Warren Wells

Warren Wells documentary illustrates Raiders star WR nobody knew about

Warren Wells documentary illustrates Raiders star WR nobody knew about

Warren Wells got busted for violating terms of his probation. That meant big trouble for the all-star Raiders receiver, the most prolific deep threat in professional football history and possibly the best player most people have never heard of.

He got stabbed at a bar in Beaumont, Texas, where he was being recognized among a large number of professional football players from his hometown after the NFL 1970 season.

Wells wasn’t viewed as the victim there. He was in an establishment that primarily served alcohol, and therefore violated probation resulting from a no contest plea to aggravated assault in 1969.

It didn’t matter that he was there on a Sunday, when serving booze was prohibited. The incident put him in front of Oakland-based Superior Court judge Leonard Dieden, and changed his life forever.

Few know exactly what happened to this awesome talent before or after that pivot point when he went off the rails and never truly recovered.

Ted Griggs provides the answers in his documentary, “Split End: The Curious Case of Warren Wells.” The president of programming for NBC Sports regional networks, a Hayward native who formerly ran NBC Sports Bay Area spent roughly four years on this passion project, which premieres Saturday at 7 p.m. on NBC Bay Area.

Griggs also joined the Raiders Insider Podcast to discuss the making of the documentary and provide further insight into a fascinating story without a happy ending.

“He did make mistakes,” Griggs said, “but I think he paid for them more than most people would.”

Dieden ordered Wells enter Synanon, a controversial organization that sold itself as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center but was more like a cult operating without government oversight.

He was also, inexplicably, forced to sell his Cadillac.

Wells had his troubles before that decision, but he was never the same after spending six months at a Synanon facility.

“That’s where Warren was sent,” Griggs said. “I don’t think he was in good condition when he got there, and was in worse condition when he left.”

Wells wasn’t the same person or the same player. He tried and failed to make the Raiders roster in 1972, and never played professional football again.

“There are a number of things that all worked together,” Griggs said. “Warren did have an alcohol problem. I do think he went into Synanon with pre-existing psychological issues, but I think they were exacerbated and made worse by that experience. I think the worst thing for him, was to be out of football and not have that grounding.

“… (Former Raiders tight end) Raymond Chester said he was like Picasso, and I think that was really (apt) because he could do things normally, but Warren was transcendent when he broke the rules on a football field. To take the paintbrush away from Picasso is the greatest punishment of all. To take football away from Warren was the most debilitating thing you could do to him.”

Remembering Warren Wells, a prototypical Raider from their best past

Remembering Warren Wells, a prototypical Raider from their best past

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.

Warren Wells, former Oakland Raiders wide receiver, dies at 76

Warren Wells, former Oakland Raiders wide receiver, dies at 76

Warren Wells was an excellent football player, a speed demon and a generational athlete often seen streaking downfield, hauling in passes while part of the high-flying Oakland Raiders passing attack.

Great is an adjective attributed to too many, but it fit a receiver as dominant as any in his or any era.

Just ask Hall of Fame receiver Fred Biletnikoff, who believes Wells “was probably the most impressive receiver I ever saw.”

Wells was dominant. He was feared. He was productive taking yards in massive chunks. He caught 156 passes for 3,634 yards, 42 touchdowns and a whopping 23.1 yards per reception during a Raiders tenure that burned white hot but flamed out fast.

Wells played four seasons with the Raiders, from 1967 to 1970, when the Silver and Black were stars of the American Football League. He wasn't a superstar for long. That’s why his on-field exploits aren’t stored in enough memory banks, even among modern members of Raider Nation.

Now is a good time to recall them, and honor a great player and often-troubled man who died this week of congestive heart failure in Beaumont, Texas, NBC Sports Bay Area learned.

Wells was 76 years old.

He had legal issues stemming from a 1969 conviction for aggravated assault and a probation violation in 1971 -- he was arrested right after the Pro Bowl -- and he never played NFL football again.

Wells' career started with the Detroit Lions, who let him go after one season. The Raiders signed him after a two-year stint in the Army, and he then became a star for the Silver and Black.

“If he had played long enough,” former Raiders coach John Madden said, “he could have been the greatest receiver that ever played.”

[RELATED: Ray Ratto recalls Wells as classic what-if tale]

Wells' time in the spotlight was brief. Troubled times followed after it went out, and Wells struggled with substance abuse and further issues with the law.

There was no doubting Wells' athletic ability, which would have translated to any area. There was no doubting his ability to produce and compete at the highest level, and career longevity would have placed him among revered all-time Raiders greats. Instead he might be considered one of the most underrated players of the Raiders’ golden age.

“Just a remarkable football player,” said Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf, a longtime Raiders scout and personnel man starting in 1963. “And the country doesn’t know anything about him. That’s what is so sad.”