|Part 2: The wild and the innocent|
By Pat Toomay
Special to Page 2
Editor's note: In Part 1 of his series on the birth of the Raiders nation, Pat Toomay described his relief at being traded from the winless 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to Oakland, which was coming off an impressive victory in Super Bowl XI. The difference in atmosphere and tension was as far apart as the teams' locations. The Bucs, coached by the acerbic and dismissive John McKay, were total losers, depressing and depressed. The Raiders, coached by the ultimate players' coach, John Madden, were characters, but they were also ultimate winners.
Biletnikoff, nicknamed "Coyote," or "Doctor Zhivago," because of his Russian heritage, was wiry with long, shaggy blond hair and with a kind of nervous energy coursing through him. Stabler, aka "Snake," or "Rattler," was pigeon-toed with spindly legs and a Prince Valiant helmet of prematurely gray hair. Banaszak, called "Rooster," or, alternatively, "The Wolf of Warsaw" or "The Polish Prince," was a grizzled stub in his 13th year; once a regular, now in the twilight of his career, Pete had become the Raiders' short-yardage and goal-line specialist.
Duane told me there weren't many cliques on the team, the social lines were fluid, but if there was Raiders royalty, these guys were it. Of the 60 or so rooms at the El Rancho, they occupied room No. 147, one of the few suites. The room was Party Central. Rented refrigerators were stocked with beer. Paraphernalia from the local porn shop dangled from nearly every hanging place. Nightly regulars on "The Circuit" -- a round of the most popular Santa Rosa, Calif., night spots -- the trio were never themselves. They'd pretend to be cropdusters, or doctors. They regaled the local talent with so many outrageous tales that Banaszak, at least, couldn't keep track of them all. "I've told so many lies, I don't know what's true anymore," was a recent confession.
"Rooster!" Duane yelled at Pete, as we got out of the car. "Stub!" Banaszak yelled back. And for a few minutes, the four of them jabbered, exchanging insults, jokes. Then, behind us, perhaps 30 yards away, Al Davis emerged from between the buildings. Hair slicked back, wearing a black shirt and baggy white pants, Al was slouching across the parking lot toward another part of the motel, oblivious of the impromptu gathering of players.
"Look at him," Banaszak said.
"There he goes," said Snake.
"The Genius," said Biletnikoff.
"The Messiah," cackled Pete.
Freddy cupped his hands around his mouth. "Mr. Davis!" he called out. Davis stopped, turned, as Freddy held up one hand, making the "inch" sign with his thumb and forefinger. "The rough's a little long on 18!"
Davis shook his head, laughed. Giving Fred a dismissive wave, he went on his way. Again, I was astonished. Telling the owner his training camp was a country club was something you just didn't do.
In Dallas, I had played on two Super Bowl teams, so I pretty much had a post-Super Bowl routine ingrained in me. Coach Tom Landry's approach was simple and direct. It was implemented without deviation and never varied. After a Super Bowl, you celebrated. Once training camp began, focus shifted to the task at hand. It was a new season. The past was past. To relax, to sit back, to savor a title during training camp, was to call down the wrath of the gods. "A Winner Never Stops Proving It," said the sign in the locker room. This sentiment drove coach Landry throughout his career.
The same sort of response greeted 35-year-old Willie Brown as the camera showed him in slow-motion close-up chugging up the sidelines with his game-clinching interception, glancing over his shoulder at the receding Vikings -- Muff! Muff! Even head coach John Madden himself was unmercifully teased as he shuffled along the sideline and attempted to jump when somebody scored. He flushed, as he sat there, reveling in the moment. Conditioned as I was by the Landry model, I was getting nervous. These guys were having too much fun!
Later, Madden would say that after the Super Bowl, the grind of the new season was too quickly upon him. Before he knew it, he was preparing for the draft, rookie minicamps. He regretted not having time to appreciate the experience. But he was doing that now in the meeting. Sitting there, it dawned on me that Madden's style of leadership was based on a logic of emotion rather than on a logic of will. Suddenly, I understood what he was up to. This was the first time the team had been together since the game. Viewing the film would be a way of re-establishing the emotional tone that had gotten them there. It would be springboard for the upcoming season.
Still, I wasn't entirely comfortable. As the team meeting broke up, and players made their way to their respective position-group meetings, plans were already being made for the night -- where they would go, when, who would be driving, who would be buying. There was chaos lurking in their collective giddiness. A little voice inside of me was screaming: "This ain't gonna work!" But then, in the defensive line meeting, when I saw my anxiety mirrored in the behavior of defensive line coach Tom Dahms, I saw where I needed to be in relation to this dynamic. So I disengaged. I let it go.
T.D., as he was called, was, on this night at least, behaving like a fussy old woman. Flustered, having also picked up the chaotic vibe, he was full of behavioral proscriptions. "You guys can't do this. You've got to do that." The group was composed of a few rookies, who mostly kept their mouths shut, and veterans Otis Sistrunk, John Matuszak, Dave Rowe and Art Thoms, who roundly mocked T.D.'s concern. T.D. tried to pull me into it by pointing out that I had just joined the team from Dallas via Tampa. "Tom Landry had a different way of doing things, right, Pat?" "He sure did," I concurred. But I deflected the invitation to align by saying it was hard to argue with the Raiders' success. At that point John Matuszak struggled free of his chair. Raising himself up to his full 6-foot-8, looking like a Norseman with his curly red hair done afro-style, and with his full red beard, John turned, and in front of the group, paid me a compliment, before reaching over to shake my hand. "Glad you're here, man," he said. "Thanks, Tooz," I said. "I'm glad to be here."
