Greg Papa

Behind-the-scenes of Greg Papa's lost Barret Robbins prison interview

Behind-the-scenes of Greg Papa's lost Barret Robbins prison interview

Former Raiders center Barret Robbins knew a documentary film crew from the Bay Area traveled to Florida to see him in prison on Nov. 30, 2011 to discuss the events surrounding his disappearance just two days before Super Bowl XXXVII.

He had no idea Greg Papa was conducting the interview.

“He didn’t know I was going to be there,” Papa said. “When he saw me, he was so surprised and happy. We hugged.”

Robbins knew the longtime Raiders radio voice well from his playing days, and the surprise reunion proved a welcome ice breaker before starting a two-day interview that would be the centerpiece of a long-form documentary on Robbins by the regional sports network now known as NBC Sports Bay Area nearly 10 years after his infamous Super Bowl disappearance, including his life before and after the event.

The feature was ultimately called off and the interview shelved but dusted off for use in NBC’s “Sports Uncovered” long-form podcast series in an episode that debuted July 9.

Robbins had done these Super Bowl XXXVII interviews before, several times in fact. This one, however, was probing and at times tough. Papa was diving deep and, after an hour or so, the tension rose an octave.

[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]

It was accentuated by the environment, a small room not much bigger than an actual prison cell, with three cameras on tripods and lots of lights. Papa, producer Matt Abrams and videographer Steve Uhalde were packed in a room with Robbins and a prison guard.

Robbins started to bristle at some topics and the mood started to shift in these tight quarters.

“You could tell from his body language and his demeanor that he was done answering these types of questions, because they were getting really personal and we were starting to re-question some of his decisions,” Uhalde said. “It wasn’t just his side of the story. We were actively questioning why he did things. You could see he was done with it, and I remembered a point where his mood kind of changed, and I thought they were going to shut the interview down. I looked over the guard was actually sleeping in the chair.”

Papa, the crew and Robbins agreed to shut it down for the day.

“It was a weird moment where you could tell he was done with us,” Uhalde said. “It got to the point where I wasn’t sure he was going to show up for Day 2. He seemed that upset after Day 1.”

Guards at Dade Correctional Institute led the NBC crew back and forth through the prison yard and into the general population, giving them a first-hand look at how Robbins and others were living during a time where he was serving time for a drug probation violation.

While they left the first interview session wondering if there would be a second, Robbins showed up ready for another round.

“He showed up and apologized for his mood the previous day,” Uhalde said. “He acknowledged that he wasn’t ready for the line of questioning but, given the night to reassess and get ready for tough questions, he was great. Over the course of the two days, he was not shy about answering any question honestly, including some about steroids use and why he used cocaine to his marijuana use and his life after football, which hadn’t gone how anybody would want it to.”

Robbins has had several run-ins with the law, both before and after his NFL career ended. His mental health issues and struggles with bipolar disorder have been a factor in all of that, including some dramatic moments that put him in a terrible light.

He was open and honest about them all.

“He was so articulate and willing to open up,” Papa said. “I remember leaving there and calling everybody that I knew, saying that this was the most fascinating experience of my professional life.”

Uhalde hadn’t thought much about the interview after taping until it was unearthed for “Sports Uncovered,” when we went back through the sessions from every camera angle. Memories of those days came flooding back.

“I’ve never seen the bad side of Barret,” Uhalde said. “I’ve only seen the up-close, in-person interview we had, and I left that day thinking he was a good guy who obviously made some mistakes ... He’s a guy you still kind of root for and hope that he would do the things necessary to get his life back in order. Re-watching it reminded me of all those things. It solidified that opinion of him.

"If this is a good version of Barret, he’s a nice guy who answered a lot of tough questions that even a normal person like me would be very annoyed to have to answer. Retracing some of the worst moments of your life would be tough for anyone, and he handled it as well as anyone I’ve been around facing that line of questioning.”

While most know Robbins from one sensational Super Bowl story, Papa hopes the podcast and the interview, now available in a condensed version on YouTube, show Robbins in three full dimensions.

