The first time I actually met the Oakland Raiders ‘ Ben Davidson was in 1998, when I interviewed him for my master’s thesis, which I wrote about Sid Gillman. I met Ben at his home on Mt. Helix, and we spoke about the Chargers, Raiders, and how teams planned to defend against Gillman’s offenses. As always, Ben was a fantastic interview.
AFL - The Raiders and the Chargers played against each other many times each year. In preparation for these games, what would the Raiders do differently to combat the Chargers?
BD – Well, the Chargers offense was a combination of good competent offensive linemen, witness Ron Mix to protect the quarterback. Whoever it was. Wide receivers like Gary Garrison and certainly Lance Alworth. They had a good tight end part of the time with Willie Frazier. So they had some good weapons. That coupled with Sid Gillman’s understanding of the dynamics of sending wide receivers down…actually you’re probably talking to the wrong guy to know exactly what the Raiders did. My job was pretty simple; get the guy with the teenage numbers. We really didn’t have anything on the line to do differently. When you called and said you wanted to talk about Sid Gillman’s offense, one interesting thing that happened to me is that they brought Lance Alworth in tight. I was a right defensive end and there was no tight end on my side and they brought Lance Alworth in tight. Potentially a blocker. My mind is racing, saying, “why did they do that? They’re not going to block me with Lance Alworth. They wouldn’t do that. Why would they put Lance in here where somebody could hit him in the mouth for being in here.” And it went back and forth through my mind that now he’s just going to run down field and this is one of Sid’s interesting new formations. So the last thought I had was they didn’t bring him in here to block me and I ignored. And sure enough he got me tangled up and they made a little gain around the side. Then I ran off the field then after we got off the field and the coach, the defensive line coach was screaming at me. “How can you let Lance Alworth block you? He’s a wide receiver!” So strangely, later in the game, in the second half they brought him in again. You know I might be a lineman, but I’m not stupid, he blocked me once. So I ignored whatever else was going on and made sure I punished Lance Alworth for having the audacity to think he could do that to me twice, and they never brought him in there again. So, what’s the saying there, “Do it to me once, shame on you. Do it to me twice, shame on me.” So I didn’t let him do it to me twice. But as far as any exotic preparation, I wasn’t party to that area. If I was, I didn’t treat it any differently, all I knew was I had to pass rush. The guy I played against mostly was Terry Owens and he was a good offensive tackle. Not a real big guy, but a real good movement, good foot work, quick. So if you talked to a linebacker maybe or a defensive back, they might have additional insight into Sid Gillman’s passing attack. But I know Al Davis was greatly influenced by his time spent with the Chargers and Sid Gillman.
AFL - Conversely, what were some of the things that the Raiders may have done that were trouble for the Chargers?
BD – Well, I don’t really remember what. I know we very seldom would lose to the Chargers. They might beat us, we played them three times a year and once in preseason. It was a cheap trip to San Diego, so I think that is why we scheduled each other in the preseason. It would be a kind of home and away every other preseason I think. Then we played them obviously twice in the regular season and I don’t know that they ever beat us in the regular season. I don’t know that we did anything special. I know that early on when Ernie Ladd was still playing and Earl Faison and some of their, probably their better defensive lines that they had through the Charger history. I know that we had an offensive lineman named Wayne Hawkins who was a pretty small guy. He was probably only about 6-feet or 6’1” and about 250 and he had to play against Ernie Ladd. He used to joke that he just tried to grab a hold of his belt or his pants and pull him down on top of him and hope that Ernie didn’t lay on him for too long on a serious passing situation. So that might have been one of the things we had to do special for the Chargers. And Ernie was the kind of guy who, like a lot of big guys, he was pretty passive. If you didn’t rile Ernie up and just talked to him and be nice to him and talk about family to him and just try to keep Ernie calmed down so he didn’t get too fired up and start hurting people. I know John Hadl was excitable. You could play with John Hadl. When I say excitable, a good example of not being excitable was one time I couldn’t get to Johnny Unitas and I just kicked at him and I ended up kicking him. And actually knocked him down by kicking him and I walked by him and thought he’d look up at me and curse or something but he just ignored me. The next play was a third-and-long situation and the receiver got loose and ran down field and actually scored a touchdown on the next play. So I figured, “well, turn-about’s fair play. I gotta walk by Johnny Unitas and let him say something to me.” And he still ignored me. So he was pretty imperturbable. But John Hadl was pretty excitable and you could play with him. So I know one time I got him to throw a ball at me and the reporters made a big deal that John Hadl had thrown a ball at me. I said, “he wasn’t really trying to hurt me with the ball. He was just trying to embarrass me because he knew I couldn’t catch it.” They thought that was a great quote. But that was one of the things we tried to do on defense was get John Hadl thinking about what we were doing to him, rather than what he could do to us. TT – How was the Chargers attack different from the Raiders attack, offensively?
