Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden's Oakland Raiders by Peter Richmond
Harper Collins, 2010
Love them or hate them, the 1970s Oakland Raiders under John Madden were certainly an entertaining cast of misfits in the guise of one the best professional football teams of their era. Here, Peter Richmond tells the story of this cast of characters, and characters they were.
The distinctive personality of this team that set it apart from all others of the 1970s was the perception that this was a group of outlaws and rebels who thumbed their noses at convention. Add to this the fact many were castoffs from other teams for behavioral or other issues, and you had a truly volatile band of misfits. But somehow the affable John Madden, who was the perfect coach for this team, was able to take this group of irrepressible “adults” and mold them into a feared, championship football team. Having read this account of the 1970s Raiders, I almost liken John Madden to Santa Clause trapped on the island for misfit toys, trying to using his magic to make them whole.
Many of the players on these teams are ones most football fans will remember in perpetuity. You had Jack “The Assassin” Tatum, Gene Atkinson, Skip “Dr. Death” Thomas, and Willie Brown, aka The Soul Patrol, one of the most feared set of defensive backs in the league who relished huge hits, clothesline tackles, and knocking their opponents out of games. They also had characters like quarterback Ken Stabler, the bad southern Alabama boy, carouser and partier extraordinaire, linebackers Phil Villapiano and Ted Hendricks, and the truly crazy John Matuszak, along with the rest of the team full of similar head cases, creating a volatile mix of testosterone, craziness, and child like desire to have fun, on the field and off.
This was a hard-partying team and not an insignificant part of the book talks about Raiders’ training camps that were part hard-partying and hard-practicing and all the pranks the players pulled while preparing for the season. It was a fun-loving and wild group of men who John Madden somehow molded into winners. Partially he did it by letting them have their fun and treating them like men, but making sure that they practiced and played hard. While they might have been a wild, fun-loving bunch, they also loved football and wanted to win.
This book is clearly told from an unabashed Oakland Raiders fan’s perspective, which really worked well in this case. The author revels in the outlaw persona of this team, which went all the way up to the owner Al Davis, who also flouted convention and thumbed his nose at the powers that be in the National Football League.
And while they only won one Super Bowl in this era, a 32-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI after the 1976 season, they were always in the mix. They built up a strong rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who the author draws a clear contrast with. Had they not had one of the greatest football teams of all time as their nemesis, the Oakland Raiders may have been the team of the 1970s.
The author starts the book with the “Immaculate Reception,” one of the most famous plays in NFL history. With the Steelers desperately trying to stage a comeback in the 1972 playoffs against Oakland, down 7-6 with 22 seconds left in the game and hardly a prayer, Bradshaw threw a pass that careened off a receiver and was picked up off his shoe tops by running back Franco Harris who ran it in for the go-ahead score. At that time, if an offensive player touched the ball while it was in the air, another offensive player could not catch it. Argument ensues to this day whether they ball bounced off “Frenchy” Fuqua, the Pittsburgh running back, or Jack Tatum, who nailed him just as the ball arrived.
The author marks this as the beginning of the rise the Oakland Raiders whose “rebel image, their defiant owner, had stamped them as an enemy of civilized football.” He contrasts the “staid, old-world NFL Rooney’s franchise” with the “rebels of Al Davis, a man who bowed to no higher power.” He also throws words around like “benevolent” versus “demonic” and the “dark side.” That was the Oakland Raiders image, and they came to revel in it.
While this book chronicles the Oakland Raider’s seasons of the 1970s, it as much about the unusual character of the team as it is their exploits on the field. The author conducted extensive interviews with players from that era and has crafted a well done and very interesting read, really a must read for Oakland Raiders fans, but one that all football fans can enjoy. The only real drawback to the book is the author only had a very short and not very illuminating interview with Al Davis, who did seem very cooperative. But his perspective can be rather easily gleaned from his own actions and public pronouncements, so this has little impact on the completeness of this work.