I haven’t been to a Starbucks since February 2012. I rarely drink coffee anyway, so the idea of overpaying for something I can’t truly appreciate leaves me cold.
But on that cool late winter’s day seven years ago, I went to Starbucks because that’s where Clemon Daniels wanted to meet. And when Clem Daniels requests your presence, you go.
We spent about two hours there, him revisiting his life and me listening while also trying to suppress the occasional lump in my throat. An Oakland Raiders legend and an Oakland Tribune columnist sitting in a busy coffee house discussing football and race and things that ring true.
Another lump rose within my throat Monday morning when I heard that Mr. Daniels had left us. Gone at 83.
I was stunned – I guess I thought he was too tough to die – and sad and, then, at least a little bit angry.
Why? Mr. Daniels, the all-time leading rusher in the American Football League, deserved better.
A man who had survived the ugliest of America with his chin high, his mind perceptive and his tongue unyielding deserved better.
I came to know Mr. Daniels in the 1990s after the Raiders returned to Oakland after an unsatisfying 13-year exploration of Los Angeles. Mr. Daniels came to games. He showed up in training camp. He attended Raiders-related social events. In due time, he was something of a buffer between Raiders boss Al Davis and that Oakland Tribune columnist who criticized the team and some of its business practices.
If I wanted to know what Mr. Davis was thinking, Mr. Daniels was one of the people I would seek out. There were times he was able to explain decisions and other times when he would admit he didn’t have an explanation. Either way, I came away from those conversations believing that Mr. Daniels was very much his own man while also being loyal to Mr. Davis. I never once felt any trust was being breached.
But it wasn’t until we met in Starbucks less than four months after the passing of Mr. Davis that I fully understood the basis and depth of that loyalty.
Clem Daniels grew up in McKinney, Texas, a small segregated town about 30 miles north of Dallas. His mother, Ida Louise, was a housekeeper for a bank chairman who was a member of the town’s elite, a man who shook Clem’s hand after the youngster graduated from high school, wished him well at historically black Prairie View and then later that day told Ida Louise that the next time her son came by the house he is to come through the back door.
The youngster, then 17, found out only after pleading with his mother to tell him what was bothering her. That’s when her words tumbled out beneath tears sliding down her face.
So when Al Davis stood up for Daniels and his black teammates facing segregation at hotels in the 1960s south, Clem was experiencing something he’d never known: A white man not only seeking fairness but demanding it.
Not that he always got what he wanted from Davis. To the contrary, they had their squabbles, usually over money. But Daniels always knew he had the ear of Davis and the two spent many games in the owner’s box at the Oakland Coliseum. There was a mutual respect that allowed them to tell each other the truth even when it was unwelcome.
When Mr. Davis would go full ornery, yelling and cussing and careening down an irrational path, Mr. Daniels would respond calmly, the sober voice of reason. He may have been the closest thing there was to an “Al Whisperer.”
Traded after his rookie season (1960) by the Dallas Texans to the Oakland Raiders, Mr. Daniels played seven seasons for the Raiders before retiring in 1968 with 5,101 yards, a total never to be approached, much less broken. He compiled 1,784 yards (1,099 rushing, 685 receiving) in 1963. Running with a punishing style that took a toll on his body, he is a four-time All-Star and a member of the All-time All-AFL team.
Perhaps because he retired two years before the AFL-NFL merger, Mr. Daniels didn’t get the full measure of props he earned. Comfortable with himself, he was a serene lion of a man.
A gentleman off the field but always on a quiet quest for equality, and often succeeding, he had to settle for the complete and utter respect of those that got to know him.
A few days after we met at Starbucks, Mr. Daniels was the guest of honor for a ceremony at the Oakland Marriott. Among those attending and speaking were Bill Russell, Joe Morgan, Jim Otto and both Willie Browns, the former San Francisco mayor and the Hall of Fame cornerback.
I’ve spoken with Mr. Daniels a few times since that 2012 interview. I’d get occasional updates from my chiropractor’s office manager, who was a close friend. I’ve thought of him every time I’ve driven past the San Leandro Starbucks where we met.
That will not change now that he has left us.