HOUSTON — It was one hour prior to kickoff for the Oakland Raiders’ most consequential game in more than 14 years. The owner was crying. Tears of rejoice they were not.
Mark Davis is managing general partner of one of the NFL’s most iconic, if notoriously litigious, franchises. Nervous as a cat sitting in a room full of rocking chairs, Davis amiably greeted well-wishers Saturday afternoon inside NRG Stadium. He was dressed modestly in a black velvet sport coat, dusty-gray jeans, white cap and tennis shoes. It would not turn out to be a good day for haute couture or stout men dressed in silver and black.
The 61-year-old owner tried to maintain his pregame composure, but his crystal-blue eyes betrayed him; they welled like the rising salty Pacific Ocean surf. The Raiders, indeed, were back in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, but Davis’ emotions emanated from a source deep in his being.
“He would be happy we are in the playoffs,’’ Davis told me of his late father, Al Davis, the Original Raider. “I am carrying the torch for my father.’’
But can you imagine Al Davis crying … right before kickoff?
In many ways, Mark Davis is nothing like his father. That alone should thrill his Brooks Brothers-wearing ownership brethren. But no (seemingly) strait-laced, conservative owner should underestimate Davis because of his perceived lack of gravitas and billions, quirkiness or ’60s-era sensibilities. He is smarter than many believe. And this: “He has bulldog in him,’’ Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie said prior to kickoff. “He knows what he wants, and he goes after it.’’
Al Davis, the rebel without a pause, died Oct. 8, 2011, at age 82 — the day before his beloved Raiders played a regular-season game at Houston. Davis had made few road trips that season but always admonished key team officials to “make sure nobody sits in my seat’’ during flights. Mark and his mother, Carol, were in Houston when the phone rang in Mark’s bedroom. Al was dead.
The Davis’ only child flew home that Saturday with his mother. They were greeted and consoled at the airport by former Raiders coach John Madden and his wife. By Sunday morning, Davis was back in Houston for the Raiders-Texans game.
“It was a pretty emotional situation,’’ Davis recalled. “On the last play of the game, we only had 10 players on the field.’’
Oakland safety Michael Huff intercepted a pass in the Raiders’ end zone to preserve a heart-melting 25-20 triumph. “Everyone said Al was the 11th man,’’ Davis said. “It still brings tears to my eyes. Thanks for making me cry.’’
Davis was nowhere to be seen after his team’s desultory, injury-wracked 27-14 defeat Saturday, assuredly inducing more heartache for the owner. But a more critical game, one that directly impacts three major cities in California plus Las Vegas, looms in the offseason.
A day earlier, while noshing on a pepperoni pizza — extra crispy, please — Davis told the Review-Journal, “We could apply (for relocation on Monday), if we were ready to.’’ The Raiders clearly are not ready for that important step in the process.
Instead, Davis will convene with select owners Wednesday in New York during a joint meeting of the league’s important finance and stadium committees. Owners will be given updates regarding financing and stadium issues confronting Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego. The Chargers are faced with a “soft” Jan. 15 deadline to announce whether they will move to Los Angeles.
This is not about ego for Mark Davis. Nor trying to escape the long shadow cast by his iconic, renegade father. This is about finances — and, for Davis, the Raiders’ legacy, and what he can do to preserve it.
“While my dad was alive, I was really happy to (try to) get a stadium built’’ anywhere, including Oakland. “The one thing the Raiders never had was our own stadium.’’ Then again, Al never wanted one. In his never-ending gambit of leveraging, it was always, “What are you going to give the Raiders?’’
Now, 38 years after first leaving Oakland, Davis envisions a redux of the early days of the franchise.
“I saw it as an 8-year-old boy. Little Oakland had nothing — San Francisco had everything,’’ Davis said. “You can see the same thing here in Las Vegas … if we do it right. It’s a lot of work. But we can find 40,000 (season-ticket holders) that will love the Raiders.
“I want to instill pride. Who else are Las Vegans going to root for — the Bellagio? People (in the community) need to bond.’’
In all likelihood, Oakland no longer is a viable option. It was too little, too late, by the fumbling Bay Area politicos. But Davis must still demonstrate to the satisfaction of enough owners (24, or 75 percent) that Las Vegas is an economically viable solution as the nation’s 40th largest market. If they reject his Las Vegas game plan, that does not mean Davis could not roll the dice and try to move the Raiders to the oasis in the desert anyway.
The Raiders’ once-promising season ended Saturday, a tumbleweed of disappointment blowing down a Texas highway. Kickoff for the real game — the one of finances, the one NFL owners care most about — is about to commence for the man who wants to honor his father’s memory.
Just negotiate, baby.