BD – Well, I think they were really pretty similar. A good possession guy, we had Fred Biletnikof who could get down and get you the ball on your third-and-short situations and go up and fight for the ball and get loose, just get loose for that couple of seconds, the one second maybe that he needed to get the ball. He knew he was going to get tackled, but he had a great knack for getting to the right place and getting open the right time and Daryl Lamonica would get the ball to him. I don’t know who the Chargers would have comparable to that. Then of course, we had good, fast wide receivers. One of which was Warren Wells. Not to compare Warren Wells to Lance Alworth, but they were both guys that could get way down field and get the ball. So I think maybe we were similar and since Al Davis did serve under Sid Gillman, and I know he brought a lot to the Raiders from Sid Gillman, so I think the attacks were pretty similar.
AFL - You had mentioned earlier that you probably weren’t the best person to ask this question, but I’ll kind of ask it anyway. Gillman tried to key on match-ups. He tried to pair his best offensive people against the weakest from the defensive team. What did the Raiders do to try and stop that?
BD – Well, it was always interesting to me the first play of the game, which many times would be a running play, to see who the opposing coach thought he could run on. It was always kind of an embarrassment if they came out and tried to run right over your area. So our deal on defense was to shut down that first play. If they did have the audacity to try us, to try and shut it down and put an end to that nonsense and let them go try somewhere else and hopefully be successful. Because we’re not the smartest guys, but we know if we send them somewhere else to do their dirty work that you were a lot better off just to be pursuing and jumping on the pile rather than have to take the brunt of the blocking and the ball carriers and lead backs and blocking carriers coming through our zone. Part of our strategy was if they did test us, and I just talked to him a few minutes ago, my tackle that I played next to for seven years, Tom Keating. We would take great offense if they thought they could run anywhere in the six or eight feet that we controlled there. If they would try us on the first play of the game that was a real insult. We would make sure that we would answer in kind. My linebacker, Gus Otto and Willie Brown were also sought about the same thing. Send them back to the other side and let those guys get all the tackles. We can be out here and be close to a good game and watch them do their work. That was our strategy.
AFL - Gillman used the tight end a lot more than most people. What did you guys have to do to play against that?
BD – I mentioned Willie Frazier earlier. He was kind of a prototype of the modern tight end, maybe a little smaller. But he was a competent blocker and a guy with good speed and good size and good mobility. So he was kind of the forerunner of the modern tight end or what the tight end evolved to for a while. A guy that could block with good height. And so for instance our tight end for part of that time was Billy Cannon, who was a converted full back. Not great size, not a great blocker and didn’t want to be a great blocker, cause he didn’t like blocking. But he could get in somebody’s way. He was more of a guy you could get the ball to if he got clear down field. Get the ball to him and he could make some great runs because he was smaller and quicker and he had been a running back. That was our game. So Willie Frazier was a big guy who could block and could catch the ball very well and run good patterns.
AFL - Was there a weak part of Gillman’s offense that you guys tried to attack? Was there ever really a wink link in the game?
BD – Yeah, I think the Chargers running game probably wasn’t as good as some of the other teams. In fact, after Keith Lincoln, I can’t really think of any of the other guys they had there early on. I can’t remember their names now. But…
AFL - Lowe?
