Raiders

Mark Davis opens up as Raiders' second Oakland era dawns, Vegas awaits

Mark Davis opens up as Raiders' second Oakland era dawns, Vegas awaits

Growing up around the franchise his father, the legendary Al Davis, controlled for a half century, Mark Davis is never far from the memories that come when sifting through history. Which has made this year, the Raiders' last in Oakland, so fraught with emotion.

But not for the obvious reason, the team leaving its ancestral home.

Oh, sure, there is regret about how the Raiders' return to Oakland unfolded, the team coming back in 1995, after 13 years in Los Angeles, hoping but failing to regain the football dominance and local devotion that defined it from the mid-1960s through 1980. Part II never reached the heights of Part I, with Super Bowl victories, and the team and community forming a bond so tight that, to many, their 1982 departure was not unlike losing a family member.

That precise feeling has landed upon Davis this year. He is operating beneath a shroud of sorrow not because the team has all but extinguished its playoff hopes or because the last game in the faded, fabled Oakland Coliseum, scheduled for Sunday afternoon, will signal the end an era.

It’s because the Raiders are family to Davis, and many of his family members have left over the past 12 months.

Josh Atkinson, son of former Raider George Atkinson, passed away last December. His service in January was the beginning. In the months since, the Raiders have lost, to name a few, former running back Clem Daniels (March), former linebacker Dan Connors (April), former assistant coach Gunther Cunningham (May), Hall of Fame semifinalist Cliff Branch (August), former linebacker Neiron Ball (September) and Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown (October).

George Atkinson III, twin brother of Josh, died Nov. 29, three days before what would have been his 27th birthday.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” Davis said Friday. “To lose Cliff and Willie, so close together ... Willie was one of my mom’s best friends. And Cliff was my best friend. Those were really tough.

“It started with Josh. That was the early bookend. And now George, two weeks ago, is the other bookend. I hope. We still have another three weeks to go.”

Davis copes with the grief, he says, by compartmentalizing everything. There is an NFL team to run, meetings to attend -- such as two days in Dallas earlier this week -– and decisions to make that could affect the lives of thousands of people.

He understands there will be broken hearts, once more, when the team packs up and heads to Las Vegas. He also hopes fans will continue to support the team that in many ways gave Oakland an identity that spread around the globe.

“There’s no question about it,” Davis said. “The Raiders and Oakland grew up together. We were the stepchild of San Francisco. We were just Oakland. And I believe my dad took special pride in that and in building it up.

“The Raiders were born in Oakland, and Oakland will always be part of our DNA. There’s no doubt about that.”

The magic that made the Raiders special beyond the confines of the NFL was built in the 1960s and 1970s, behind stars such as Ken Stabler, Jack Tatum, Gene Upshaw, Lester Hayes, Jim Plunkett, Brown and Branch. They were high-profile, near-mythic figures, none more than Al Davis, the swaggering brash man at the top, taking no prisoners.

Part II in Oakland mostly was a disaster. The finances pleased no one. The team floundered through its worst of times. When Al Davis died in 2011, the Raiders had not had a winning season in eight years.

[RELATED: Derek Carr's special bond with Coliseum]

Which is why Mark Davis spent six years, beginning shortly after his father’s death, chasing Jon Gruden, whose culture change in 1998 pushed the team to three consecutive postseasons. Gruden finally relented in January 2018, lured back by a 10-year contract worth $100 million.

“We’re in a better place now,” Davis said. “We’ve got stability for the next 10 years.”

As the team goes to Vegas, the memories, good and bad, remain mostly in Oakland. Still, Davis’ fondest recall of Raiders in Oakland, Part II, is rather surprising inasmuch it did not occur in Gruden’s first term as coach or in any of the four playoff seasons over the past 24 years.

No, it came during the unremarkable two years during which Dennis Allen was the coach.

“The most memorable night, to me, was that Thursday night game against the Chiefs,” Davis said of a game played in 2014. “We were 0-10. It was pouring rain. The place was sold out and crazy. The crowd filled it up. We beat them (24-20) and got our first win of the season.

“That night was a reminder of what the Raider Nation is all about, and how they’ve supported the team and, hopefully, will continue to support the team in the future.”

That future will take place in Las Vegas, where $2 billion, 65,000-seat Allegiant Stadium, with a retractable dome, reportedly is 75 percent complete and expected to be ready to open before the 2020 season. It will have grass turf on a field that can be slid into and out of the stadium, as is the case with University of Phoenix Stadium, home of the Arizona Cardinals.

This, Davis insists, is the result of failed negotiations to keep the Raiders in Oakland. After numerous attempts over the past decade to strike a deal that would allow the team to remain in place, it reached a point where it became clear to Davis and his fellow NFL owners that the bargaining would not reach a satisfactory conclusion.

[RELATED: Raiders legends will struggle with Coliseum goodbye]

Vegas was waiting. The desert mecca flashed wads of cash and acres of land, and, well, Davis and his group decided to jump.

“The Oakland Raiders were established in 1960,” Davis said. “The Los Angeles Raiders were established in 1982. And the Las Vegas Raiders are being established in 2020. It’s a new era, and we’ve got a new residence.”

Davis said he’s not particularly nostalgic about Part II in Oakland. He went through all of that back in 1982. It’s about business now, and cherishing memories created by years of football but ultimately populated by people within the Raiders family.

Raiders' Darren Waller honors Frank Smith for unlocking true potential

Raiders' Darren Waller honors Frank Smith for unlocking true potential

Darren Waller used to hate football. With a passion.

