew what being an Eagles fan was all about. The future Penn State and Raiders star was all Pennsylvanian. He knew that he was a part of a generation of Philadelphia fans and there was a passionate responsibility to it. As your fathers and grandfathers go, so go the children.
“I was 10 or 11 at the time and it was a miserable day and they were a miserable team”, said Millen to reporters. “To be honest the snowball throws were the only fun thing about the game. Dads, kids, grandfathers, and even old ladies started throwing them. I mean he had it coming. When the band played Here comes Santa Claus, that was it. It was no big deal. It was just what we did”.
Matt Millen said it was a much different era obviously. “Fans of today don’t realize how serious Philly fans take their football. Franklin Field was a crazy place to play. More than a few times people would leave the stands and go onto the field to physically confront players and coaches alike if things weren’t going well”.
Frank Olivo from the start was a good sport about it. “I’m one of them”, he said often. “I understand them so I didn’t take it personally. They didn’t like anyone at that moment. I do admit though when the Eagles asked if I would do it again next year I said no”.
Frank did admit he never booed a player ever again. “When they boo, you feel like they’re all against you individually,” he said. “And that’s why, when I heard it, I said to myself, ‘My God, what do these players think or feel when they’re getting booed?’ It’s like you’re being told you’re not good enough to be here.”
Frank and his family members were eventually priced out of Eagles games not being able to afford the PSL’s with the new stadium. Much like in other areas, the most diehard of fans were eaten up by the greed machine that is the NFL.
Years later though, Frank was asked to be Santa at a 76ers game reliving that day and he accepted. At first they cheered him on, and then in true Philly fashion, they realized that for old times sake they had to boo Olivo. He loved it. Frank passed away in 2015 but he treasured his memories of his beloved Eagles until the day he died.
The latest situation where Philly fans took some heat was last year during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Flyers were down 2-0 to the Washington Capitals and before game 3, they were honoring owner Ed Snider who had recently passed away. Every seat had a white bracelet on it that lighted up. The light show before the game in honor of Snider was a sight to see and everyone was in great spirits before the first puck dropped. That feeling eroded though.
As the Capitals pulled away late, fans began to pelt the ice with the bracelets. The game was halted for a time. Not even the Flyers ice girls; who pretty much wear strip club school girl outfits; could stop the madness. The white bracelets were literally impossible to clean up because they matched the color of the ice. This incident also included a few obscenities yelled out by some fans during the moment of silence.
What Will Happen on Christmas v.s. The Raiders?
Things are going pretty good where the Eagles fly, but you never know. What if the Raiders somehow beat them? What if Nick Foles implodes. What if somehow something bad happens? If these things occur, I think that whoever is playing Santa better have a thick suit and a thick skin. And if he is anywhere near the good sport and the great Eagle fan that Frank Olivo was, if snowballs come his way then so be it. He would understand. You have to be a Philly fan to get it.