BD – Yeah, Paul Lowe. That’s who I was thinking of. I can’t think of a Chargers standout running back that we really feared. Or we thought was going to hurt us, opposed to maybe a player like, I ‘m trying to think of a player who was good back the. The Patriots, back then the Boston Patriots had Jim Nance who was a big, strong fullback. You certainly had to pay attention to him because he could…in fact he gained over 100 yards on us one game. Of course the name Cookie Gilchrist. Cookie didn’t play very long, but was a guy you certainly had to pay attention to because he was about 6’4”, 250-something and didn’t have any sense. He’d try to run over defensive linemen and nobody really liked playing against Cookie too much. But the Chargers, I can’t think of a standout running back that we really had to fear. So that was probably their weak point. That was their emphasis on the passing game and long passes and not really having a real competent running game to back it up.
AFL - How was Gillman viewed by other players around the league?
BD – Well, I didn’t really know much about Sid. I never really had much to do with him. Some coaches you would actually take a dislike to and on that rare occasion when you did have a chance to get over into the opposing, you’d try to run over them or try to hit them. But I never really felt any animosity towards Sid Gillman. Maybe because we used to win just about every game against them, so I didn’t develop any specific dislike for him. But I remember one, it wasn’t Sid but one of the Charger owners. And I don’t know why I happen to know him, but George Pernicano. He was a little handlebar mustache and a little short guy and he stood out on the sideline. I know one time I was pursuing and I got over on the Chargers sideline and I really had to work to dodge him. I was about to run over him and I really had to jeopardize my own safety not to hit him and actually got my finger caught. He had a tie on with a tie pin in it and I got one of my fingers in his tie between the knot and the tie pin. I worked to not jerk him down, actually not hurt my finger too, getting caught in his tie. So no, I wasn’t looking to hit Sid like maybe some other coaches who would yell at you or say unkind things when you got over near their sideline. But I got to know Sid later on, playing in a couple of flag football games that he coached, either the AFL team or…anyway, I played in a couple of those games for Sid and he was a delightful guy and I really admired his football knowledge. And I did have an occasion to play in a flag football game, I did play in a couple for Sid and then one for John McKay and this was after he retired from Tampa Bay. John McKay did not say one word to us. He had no idea about coaching flag football and he stood around with a cocktail in his hand and watched. Whoever was our quarterback had some experience and he did the whole thing. I guess John McKay got a paycheck for it, but he stayed out of the way pretty well. But Sid got out there and drew up plays. Comparing the two, Sid was a lot more vocal as a flag football coach. But a delightful guy. Very respectful too. It’s always fun to meet a coach after the fact and see how cordial they treat you and whether they had any respect for you or not. And Sid led me to believe that he would have liked to have me on his side, so that’s a nice compliment.
AFL - Similarly, how were the Chargers viewed by teams and players around the league?
BD – I always liked their uniforms, colorful uniforms as opposed to the drab silver and black. Chargers had a great place to play. I always liked the weather in San Diego, in fact that’s why I live here. And the turf in San Diego was always great. I always thought that was the best turf in the league in Jack Murphy Stadium. Then the Chargers were always pretty generous when we came to play them, so I liked the Chargers. Pretty uniforms, good weather, good field, pretty nice guys playing on the team. So I always liked coming to San Diego. And I don’t know about other teams. I assume other guys thought the same thing, especially if you came from Buffalo or New York or Boston and came to San Diego in the winter time. I’m sure you’d think the weather was pretty nice too.
AFL - Al Davis came to the Raiders from the Chargers prior to the ‘63 season. How did he use his knowledge from the Chargers to make the Raiders a better team?
BD – Well, that’s hard to say. As I said, being a defensive lineman it’s pretty simple pass rush or play the run. So I never really got to see much of the strategy, or how it varied from team to team. I know one Al Davis comment to me. We were getting ready to play the Chargers and it was in the middle of the week and Al walked by me and said, “they’re laughing at you in San Diego.” I looked at him and said, “ you can’t use that child psychology on me. I’m a grown man.” Then laying in bed that night I’m looking up at the ceiling, “are they really laughing at me in San Diego?” So maybe Al, I think he probably could have used that story on any team, but that may be something he got from Sid Gillman. That’s kind of a Sid Gillmanesque statement.
