(I humbly thank Andrea Villapiano Kelly for allowing me to use some of her private photos that I’m able to share with you)
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A Hall of Famer in my world.
Friends used to ask who do you want on a podcast or even to just have a beer with. The 4 people remain the same. Ken Stabler, Bill King, John Madden, and Phil Villapiano. Today I’m writing about one of the most popular Raider players of all time, and one of my dad’s favorites in Phil Villapiano. “Foo” was a Raider from the start.
From Day One:
When Phil Villapiano was drafted, most teams had him going in the 3rd or 4th round. The Raiders drafted him in the 2nd round out of Bowling Green which was a surprise to some. Many teams had Villapiano listed at only 210 pounds, being too small to play linebacker. Back then there was no NFL combines or official weigh ins, so most teams would share information with each other to save money and time. The Raiders refused to share information.
What the Raiders knew about Villapiano was that he was legitimately 225 pounds. He was an instinctive player who loved to hit. His speed laterally was excellent and a big part of his game. He could play every down and had great feel in pass coverage. In the same draft Oakland selected Jack Tatum, Clarence Davis, and backup tight end Bob Moore. With Tatum and Villapiano, they had 2 hard hitters to go with another that loved contact in George Atkinson. The Raiders added Skip “Dr. Death” Thomas in the following draft and their back 7 was as physical and skilled as any in the history of the game.
The Raiders offenses were awesome but most forget that in 3 Super Bowl wins the Raiders only gave up 33 points and had three great QB’s in Fran Tarkenton, Ron Jaworski & Joe Theismann running for their lives most of the time. In fact all 4 teams in last years AFC and NFC Championship games were in the top 5 scoring defenses in the entire NFL. It isn’t sexy but defense still wins championships.
Phil’s Coming Out Party:
In week 3 of the 1971 season, rookie Villapiano was thrown into the fire and he had to start due to injuries at linebacker. Phil had an amazing game on national television against the Browns in front of 84,000 screaming Cleveland fans. To the dismay of every fan outside of Oakland, Howard Cosell raved about Phil during the Raiders 34-20 win, making him a household name over night and announce another weapon for the hated Oakland Raiders.
A Key Member of the Raiders Defense:
Phil soon became a mainstay in the Raiders physical style of play. He could cover all parts of the field, and his violent play was just what the Raiders wanted. In front of the famous “Soul Patrol” and behind an aggressive and relentless defensive line, Monte Johnson, Ted Hendricks, Willie Hall, and Villapiano manned one of the more underrated LB crews and defenses in the NFL. Al Davis and Ron Wolf’s motto for their defense was one thing; the QB must go down, and go down hard. Raider fans loved seeing Villapiano slowly and methodically hitting his arm pad on the line of scrimmage letting opponents know that he was coming and he was going to hit somebody.
(A video showing the brutality of the Raiders defense and Phil Villapiano’s team “activities”)
The renegade Raiders were by far the king of bay area sports and they capped off their success in 1976 with a dominating performance in Super Bowl 11 with a win over the Minnesota Vikings, 32-14. There were some sweaty palms at the start of the game though. The Raiders took the opening kickoff and went down the field but kicker Errol Mann missed a 29 yard field goal. Later in the 1st, Viking great Fred McNeil blocked a Ray Guy punt for Guy’s first blocked punt in his career. Minnesota recovered it on the Raiders 3 yard line and Raider fans began to worry. On third down, Villapiano forced a fumble from RB Brent McClanahan which fellow LB Willie Hall recovered and the Raiders went on a long drive for a short FG. Phil’s key play changed the momentum of the game.
(Phil is even clutch during a fun time at the 2009 Biletnikoff Celebrity Golf Tournament)
The Wild Days In Oakland:
Along with their amazing winning ways, Oakland also lead the league in having fun. The Raiders off the field craziness was unequalled, with Phil Villapiano being the unofficial ring leader of all of the antics. The stories of the Raiders training camp days in Santa Rosa are of legend. So many fans enjoyed spending time with players at North Bay hotspots and one of their favorites to party with was Villapiano and Ken Stabler.
(Phil’s interview on his foundation to save the Jersey Shore after hurricane Sandy)
He would set up activities and games to break the monotony of training camp. And as many players have said, cheating was not only encouraged but a necessity. Players drank with fans, outcasts, and anyone else that was considered part of the Raider family. Hells Angels and the Black Panthers would befriend some Raiders, and even a few shady figures would emerge. While most celebrities loved glamorous teams like the Cowboys, actors like James Garner became friends with the Raiders of the 70’s along with owner Al Davis.
From paying a woman to run naked across the practice field, to setting a small fire to stop the monotony of training camp, the pranks were wild and Phil was usually the instigator. Phil once even helped put on a wedding at one of the restaurants with some of the Raiders helping with the direction and officiating of the nuptials. After passing the hat around they helped the couple go on a honeymoon. Of course the wedding was bogus, and to this day no one knew if the couple ever found out they really weren’t married.
Phil & the Raiders Legacy:
I fought with some old time NFL fans and writers last year who tried to downplay how good the Raiders were. We all know how I love facts so I was loaded for bear. Daryle Lamonica was 38-4-1 in his first 43 starts for Oakland. Ken Stabler was 50-11-1 in his first 62 starts and the Raiders were 18-1-1 in their first 20 Monday night football games. No offense, but if Derek Carr and the Raiders had those stats today, with the fervor of social media, they would be erecting statues for them.
