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Raiders flashback: Greg Townsend a late-round sensation

Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series acquainting fans with the Raiders’ illustrious 60-year history as the team moves to Las Vegas for the 2020 season.

The similarities are striking.

Greg Townsend was drafted in the fourth round by the Raiders in 1983, the 110th player selected. Overlooked in college while playing at TCU and a tad undersized, Townsend wasn’t considered a top prospect. There were even concerns about whether he’d hold up a defensive lineman in the NFL.

Thirty-six years later, in 2019, Maxx Crosby was also picked in the fourth round by the Raiders, the 106th player selected. A star at Eastern Michigan, Crosby faced similar questions about whether he was big and strong enough to make an impact at defensive end in the NFL. The level of play in the Mid-American conference, a notch below the Power Five conferences, likely didn’t help.

But each player quickly proved his doubters wrong. Townsend set a Raiders rookie record for sacks in 1983 with 10.5. It’s a record that still stands today, albeit by the thinnest of margins after Crosby challenged the mark last year by finishing with 10 sacks.

Townsend went on to rack up a team-record 107.5 sacks over his 11 seasons with the club, and his 109.2 career sacks are the 23rd most in NFL history. That might not mean a ticket to the NFL Hall of Fame, but it’s a heck of an achievement for a guy who lasted until the fourth round.

The Raiders would be ecstatic if Crosby’s career plays out in a similar fashion, as it would mean having a pass rushing force for the next decade.

A native of Compton, California, Townsend was a two-time Pro Bowl and two-time All-Pro player with the Raiders and spent all but one season of his Raiders career during their Los Angeles era.

It’s hard to imagine a player enjoying a more satisfying first season in the NFL. In addition to setting a club record for sacks, Townsend earned NFL Rookie of the Year honors and helped the Raiders win a Super Bowl.

That he amassed that many sacks while essentially playing as a rotational end made the season even more impressive. It was all part of an Al Davis philosophy of getting rookies on the field early, but in way that didn’t overwhelm them. Accentuate what they did well and maximize that ability early on.

Townsend would come off the bench in that role over his first three seasons, registering 27.5 sacks on a very good defense.

“If you put Greg Townsend’s 10½ sacks in a four-man line situation, playing full time, you’re talking about a 25-sack, 20-holding-penalties player,” Raiders teammate Howie Long told Sports Illustrated early in Townsend’s career.

The ability to get to the quarterback would define Townsend’s career. He combined tremendous strength with incredible quickness and a natural feel for pass rushing. It’s no surprise, then, that only two of his first nine NFL seasons concluded without him racking up double-digit sack totals.

Over his Raiders career, he was also known for the work he did in the community. One of his causes was to help the homeless, a need he became aware of while growing up in Los Angeles and taking the bus downtown to watch movies on Sunday afternoons. Townsend was struck by how many people he saw sleeping on the sidewalk and at bus stops. Their requests for spare change always stuck with him.

“Even today, I never pass a person asking for money,” Townsend once told the Los Angeles Times at the height of his career. “It’s not up to me to judge what they’re going to do with the money. They look hungry. They look like they can use a hot meal. I always give money. When I go to the pearly gates, I think the main question God’s going to ask me is, ‘How many of my people did you feed? How many of my people did you help out?’ This way I can say I lost count at 1,000.”

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore onTwitter

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