Known for being hands-on, Oakland owner Al Davis — seen here watching practice in this 1989 file photo — won three Super Bowls, four AFC Championships, produced 19 NFL Hall of Famers and helped lead the franchise to 21 playoff appearances and 26 winning season. Davis died Oct. 8 at the age of 82.
Dan Land will never forget the first time he met late L.A./Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.
Land, the current defensive backs coach at Albany State, recalls being ushered from the Los Angeles airport to the nearby Westchester Golf Course in the summer of 1989.
He was whisked away in a golf cart during the middle of Davis' round with friends and straight up to Davis.
Land, who had just been released by the Atlanta Falcons, was invited to L.A. to try out for the Raiders. Apparently, Land was speaking a little too loudly for Davis' liking the afternoon of their first encounter and vividly remembers his first conversation with one of the most legendary and polarizing figures in professional sports.
According to Land, as Davis was on the green concentrating on a putt, he motioned for Land to come over to him.
"Do you play golf?" Land said Davis asked him.
"No, sir, I don't," Land cautiously answered.
"Do you know who I am?" asked Davis, who was dressed in one of his trademark all-white outfits from head to toe with his customary shiny golf shoes.
"Well, not really," Land answered even more cautiously.
Davis then leaned in and made it perfectly clear.
"I can be your biggest nightmare," Davis told Land, the former Seminole County and Albany State star who signed a contract with the Raiders days after that conversation.
Davis, however, turned out to be anything but a "nightmare" for Land, who told The Herald last week after Davis died Oct. 8 at the age of 82 that he credits the often-gruff and controversial Oakland owner for ultimately saving his football career.
But more on that story later.
'Just win, baby'
Land's stories about Davis are about as endless as the Raiders owner's resume.
Davis began his managerial career as the offensive line coach at Adelphi University (N.Y.) from 1950-51. From there he coached the offensive line at The Citadel (1953-56), Southern California (1957-59) and the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers (1960-62).
In 1962, the 33-year-old Davis was hired as the head coach and general manager of the Oakland Raiders, making him the youngest person at that time in professional football history to hold either position.
In 1966, Davis became the Commissioner of the American Football League, but resigned that position after three months because of an impending merger between the AFL and the NFL that he was staunchly against.
After resigning from the AFL, Davis returned to Oakland, where he became the part-time owner, while serving as the general manager for three years.
In 1970, he assumed the roles as full-time owner and general manager of the Raiders -- positions he held right up until his death. In those 45 years under his rule, the Raiders won three Super Bowls and four AFC Championships; fielded 19 Hall of Famers -- including Davis; and had 21 playoff appearances to go along with 26 winning seasons.
The man who penned the motto, "Just win, baby," did just that for much of his career in Oakland and Los Angeles.
But that win-at-any-cost mentality gave Davis more than a few enemies over the years, including Hall of Famer Marcus Allen, who played 10 seasons with the Raiders before a contract dispute between Allen and Davis led to the running back leaving Los Angeles for the Kansas City Chiefs. During that contract dispute, Allen alleged that the Raider owner called him a "cancer" to the team.
"What do you think of a guy who has attempted to ruin your career?" Allen told famed Los Angeles Times writer Bill Plaschke. "(Davis) told me he was going to get me and he has. ... I think he has tried to ruin the latter part of my career, tried to devalue me and tried to stop me from going to the Hall of Fame."
Allen later told Plaschke: "The biggest difference between (Kansas City) and the Raiders? Easy. Here, I'm happy."
Davis was a competitor, who took chances and had the respect of most in football -- even if they didn't like him.
"I didn't always agree with what he said, but you enjoyed hearing his stories and appreciated where he was coming from because of his rich sense of history," former Raiders safety Albert Lewis told the Vancouver Sun.
In short, if you were on Davis' good side, he could be your best friend.
And Land was one of the guys who forged a friendship with Davis that only ended when Davis passed.
Saving a career
One day after Land first met Davis on the golf course, he began a three-day mini-camp with the Raiders. Land, who had played no other position but running back in college and in his first two seasons in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Falcons, ran an impressive 4.3 40-yard dash during the camp.
But he knew his chances of making it as a running back in the Raiders' system were slim with the already-stocked backfield of Allen, Bo Jackson and Napoleon McCallum.
After the mini-camp was over, Land found himself in Davis' office. During that meeting, Land -- the then-24-year-old, who calls himself just a "country boy" from Donalsonville -- said he had never been so nervous in his life.
"(Davis) called me in, and he told me he wanted me to play defensive back," Land said. "I said, 'Mr. Davis, I have been playing running back, and I would like to continue to play running back.' He said he could guarantee me (a three year contract) if I became a defensive back. He said, 'You have long arms, great speed. I know you can play defensive back, because you played in high school.' "
That caught the 1983 Seminole County grad off guard. After all, how did Davis have any clue about Land's high school days at one of the smallest public schools in Georgia?
"Then (Davis) told me to turn around," Land recalled. "(And right behind me, there it was) --he had film from my high school days. I didn't even know my high school film existed. ... I said, 'That's me?!' Then (Davis) said, 'Yes it is, so I know you can play defensive back.'
"It blew my mind. I didn't even know how to get my high school film, so I asked him how in the world he was able to get it? He said, 'Don't worry about it.' "
But Land still wasn't sold on switching positions. After all, he had been drafted as a running back and had gotten several chances to show his skills off as a running back in the regular season as a rookie with Tampa Bay.
