Why Mark Davis chose civil rights icon Tommie Smith to light Raiders' torch

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Growing up the son of Al Davis in the Bay Area in the 1960s, of course Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis was influenced by the social change going on all around him.

Especially in the tumultuous summer of 1968.

Davis was 13 years old when gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists as a sign of black strength and unity on the Olympic medal podium in Mexico City to protest human rights violations. It "touched" the young Davis.

"We had People's Park," Davis told ESPN.com. "The Black Panthers. The Hells Angels. Berkeley had Telegraph Avenue and San Francisco had the Haight. So it was a hotbed of social activism, and then there was the war in Vietnam.

"It felt like [the salute] was the right time and the right moment and it fell in place. It was awesome, and it will always be a moment that will stick with me."

Which is why Davis asked Smith, a longtime friend, to light the Al Davis torch before Monday night's game against the Houston Texans at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.

Yes, in the same city where Smith was vilified for his actions 48 years ago, he will honor a football trailblazer whose team was at the forefront of many social issues, including diversity in the workplace.

"This is a very, very historic moment for me," Smith told ESPN.com. "To do it for the Raiders -- I have a lot of respect for the things that they do. The Raiders have always been out in front in terms of change. They were always called a renegade team. But look what the renegade team brought to light."

Indeed, Tom Flores was the first Latino head coach to win a Super Bowl when he won Super Bowl XV with the Raiders. The team hired the first African-American coach in the modern NFL in Art Shell, as well as the first female CEO in Amy Trask.

"This feels," Smith said, "like it's come full circle."

Same for Davis, and we’ll circle back on that sentiment.

"My youth, being able to be around the Raiders and football, I never saw color," Davis said. "Every year there were new players [on the roster], players from the South, some from the Deep South, others from the North -- all over the country. I got to see and hear all different viewpoints on life, all coming together for a common cause, a goal to win games."

Davis said black and white teammates roomed together in camp and on the road in the 1960s. In fact, a Raiders exhibition against the Houston Oilers in Las Vegas in 1964 was in jeopardy because of a segregated hotel.

"This is how I grew up," Davis said, "seeing this."

And it worked for the Raiders, who were the defending AFL champs in 1968, when they used a first-round pick on a black quarterback -- unheard of in those days -- from Tennessee State named Eldridge Dickey.

"There was a lot of blowback," Davis said.

While he was in college at Chico State, Davis was writing a paper on the sociology of sports. He interviewed Dr. Harry Edwards, who counseled Smith and Carlos. Davis met his "hero" Smith through Edwards, and they stayed friendly.

In fact, Smith had a short-lived career in pro football, appearing in two games with the Cincinnati Bengals. His final opponent? Yes, the Raiders. In Oakland. On Dec. 7, 1969.

Smith had one catch in his career, a 41-yarder against the Raiders. But it did not end well for him.

"I stood up like I was somebody, but George Atkinson separated my shoulder and that was it," Smith said with a laugh, almost 47 years later. "I do remember that catch and that hit."

He also remembered his relationship with the younger Davis.

Two days after the NFL announced the Raiders would be playing in Mexico City this season, Davis received a call from Smith's wife, asking if Smith could join the team on the trip, which would be a Raiders home game.

"Only if he could do me a favor," was Davis' response. "Light the torch for my dad."

Smith was stunned. After all, the "honor" has been reserved for former players and coaches, such as Bo Jackson and Jon Gruden; and Super Bowl winners, such as Jim Plunkett and Cliff Branch; and Hall of Famers, such as Ted Hendricks, Marcus Allen, Howie Long and John Madden.

"I'm in awe, shock," Smith said.

"To do this in memory of someone like Al Davis -- how high can you get? This the pinnacle of what I believe in."

Yet the younger Davis struggled with the decision. He was worried what it might convey to his team.

After all, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started his protest during the national anthem, Davis let it be known he would prefer his players abstain. Although there would be no punishment if they did join in, he didn't want them to protest while wearing a Raiders uniform.

"The Raiders have always stood for diversity and rights," Davis said, "but I just don't think they should protest while in uniform. This is not a police state. If there was an issue, come talk to me. Hell, I may go and stand up there with them."

With Mexico City getting closer on the schedule, Davis said the "contradiction was weighing on me."

"I mean, I've got Tommie Smith lighting the torch, but I didn't want the players protesting the flag or anthem?" Davis recalled.

So the weekend of Oakland's game against the Tennessee Titans, Davis went to Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and defensive end/outside linebacker Khalil Mack and voiced his dilemma, essentially asking the players' "permission" to act on the seeming contradiction.

"It showed that he trusted us, that he believes in us," Carr said. "Really, it empowered us. Showed that he's got our back."

Mack offered his take:

"That's huge," he said. "Especially the owner of the team to come down and emphasize that he wants to bring something like that together for his group of guys. Like Derek said, it's empowering, and it helps us know that we've got a true leader in Mark Davis, that he would think to bring up something like that for us. Yeah, that was huge."

Davis said he "owed" the conversation to the players. And yes, that was the same weekend linebackers Bruce Irvin and Malcolm Smith began raising a fist during the anthem. They have since relented; Irvin said he had made his point.

"They bought in," Davis said. "My dad always said, I'd rather be right than consistent."

The torch is signed by every person who lights it and will be making the trek to Estadio Azteca. It will be only Smith's second trip back to Mexico since those fateful 1968 Summer Games. He went back in 2008, he said, for an ESPN report on the 40th anniversary of his salute.

"It was about human rights issues," Smith said. "It is a political matter to spread the good news by athletes.

"It was done for a positive reason, but it was taken negatively."

Davis, a teenager at the time, did not react negatively. Instead, he saw Smith, and his raised fist, as an agent for change.

"Tommie doing this for my father, that just seems like two things that go together," Davis said of Smith's gesture to light the Al Davis torch. "This is making everything come full circle in my life."