AFL - Did Al ever talk about Gillman? What were his thoughts regarding the coach?
BD – I don’t think Al, I don’t think he would ever acknowledge that he ever got any help from anyone or that it was something that anyone had ever contributed to his or our success. It would be uncharacteristic of him. At least back in those days. He may have mellowed in his old age. TT – Sid Gillman was one of the first coaches ever to use film as a tool for coaching. Did Davis bring film study to the Raiders, or were they doing that prior?
BD – Boy, I wouldn’t know. I didn’t get to the Raiders till ‘64 and Al had been there a couple years. When did Al get there, ‘62?
AFL - Al got there just prior to the ‘63 season.
BD – Oh, all right. So I don’t know, but I know we were watching film in ‘61 with the Green Bay Packers and ‘62 and ‘63 with the Redskins. So I assume it was pretty standard back then.
AFL - How did, speaking about the entire AFL, how did the entire AFL change pro football?
BD – Well, boy. Everything from the names on the back of the jerseys to causing the upstart leagues; the World Football League in ‘74 to the USFL to other groups they could… It’s still going on now. Evidently there’s going to be a Ted Turner CBS league. So I guess giving the people the hope that they could emulate the AFL. I think bringing a little more pizzazz to the league. The NFL was pretty stayed, the proverbial “three yards and a cloud of dust.” I think it had more an image of that. The AFL of course was just like Sid Gillman and the Chargers. Opening it up, long passes down field, acrobatic wide receivers going up to get the ball, gaining big chunks of yardage at a time. I think that was an AFL characteristic. Running up big scores, I don’t remember who they were playing, but I think Houston figured in a game where both teams went over 50 points. That was kind of a far cry from World Cup Soccer, to say the least. It was more wide open football. Actually I kind of enjoyed, I thought it was fun time to be playing football. In a TV interview I talked about how we were always the Avis of football. We had to try harder, fly through the air more. And I always thought the officials were a little more…they were trying to make the league go to and so the more goofy, spectacular, bodies flying through the air. And the officials, if you did happen to land on a quarterback, it was not the end of the world, because it might be something that will help the league somewhere down the road. I always thought the officials had a little better sense of humor. I’ve heard the NFL described as the No Fun League, well then what we had back in the AFL was a far cry from what the NFL has become now. It’s pretty much a businessman with oversized people working for them.
AFL – Why do you think there was so much more passing in the AFL? Was it just a means of making it exciting?
BD – Well, I don’t know if there weren’t enough good running backs to go around, so they had to score points somehow. I don’t know, that’s a good question. It would be interesting speculating on. Might just have been a way to attract attention and put the ball up and see what happens. Cause some excitement, and probably Sid Gillman. I think Sid certainly had early success, those Charger championships in the early ‘60s. Other people watched what Sid was doing getting the ball down field quickly and selling more tickets doing it too. So I’m sure it was a combination of all those things that led…and quarterbacks. George Blanda. Houston had some early success too and George Blanda in Houston. George had had a whole career and didn’t really have anything to lose. He was well established and he was a stubborn guy who wants to do things his own way. And I think being a quarterback he liked to air it out and so people like Sid with the Chargers and George Blanda with the Oilers early on they had early success. Just trying to sell tickets, I think.
AFL - The AFL eventually widened the hash marks on the field. How did that make things more difficult for the defense?
BD – Well, spotting the ball closer to the sideline cuts down on the amount of…on a sweep to that side, to the short side. However, it opens up the other side of the field a great deal. It gave the offense a certain amount of advantage and of course put more pressure on the defense. They’ve got the ball spotted there and especially when you get down close to the goal line and one of the problems with scoring is you’ve compressed the area that the receivers have. Or anyone that is eligible to catch the ball have free. So putting the ball diagonally away from the opposite corner gives more room. So I think that is an advantage for offense and put pressure on the defense. That was the whole idea, just to widen the field of play somewhat. Imagine if the ball was spotted exactly in the center of the field every play, actually it would be pretty boring. It gave the coaches another dilemma, like the two-point conversion and things like that. It made them do a little more coaching.