But as Davis was with most of his business, he was determined and relentless with his vision. Land, who had been released after each of his first two seasons, was desperate to continue playing and went along with Davis' idea of moving to the secondary. And it was a decision that turned his career around.
Trust and respect
After switching positions at Davis' request, Land went on to spend nine seasons with the Raiders, learning to trust and respect Davis from Day 1.
Without an agent, the two negotiated Land's first contract. Throughout the rest of his career, Land never again relied on an agent -- he simply just settled contracts with casual one-on-one talks with Davis.
"It was just me and Mr. Davis sitting down and having spaghetti or sitting down in his office and talking about football," Land said.
Land was never a star and rarely a starter for the Raiders, but Davis gave Land a job, a home and financial security for he and his wife, Theresa, in a business that is anything but secure.
Davis still saw frequent playing time in formations with multiple defensive backs. In his nine seasons with the Raiders, he played in 139 games and had 74 tackles and two interceptions.
Land, however, wasn't the only Raider to have a special bond with Davis, who developed personal relationships with several of his players largely because of his hands-on role with the team. He would show up at every practice and attempt to influence the Xs and Os of both the defense and the offense. He was often criticized for ruling the Raiders with an iron fist, but Land said Davis was a man who knew what he was talking about.
"Once you got on his bad side, like Marcus Allen, it was almost like you slapped him in the face," Land said. "If you got on his bad side, it was hard to find anybody in the league who would deal with you, unless you dealt with someone who really didn't like Mr. Davis. That's why Kansas City signed Marcus. ... He played two more years with Kansas City just to (tick) Mr. Davis off."
Land never landed on Davis' bad side. Instead, he called the owner a "friend who was always about business."
Land said that players were often separated into two groups when it came to Davis -- those who were "favorites" of the Raiders owner and others who were "favorites" of the coaching staff. But like him or hate him, Davis had his player's respect, Land said.
"You could smell him before he walked in a room," Land said, referring to Davis' expensive cologne. "And when we knew he was coming, everybody would get serious. In practice, we would do the drills he wanted and the defenses he wanted. We would always do in practice what Mr. Davis wanted to see."
'It was a mistake'
In 1995, Land sat on an airplane bound for Atlanta, thinking that his playing days with the Raiders were over. He had just been released by the organization by first-year head coach Mike White, who became the newest coach in the Davis-directed coaching carrousel.
Land began his career at Oakland under former Denver Broncos and current Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, who was fired by Davis four games into the 1989 season. Art Shell, a favorite of Davis' and a man who brought what Land called a "family atmosphere" to the Raiders, replaced Shanahan and coached the franchise through 1994 until he too was fired.
So when White moved from assistant coach to head coach, some house cleaning was in order -- and Land was one of the victims.
But when Land stepped off the plane in Atlanta, he called Theresa, who told him that he had been getting calls from the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers about playing opportunities. Land immediately called the 49ers, who wanted to sign him, and soon found himself back on a plane to the West Coast to meet with San Francisco personnel about a contract.
As Land tells it, after meeting with members of the 49ers organization, the sides had unofficially agreed to a deal for Land to make the same amount of money that he would've made had he been re-signed with the Raiders. But several "911" messages on his pager from his wife during those contract talks with San Francisco made him put his contract negotiation on hold.
"They went to go work out the contract, and I went downstairs to call my wife," Land recalled. "My wife said, 'Mr. Davis has called four times. He wants you over there now. Somehow he found out that you are with the 49ers.'
"By the time she said that, the phone started going off. She said, 'Dan, it's him again.' "
So before returning to his talks with the 49ers, Land said he gave the Oakland owner a call.
Davis' message was clear and to the point.
"Listen, it was a mistake," Land remembered Davis saying. "Mike White made a mistake. Danny, don't even go back upstairs. Just walk outside, and I will have somebody out there (waiting to pick you up)."
Land said he stepped outside and immediately found a cab that was waiting to take him to Oakland, leaving behind an unsigned contract and confused 49ers personnel.
"The cab took me back to Oakland, right over the bridge," Land said. "When I got to the facilities in Oakland, Mike White came out and told me they made a mistake. Mr. Davis made him go out there and apologize."
Remembering a legend
For all those around the NFL that Davis agitated and made enemies of his, Land remembers Davis as a one-of-a-kind guy -- a type of man who famed NFL coach Mike Holmgren recently said in the wake of Davis' death "made football a better game."
Land, however, knew him as even more.
To Land, he was a man who stood by those who stood by him. He was a man who often went beyond the responsibilities of an NFL owner and enriched lives.
Land said he will forever be a Raider -- and will forever call Davis a friend.
"I will be a Raider til the day I die. You could cut me, and I will bleed Silver and Black," said Land, who remained friends with Davis well after he left Oakland, and will be attending Davis' memorial service at O.co Coliseum in a couple of weeks.
Land ended his look back on his relationship with Davis by telling a story of Davis cancelling practice one time in order to negotiate a deal with a California gang to take one of his players off the gang's hit list following a dispute between the player and a gang member at a nightclub. Land also remembers Davis as the man who paid for the 2000 funeral of Derrick Thomas, linebacker for the Chiefs -- those same Chiefs who were known to harbor Davis' enemies.
Others remember Davis as the owner who broke racial barriers by hiring the NFL's first African American head coach and second Latino head coach. He was also the first owner to hire a female chief executive.
"I don't know what my legacy is," Davis once said. "That's not for me to say. You'll have to ask others about that. I care more about winning than my legacy."
Davis left a legacy that will be felt for generations and talked about even longer. He may have said he cared about winning above all else, but Land will be the first to tell you that he was about so much more than that.