Two years ago, Warren Wells flew from his home in Beaumont, Texas, to light the Al Davis memorial torch at Oakland Coliseum. He’d been in uncertain health for some time, so the trip had particular significance both for him and for those who remember the flame from his own brief but prescient career as an Oakland Raider.
Wells, who died this week after a long battle with congestive heart failure at age 76, was one of the first of the great deep-threat receivers in pro football history, and in being joined with the throw-often, throw-deep-and-damn-the-torpedoes Raiders of the late pre-merger 1960s, he found his truest athletic calling. He was the player who opened the field for all of the Raiders’ other big-play offensive schemes, and his career, short though it was, still is remembered with great affection by remaining old-time Raiders fans.
In four years with Oakland, from 1967 to 1970, after one year with the Detroit Lions and two years serving in Vietnam, Wells averaged 23.3 yards per catch, which was the best in NFL history until the league changed the guidelines and imposed a 200-reception minimum (he finished with 158), and he led the AFL twice in touchdown receptions. He played in Super Bowl II against the Green Bay Packers, and was named to the first NFL-AFL All-Pro team.
But at the zenith of his powers, Wells ran into legal and substance issues that afflicted a good portion of his post-football life. That included an arrest after the 1971 Pro Bowl for a probation violation from a 1969 conviction for attempted rape. one of several scrapes that induced Davis, who always had been more than merely lenient with talented players with checkered pasts, to release Wells after that season. Wells was jailed for 10 months in 1971, and after being released by the Raiders, he never played football again.
Wells' post-football career became increasingly difficult, including a period in which he was homeless, and he was victimized repeatedly, including by the substance abuse center Synanon, and his was among the cases in the first NFL settlement with former players for damage from football. In all, his own demons and those who sought him out combined to make the bulk of Wells' life a nightmare.
The brevity of Wells’ career doesn't do his football impact justice, and he might have had the same career trajectory as teammate Fred Biletnikoff, who was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988. As it was, Wells' career took on the trappings of a cautionary tale, and he largely was forgotten by the time the team returned to Oakland after a 13-year hiatus in Los Angeles.
But such is the nature of history that greatness without both curiosity and video evidence often is forgotten. Wells is a classic what-if tale, an emergent star whose personal demons and predators overcame not just his life as a football player but as a man.