That fact contrasts with the joy exuded while playing now as an elite NFL tight end. He loved every minute of a breakout Raiders season where he had 90 catches for 1,145 yards, but he's most proud of being consistent and, for the first time in forever, being someone you can count on.

Waller has been clean and sober more than two years now. That change has brought happiness back to his life and the game he once despised.

“I hated football from high school up until I got suspended [in 2017],” Waller said. “The sport was just a means to impress people and seem cool and cover up all these voids. I thought that, if I was successful, I could be happy. It wasn’t doing the trick, so there was a huge void in me I thought I could fill with drugs and alcohol.

“It took me having a near-death experience to question the things I was doing in my life. I stepped away from the game for a bit. If it was God’s plan for me to come back to the game, it’s now clear that it was. I came back with a new perspective and started enjoying it. I was open to coaches and have relationships with these people.”

The near-death experience came from a bad batch of pills two months after his yearlong suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy while with the Baltimore Ravens, when he sat in his car fighting to stay awake while thinking he might not make it out alive. Waller went to rehab shortly after that, a life choice he considers the foundation of all the good that has come since.

Waller’s personal life improved quickly, but his career didn’t really take off until the Raiders signed him off the Ravens practice squad late in 2018 and he started working with tight ends coach Frank Smith.

Smith challenged Waller to be great, a goal achieved in a shockingly short span. Waller’s now considered among the NFL’s elite tight ends and has become a role model for so many struggling with addiction by telling his story to anyone who will listen.

Waller believes that Smith unlocked true potential by caring about the person over the player, helping him in recovery and on the football field. That’s why Waller honored Smith at this year’s Coaching Corps’ Game Changer Awards, where athletes from different Bay Area professional sports teams honor coaches special in their lives.

Waller honored Smith at a Thursday ceremony in San Francisco, which will be broadcast Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. PT on NBC Sports Bay Area.

“I never had a relationship with a coach like I do with Frank,” Waller said. “I honestly text him more than I text my friends. We laugh every day at practice, but I seriously respect him as a teacher and a coach and an authority figure you can talk to as a friend. Nothing’s off limits. We can be real and honest with each other about everything. That’s so important to me, having him in my life.”

Smith values his relationship with Waller, which has grown over their two years working together.

“He’s an extremely intelligent person who is athletic,” Smith said. “But, if you don’t love football and give it everything you’ve got, you won’t progress. He’d be the first to tell you he wouldn’t sacrifice for the game. We weren’t seeing the best version of him. We were seeing a clouded version of himself blurred by his substance abuse. Then football was taken away, and he learned what he wanted to do.

"Now we’re seeing the full commitment, the full potential be realized.”

Smith admits that coaching Waller is different. His commitment to recovery mandates more involvement in Waller’s personal life, making sure his support system is in place. Smith took on that responsibility without hesitation, balancing his personal and professional duties while remaining an authority figure. He recognized Waller as a special case right away, that he was working with someone who could be great.

“He was humble. He was hungry to learn and hungry to work,” Smith said. “With his story, you can see every day how he cherishes life and embraces every obstacle. He never makes an excuse for anything, even with things that somebody else does. He’s the type of person who really has an effect on you, especially if you let him show you his transformative process.”

[RELATED: Carr 'looking forward' to being Raiders' QB in Vegas opener]

Waller let Smith in right away. He’s an open book about his struggles with drugs and alcohol and could tell that his position coach would help him in all aspects and stoke his passion for the game he thought he’d lost forever.

“Frank helped so much with my transition to the Raiders,” Waller said. “He has a friend that was in recovery like I am, who worked the 12-step program and went to rehab. He was able to understand me by understanding his friend. We learned a lot from each other, and he was able to welcome me in without putting too much pressure on me. But he wasn’t allowing me to be someone just happy to be there. He had me set goals, something I never did before that.

"He really opened my eyes to the fact that I could be great. I never really thought I could be great. I was too worried about all the pressure and the negative things. I never saw the game in a positive light. He helped me see that football can be so much fun if you’re not worried about things outside of what you can control.”

“Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards” presented by Levi’s airs Tuesday, January 28 at 7:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area

NFL rumors: Chargers have 'moved on' from longtime QB Philip Rivers

NFL rumors: Chargers have 'moved on' from longtime QB Philip Rivers

For 14 seasons, the Raiders and Philip Rivers have been rivals. Rivers' first NFL start fittingly came against the Raiders in 2006, his third professional season. 

That rivalry might be done, though. The Athletic's Jay Glazer said Monday on FS1's "The Herd with Colin Cowherd" that the Los Angeles Chargers have "moved on" from Rivers. 

Rivers, 38, will become a free agent this upcoming offseason. The 16-year veteran has spent his entire career for the Chargers, but it's unknown if he will continue playing in 2020. He already has moved his large family to Florida this offseason. 

The gunslinger was the No. 4 pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. He has an 18-9 career record against the Raiders with 47 touchdown passes -- his most against any opponent -- and 22 interceptions.

[RELATED: Carr 'looking forward' to being Raiders' QB in Vegas opener]

If the Chargers do move on from Rivers, they could try to grab a QB early in the 2020 draft. The Bolts own the No. 6 pick, and our own Josh Schrock has them taking Oregon's Justin Herbert in the first round. 

As the Raiders move to Las Vegas, it could be the end of an era with their Philip Rivers rivalry.