[RELATED: Raiders' party culture was Robbins' downfall]

“People are going to think about Barret Robbins and snicker and laugh and think, ‘We know what happened to him.’ ” Papa said. “There are reasons why people get driving to this extreme. There are extenuating circumstances, and Barret Robbins had a life worth living. He lived a great life in many respects. It could’ve been much greater had people embraced mental health on the professional sports side of it.

“I think that guy, in his own way, was crying out for help. He didn’t get the help he deserved, that he needed. I don’t want people to remember Barret Robbins that way. I don’t want that, but I can’t prevent it. By doing this podcast, telling his story, people will hopefully get to know the Barret Robbins that I got to know.”

Bill Callahan's 'dumbest team in America' rant sealed his Raiders fate

Bill Callahan's 'dumbest team in America' rant sealed his Raiders fate

Editor’s note: Sports Uncovered, the newest podcast from NBC Sports, shines a fresh light on some of the most unforgettable moments in sports. The fifth episode tells the story of "The Mysterious Disappearance that Changed a Super Bowl," chronicling Barret Robbins' absence from Super Bowl XXXVII.

The Raiders were in the midst of a championship window when Jon Gruden got traded to Tampa Bay during the 2002 offseason. It was a shock to the locker room to be sure.

Gruden was beloved in the locker room, someone who cared about his players and took the Raiders from the AFC depths to the Super Bowl.

Raiders players didn’t care about future draft haul, even if it came in the massive sum of two first-round draft picks and two more in the second round. The $8 million went in owner Al Davis’ pocket, not theirs.

Losing Gruden was a real blow.

“When you lost Gruden, you lost a guy that, as a player, I would stop a bullet for,” former Raiders offensive lineman Mo Collins said in NBC Sports' latest episode of the “Sports Uncovered” documentary podcast. “I mean, that’s how much I want to play for Gruden. You knew that, when things got hot, he had your back.”

[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]

The Raiders promoted offensive coordinator Bill Callahan to replace Gruden, and it didn’t go well despite reaching Super Bowl XXXVII. Gruden’s Buccaneers walloped the Raiders 48-21.

The Raiders never recovered from that loss. They fell on hard times during the 2003 season under Callahan, finishing with a 4-12 record that was the worst by a team that was in the Super Bowl the year before.

Callahan's fate was sealed after a Nov. 30, 2003 loss after a mistake-riddled loss to Denver when he called the Raiders the “dumbest team in America in terms of playing the game,” in an epic postgame rant.

NBC Sports Bay Area’s Greg Papa, former longtime voice of the Raiders and an Al Davis confidant, said that was the last straw.

“Al was seething,” Papa said of the longtime owner. “You don’t call his team dumb. That was it. He was done.”

Callahan was fired at season’s end, proving the selection didn’t work. It looked good at first, considering how bad the players wanted continuity.

They didn’t want a major setback to follow the Gruden trade, so team leaders Lincoln Kennedy, Tim Brown, Rich Gannon and Charlie Garner went to Davis to find a replacement on the current coaching staff.

“We said, ‘Look, we have to hire from within because we have a good thing going,’ ” Kennedy said. “Knowing this, another coach is going to bring in a different philosophy and we take two steps back. We were right on the cusp of doing something. I think he took our word for it.”

Davis apparently agreed with his players -- whether or not that talk swayed him is unknown -- promoting Callahan to head coach.

While veteran leaders wanted continuity, some didn’t like the ultimate selection. Brown remains vocal in his disappointment in the hire, saying on “Sports Uncovered” that Callahan was the worst thing that happened to the Raiders organization.

“Callahan didn’t care about us,” Brown said. “He could care less about us. It was a job for him. With Gruden there were relationships there.”

That didn’t stop the Raiders from reaching the Super Bowl in Callahan's first season as head coach. Several interviewed for NBC Sports' podcast blamed Callahan for losing the Super Bowl to Gruden’s new team, but there were ultimately several factors at play.