The Facts About The Raiders & the 1970’s:
The Raiders won more games than any other team in the NFL in the 1970’s, the greatest decade in NFL history. During the 1970-75 dynasty of the Miami Dolphins, the Raiders were 4-2 against the mighty Dolphins including 2-1 in the playoffs. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970’s, the Raiders were the only team with success owning a 6-5 record. They were 2-3 against Pittsburgh in the playoffs but one of those wins was the Immaculate Reception, and another was the 16-10 loss in Pittsburgh, where “somehow” outside the hash-marks the field had become completely frozen after the Steelers groundskeepers allegedly watered it down in the frigid cold of a Pennsylvania winter day. One of the few players Pittsburgh Hall of Famer Mel Blount struggled with was Cliff Branch. Al Davis got in an argument, yelling at Pete Rozelle before the game on the field saying how this now limited Cliff Branch’s speed. And they say the Raiders cheated!
In an online contest created by the NFL on their website, the 1976 Raiders were voted the greatest team in NFL history by over 5.2 million fans.
Phil was a big part of all this success. In fact most felt the Raiders were better in 1977 but Phil and OL John Vella had season ending injuries. The beat up Raiders were never healthy for the rest of the decade. Eventually he was traded to Buffalo not long after he made comments that the Raiders needed to stay in Oakland. He said that he never felt those comments got Al Davis mad, but Phil is a nicer guy than I am and I’m not so sure.
Phil is Just as Good Off the Field:
First off, congratulations to Phil who just won the Jersey Shore’s greatest Sports Personality in the last 50 years! We hope that this is not the last HOF he gets into. Again, please go to his Facebook page to support his Hall of Fame run.
When I first worked for the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation in honor of my cousin Celestina, I was so happy to see Phil Villapiano being such a huge contributor for them. Phil has lent himself to many charities and he is beloved by fans and organizations alike. Phil is in various Hall of Fames and his other charities include saving the Jersey Shore after hurricane Sandy and MDA & ALS.
The story of Phil giving his Super Bowl ring to inspire a man in a wheel chair is amazing and continues to spread online.
He also has bravely offered his brain to CTE research as well. Players like Jim Plunkett and George Atkinson have discussed the issue and the struggles they are having, and Phil also has done several interviews on the effects that football has had on his body.
Phil recently has joined his voice with other former NFL players to support flag football instead of tackle football for kids under the age of 14.
Phil joins the ranks of so many special Raider players. Their love of life, football and their fellow man is both inspiring and endearing. Born in Long Branch, New Jersey and raised in Asbury Park, Phil has left his mark on many hearts around the country. He has seen pain and tragedy but through it all he lives life with joy and a smile. Graduating from Bowling Green and making a name on the national scene in Oakland, he is more than a college icon, former NFL Rookie of the Year, 2 time all NFL player, or 5 time all AFC player. A lot more.
I was once asked on a podcast why the Raiders players relationship with the fans was so special because they said they just didn’t understand it. I said, “Most people look at the players as celebrity athletes. It’s their team. Even though I was too little to understand anything, in Oakland the Raiders were not celebrities but they were considered family. The players were underpaid so many worked, played and were socially active with the fans. They also genuinely enjoyed and cared for each other, and the players were a part of the community. From Al Davis who the NFL and most owners hated; to the great Bill King who the networks and the Warriors took off of tv for looking like the Devil; neither they, the players or the fans really fit in anywhere. Except in Oakland”.
“They worked hard and played hard and loved their families. They were outcasts and throw aways that made sense to no one. The players were always too old, wild, or too slow or not big enough. Al Davis would see their heart and take them in. Then you put them all together with an East Bay attitude under an overcast, grey sky in Oakland on a crisp fall day, and together they all made sense. They won and they dominated. The pride; the winning; the diversity in race and religion; it was the best relationship in sports. No stadium was louder, no bond stronger”.
From New Jersey to California, Phil has never lost who he was and who was there for the ride. His loyalty and love for fans and family is contagious. And anyone that could put a smile on my mom and dad’s face has my loyalty.
(The Amazing run of the Raiders; The Rebels of Oakland)
They say never meet your heroes, and when I first started my medical business in the bay area, I was able to meet some A-List athletes and celebrities that I admired. Most were ok, but a couple turned out to be arrogant, self absorbed and just plain strange and it hurt. Raider fans are lucky because for the most part they are never disappointed. Meet Lester Hayes or Jim Otto or Phil Villapiano, and they will have you leaving with a smile. Phil is a fan favorite due to his whit, love of life, and passionate heart. He’s never really received the credit he deserved on the field, but let’s be real, many Raiders haven’t. People forget the east coast media dominated sports at the time. I’m sorry but waiting this long for Cliff Branch, Lester Hayes, Jack Tatum and Phil Villapiano is unacceptable and I’ve told the NFL writers as such. (Don’t get me started on Ken Stabler). Phil is already in our HOF and I hope Phil truly knows just how special he is to the bay area.
So if you are having a rough day, open your favorite adult beverage and go on youtube and enjoy the Super Bowl and championship games all over again. Check out Phil’s interviews that will leave you inspired and always laughing. Reminisce about the players and friends and family that you shared these amazing times with. Remember loved ones that are no longer with us that you shared so much with and who started your journey as a Raider fan. The Sea of Hands; The Holy Roller; the Ghost to the Post; the Heidi Game; and all that winning. For me, every time I watch these videos and see the feelings of joy in the fans and the players, it’s as exciting as the Klondike, flying over the Atlantic, or the story of the White Whale.
How innocent were those days….how rich we are to have known them.