Meanwhile, coach Dahms had been looking over his charges. A big, tightly wound man who had actually been on Landry's staff in the early '60s, after playing offensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams, T.D. snorted in agitation as he surveyed the room. "Where's Charlie?" he demanded.
"Charlie got a little confused," said tackle Dave Rowe.
"Charlie's always confused," said end Art Thoms.
"He went with the offensive linemen instead of us," chimed in Sistrunk.
Dahms was incredulous. "You mean Charlie's in the offensive line meeting?"
Everyone was roaring now. "You want us to go get him, T.D?"
"No," snapped Dahms.
"Come on, T.D.!"
"Whataya talkin' about, T.D.! He's one of us!"
"Let him stay where he is," muttered the flustered Dahms.
The stories came flooding out then, most of them told for my benefit, I suppose, so that I would be adequately prepared. The recurring theme seemed to be the manifestation of an almost childlike innocence, which many of the players found compelling but which Dahms found contemptible, since it prevented him from doing his job, which was to actualize Charlie's enormous physical potential by turning him into a functioning professional football player. Not such an easy task, as it turned out.
At the recent weigh-in, Charlie had stepped up on the scale wearing one of those Rommell greatcoats that were all the rage. Charlie had a weight clause in his contract, so he was upset when the scale showed him to be a few pounds over, since it meant he would be fined. "You big dummy," said center Dave Dalby. "Take off your coat!" Charlie, stepping off the scale, took off his coat, slung it over his arm, stepped back up. "It's still the same!" he bellowed.
After extricating himself, Charlie was blustering about the car as he walked into the locker room. "It just don't fit me," he complained to Rowe. "Well, why did you buy it?" Dave asked. Charlie gave him a look. "It were a good deal!"
The stories continued to pour out. How Charlie locked his keys in the car with the headlights on and the motor running. Or the time he forgot his game shoes and asked Cliff Branch if he had an extra pair. "Sure, Charlie," said Cliff, who wore size nines. "What size you wear?" "Seventeens."
During one game, the button on the Gatorade bucket got stuck and Charlie, panic stricken, stood there filling up cup after cup until somebody rescued him by tipping the vat and stopping the flow. Then there was the time Charlie got hurt and needed an X-ray. Trainer George Anderson told him where to go, but the directions were complicated. "Whoa, whoa, whoa," Charlie said. "Say it again." George repeated the directions a second time, then a third, when Charlie still seemed unsure. "Got it?" George asked. "I think so," Charlie said. "But where am I now?"
One of the first games Charlie got into was against the Steelers. "Gonna get me a sack," Charlie vowed as he ducked into the huddle. "The only sack you're gonna get is a paper sack," said Otis Sistrunk. After breaking the huddle, Charlie dropped into his stance, poised and quivering. "HUT!" cried Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Charlie jumped offsides. On the sidelines, Dahms yelled, "For Christ's sake, stay onsides!" The team rehuddled, broke again. Bradshaw was eyeing Charlie, as Charlie dropped into his stance. "HUT!" Again Charlie jumped. By now, Dahms was beside himself, bellowing. Madden, hushing Dahms with a look, calmly walked out on the field. "Come on, Charlie," he said. "Come on over here and stand by me. We can't do many more of these. They're picking up five yards a play and they haven't snapped the ball yet."
As the stories tumbled out, players were howling almost in spite of themselves, but then the meeting room door cracked open. Everyone got a hold of themselves as in stepped Charlie. Of course he was huge, his head brushing the top of the door frame as he ducked into the room. "Sorry, T.D.," he said, as he flopped down beside me. "I, uh, you know. I guess I took a wrong turn."
Dahms heaved an exasperated sigh. He told Charlie who I was, then started the meeting.
"You the sackman, huh, T?" Charlie, leaning over, whispered under the chalk-talk. "Maybe you can help me with my technique, T? Gotta get me some sacks this year, T."
I looked at him. I knew there was no future in aiding my competition. I'd been here too many times before. Lee Roy Selmon. Tody Smith. Ed Jones. Get 'em up to speed then watch 'em take your job. Never again, I'd vowed. But here was Charlie, as sincere in his earnestness as my 3-year-old son. I was hooked. More than hooked, I was already flopping around in the boat.
"Sure, Charlie. Be glad to help out."
Coming attractions: In Part 3, Toomay discovers that Jack Tatum is not the vicious monster everybody assumes he is, and is on the receiving end of an unusually generous gesture from Otis Sistrunk, another historically misunderstood Raider.
Former NFL defensive end Pat Toomay played in the league for 10 years (1970-79) with the Cowboys, Bills, Bucs and Raiders. He is the author of two books, The Crunch and the novel On Any Given Sunday. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.