AFL - What was the AFL like at that time. What were some of the struggles that players and coaches had to go through?
BD – Well one of my favorite AFL versus NFL stories was right in the Bay area. You can imagine the Raiders and the 49ers rivalry and the Raiders were the upstarts, really pretty minor league to start with. Bad won-loss record in 1960 and 1961 and Jim Otto, who is a proud man, to say the least. I always enjoyed going to a banquet with Jim Otto if there were going to be 49er players there because if the 49er players would by purpose or accidentally disparage the AFL or the Raider, Jim Otto would actually stand up at times and go, “O.K. Let’s go right here. We’ll see who’s better, you or me.” He took that real serious and that was of course, a fun rivalry. We didn’t play the 49ers for quite a few years there and then finally the leagues merged and we got inner-league play and it was a great chance to settle the issue. We were greatly, to say the least, greatly looking forward to the first meeting, actually getting a chance to play the 49ers. We had played them in basketball all over Northern California and kind of a good thing going and we got to know the players. Obviously we saw them at banquets and it was fun to see who was going to be the best. And there was a lot of talk about the Raiders minor league and the AFL and this and that and we played the 49ers and they won the first game. However, our running back, Clem Daniels fumbled going in for a touchdown which would have won the game for us and the 49er players after the game were strangely silent. They knew they were in big trouble and I think we were certainly on the upswing and they were not doing too well back in those days. Probably about 1966, ‘67, along in there. They knew they were lucky to have won that game and lucky to survive. And if I remember right, I think we won the next six or seven times we played and decisively and sent them home with their tails between their legs. And actually had some fun games in San Francisco too, just beating them and treating them like dogs in front of their own fans. I remember insulting the fans too. So, it was great sport back in those days and of course the first great success was Super Bowl number three with Matt Snell and Joe Namath and the New York Jets against the Baltimore Colts. The mighty Baltimore Colts representing the mighty NFL and when it was all over the AFL was holding it’s head high and that happened quite a few times after that. The Kansas City Chiefs beat the Minnesota Vikings the next year. And it wasn’t until this last 15 year period so that the NFL really got on top. Now it looks like the AFL is back up. So it’s just a come-and-go of athletics.
AFL - One last question. What are some points that are may seem obvious to you as a former player, that I am missing so far? About maybe the Chargers, or the AFL.
BD – I can’t think of anything that I haven’t said. I know it was nice for me. I started my career, I was a fourth round draft choice of the New York Giants and got sent off to the Green Bay Packers after three weeks the rest of that year, and two years with the Redskins and then I got released. So it was a nice thing for me to still not have to get a real job and still have a place to play football. It opened up a lot of jobs in football, not just for coaches, but all the way through, equipment people. There certainly was room for another league. The NFL had at that time, I want to say 12 teams, so the AFL meant a lot of jobs in football and Sid Gillman’s a good example. He coached the Rams and then out of a job. The AFL opened up and he stayed in the same city and coached. I guess he was the Charger coach, L.A. Charger coach, right? Then there was a certain amount of moving around. People think moving sports franchises is a new phenomena, but actually it has been going on ever since there have been sports franchises with the Chargers moving to San Diego and the Chief moving to Kansas City from Dallas where they were the Texans and the new Cardinals moving from Chicago to St. Louis to Phoenix, to who knows where next. But Sid Gillman was a big part of the AFL and for a lot of years. You wonder why he didn’t have more success with the Rams when he was there. But a lot of that has to do with, back in those days without the TV contracts it was a whole different ball game. The owners didn’t want to put forth the effort to get the best players and there just wasn’t that much money involved and maybe not that much incentive for the owners to field good teams. Who knows. But Sid Gillman, big part of the old AFL.
AFL - Great, thank you.