That included the disappearance of center Barret Robbins during Super Bowl week, which led to him not playing in the game and is the primary focus of the latest Sports Uncovered episode.

[RELATED: Party culture led to Robbins' downfall]

What happened in that Super Bowl ultimately impacted what happened with Callahan the following year.

“When we lost to [Tampa Bay in the 2002 season], it was to Jon Gruden and this West Coast offense, which [Al Davis] didn’t like," Papa said. "He loved Bill Walsh but he didn’t like the offense. He lost to Monte Kiffin and the Tampa 2 defense and he didn’t like that.

“So the next year in training camp, we completely changed the offense. And it was more of an Al Davis vertical passing, down-the-field team, but it did not suit Rich Gannon’s skills. It did not suit a 40-year old Jerry Rice and a mid-to-late 30s Tim Brown. It just didn’t fit what we had. There’s no question that Al wanted that done. But where Callahan lost everything is when he had that epic rant after one of those losses where he said, ‘we’re the dumbest team in America.’”

Al Davis never got over Raiders' Super Bowl loss to Bucs, Greg Papa says

Al Davis never got over Raiders' Super Bowl loss to Bucs, Greg Papa says

Editor’s note: Sports Uncovered, the newest podcast from NBC Sports, shines a fresh light on some of the most unforgettable moments in sports. The fifth episode tells the story of "The Mysterious Disappearance that Changed a Super Bowl," chronicling Barret Robbins' absence from Super Bowl XXXVII.

Al Davis hated to lose, no shock for someone synonymous with “Just win, baby.” The Raiders' longtime owner and football chief enjoyed plenty of success, building a perennial playoff contender with three Lombardi Trophies in the case.

Davis’ last chance at a fourth particularly hurt, especially after the Raiders got robbed by the Tuck Rule and lost in the AFC title game the two previous years.

A 48-21 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII wasn’t painful just because of built-up frustration.

There were several factors at play.

The first, and most obvious: The Raiders got trounced.

The pre-game setback (and massive distraction): his Pro Bowl center Barret Robbins wasn’t available after going on a bender the two days before -- Robbins's mental health made things more complicated than it originally seemed -- in a story that broke not long before the game. 

The real stinger: they lost to Jon Gruden, a head coach that Davis traded to Tampa Bay roughly a year before.

All that influenced a disastrous day at the office for Davis. It's discussed in great detail on Thursday’s episode of NBC’s “Sports Uncovered” podcast, which focuses on Robbin’s disappearance and its root causes, while looking at all reasons why the Raiders lost that Super Bowl.

[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]

Part of that analysis was Davis’ reaction to the end result. As you'd expect, he took it to heart.

NBC Sports Bay Area’s Greg Papa called Super Bowl XXXVII on the radio and was entrenched with the Raiders leading up to the game. The former, longtime voice of the Raiders was close to Davis and knew how much this loss hurt the late Raiders owner.

“Al was a sore loser to the highest level,” Papa said. “He didn’t tolerate losing. It just wasn’t part of his mentality … He was a fierce competitor, so whenever he lost, you could see it all over his face. He was a sore loser; a pissed-off loser, but this look on his face, it was the kind of look if someone told you that you had terminal cancer, your wife or husband was going to die or had died.

“It was just the look on his face. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the most painful expression. I honestly thought, he’ll never get over this. He’ll never -- even if they come back next year and win, he’s never going to get over this game.”

Papa knew that losing to Gruden exasperated that sentiment. Tampa Bay made an insane offer for Gruden: two first-round draft picks, two second-round picks and $8 million. For a coach. That’s insane, and Davis took an offer that would've been hard to logically refuse. The popular coach hoping for a contract extension with the Raiders was shipped across the country, only to lead his new team to victory over his old one. Locking horns and eventually losing to an ally-turned-motivated opponent was particularly difficult.

“I really believe he changed forever after that game,” Papa said. “He was never the same person. His body began to break down. … And he became maniacal, increasingly maniacal, about trying to over--, you know, to change it. To the day he died, I don’t think he ever got over that loss.”