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.
Phil Villapiano wasn’t entirely sure about his transition to the NFL despite a stellar career as a defensive end at Bowling Green.
Then came the 1971 Senior Bowl and a performance that got him inducted into the legendary game’s Hall of Fame.
“I get invited to come to Mobile, Alabama,” he said during his induction. “I didn’t even know where Mobile, Alabama, was. I came down here and tackled everybody. I didn’t care if you were a guy in the street, I tackled you.”
He made enough hits to get a “nice game” acknowledgement from Raiders owner Al Davis in the locker room.
It wasn’t just lip service. Davis took Villapiano in the second round of the draft and he would go on to one of the best careers of any outside linebacker in franchise history.
“After that game, I sensed I could make it in the NFL,” Villapiano said. “All the top prospects were there and I was making more tackles than any of them. And the draft was like two weeks later. I got 13 years in the NFL, and if I don’t come to the Senior Bowl, I wouldn’t have had any of them.”
Even then, he wasn’t so sure. Villapiano had a lucrative offer to play in the Canadian Football League and was all set to take it should he fall out of the top three rounds of the 1971 NFL draft.
The Raiders took care of that, and Villapiano went on to be named the defensive rookie of the year.
It was the start of a stellar nine-year run as an outside linebacker for one of the most ferocious defenses the league has ever seen.
The New Jersey native was well known for his “bottle opener” tackles, which consisted of popping the ballcarrier’s helmet off by squeezing around the neck. He would also often stop runners dead in their tracks by lifting them off the ground and slamming them to the ground.
He forced a goal-line fumble in the Raiders’ Super Bowl XI win over the Vikings in 1976, capping his fourth straight Pro Bowl season.
“When you play for the Raiders, you play to win and you play tough,” Villapiano said in his National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony. “It’s not something the coaches teach or talk about. It’s just there, like in the air. It’s an attitude — you are going to hit people and smash them if you are a Raider.”
But he wasn’t all power.
Villapiano’s speed made him one of the best coverage linebackers in the league, though his most memorable moment as a pass defender isn’t a particularly pleasant one.
Villapiano was assigned to Franco Harris on the play that eventually became known as The Immaculate Reception in 1972.
The two men, forever linked in NFL history, became lifelong friends. Harris calls Villapiano every year on Dec. 23, the anniversary of the play.
“Franco and I talk about it a lot. We say it’s like the fish story: it keeps getting bigger and bigger,” Villapiano said. “A couple years ago when it was the 40th anniversary, Franco invited me to Pittsburgh and we did a whole weekend of Steeler activities based around the Immaculate Reception. That was great, that was actually a great weekend. I’d much rather have the Super Bowl as my biggest (moment), but it was a great one. It’s OK to lose that game because we’ll be talking about it forever. The memories are perfect.”
Villapiano loved his time with the Raiders and is still seen at many alumni events despite being traded away in 1980 and spending his last four seasons in Buffalo.
He laughs as he relays the story of Davis trading him just before the team moved to Los Angeles because Villapiano spoke out against the relocation in the newspaper.
Villapiano went on to a successful business career and has been very active in philanthropic causes, particularly the V Foundation, which awarded him the Jimmy V Don’t Ever Give Up award in 2002.
The 71-year-old has also been very prominent in the Muscular Dystrophy Association, along with raising a great deal of money for his native Jersey shore after Hurricane Sandy.