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Raiders suffer through 2019 with death of family members

Updated December 7, 2019 - 7:14 pm

OAKLAND, Calif. — Mark Davis had dinner with George Atkinson in Kansas City last week, the night before the Raiders would lose to the Chiefs and all but fall from the race for the AFC West Division title.

The two were then together flying home, Davis the team owner who always considered Atkinson more father figure than merely one of the franchise’s past greats.

“Shortly after we landed, George was told what happened,” Davis said. “When I learned about it … no words.”

If it’s true the goal shouldn’t be to live forever but instead create something that will, the sense of family born and nurtured within the Raiders’ organization has been tested beyond comprehension in the past year.

No one left behind. No one forgotten.

The Raiders host the Titans on Sunday in what can be fairly described as a must-win situation for Oakland should it continue to harbor thoughts of earning a wild-card playoff spot, a final silver-and-black moment from a week that again pierced the franchise’s heart in the most sorrowful of ways.

They are dying off, former players and coaches and even children of them, the Raiders having lost several souls of late.

One by one, time passes and more funerals are held, more obituaries written, more tears shed.

Atkinson buried his son Josh, who hanged himself at age 26, last December.

Then, this past week, Josh’s twin brother, George III, died shortly after penning a letter about struggling with the guilt following his brother’s suicide and the loss of their mother, who died from Crohn’s disease complications in 2018.

The cause of death for George III, who earlier had been committed for psychiatric evaluation, has not been released.

Cliff Branch died at 71 in August. Willie Brown went at age 78 in October. Clem Daniels was 81 when he died in March. Dan Conners was 77 when he died in April. Cedrick Hardman died in March at 70.

Neiron Ball died in September. He was 27.

“It has been a really tough year,” Davis said. “A lot of the Raiders family has been affected. It has been devastating. We’re all here to support each other. It’s part of us. The most valuable asset of the Raiders is family. Each (death) hurts more than you can imagine.”

Fans also hurting

The rain was slow and steady outside Ricky’s Sports Theatre & Grill on Saturday, not 15 minutes from the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum, the landfill from which Davis will move his team to Las Vegas in 2020.

The chairs inside are silver. The tablecloths are black. It is the pre-eminent gathering place of all Raiders past and present, where Al and Mark Davis and the team’s gridiron greats came at one time or another to celebrate among the most devoted of fans, where the jerseys of Blanda and Stabler and Plunkett and Atkinson and others hang from the walls.

Kamuela Schaumburg is here with his wife, Catherine, to attend Sunday’s game. They are from the Hawaiian island of Oahu, a place known for its strong sense of family.

“Just like the Raiders,” Schaumburg said. “Back home, everyone is welcome, taken care of, nobody goes hungry. That’s why I have been a Raiders fan since 1987. The culture of family built by Al Davis and carried on by Mark. For some reason, we’ve lost a lot more people this year. It’s the cycle of life, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less.”

In one corner near the bar, where the Big 12 championship game between Oklahoma and Baylor had reached overtime on one of several large screens, sat the Cunningham brothers — James (55), Jerry (63) and Terry (67).

They have bled everything Raiders since the AFL Championship of 1967, having mourned each loss on and off the field.

“Ken Stabler was my hero,” James said. “When he passed away (in 2015) … that was so tough. The organization’s foundation is built on its former players. It’s hard seeing all these guys go. They’re the legacy.

“Our legends are all dying.

“Our heroes are going away.”

Taking its toll

More and more return each summer, Raiders alumni gathering in Napa for training camp, the brainchild of Mark Davis some years back to keep those from the past close and involved and feeling very much part of things.

Years pass and greats die. It happens to every franchise.

Alzado. Matuszak. Tatum. Stabler. Chandler. Christensen. Upshaw. Dalby.

But it has been especially trying this year, almost as if once the Raiders exhale from another death, the telephone rings.

“It has taken a serious toll,” said John Tournour, better known as JT The Brick, a longtime TV reporter for the Raiders and national radio host. “Those who are part of the DNA and so closely connected to Al Davis and Mark Davis and Mrs. Davis are leaving us. When they say, ‘Once a Raider, always a Raider,’ they mean it, whether you played a year for them or your entire career.

“No franchise is there for them in difficult times like the Raiders. None of that is by accident. Hearts are heavy right now.”

The Raiders host the Titans on Sunday, a must-win game for the team that is 5-1 at home this season, as critical a 60 minutes as 2019 has presented.

And, sadly, still …

“We take Sundays very seriously,” Davis said. “There is no question about that. But, no question, with all the loss we have suffered recently, everything is brought back into perspective.

“We’re hurting right now.”

More Raiders: Follow at vegasnation.com and @VegasNation on Twitter.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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