It started with a comment made by Al Davis at a press conference at the Napa Marriott. While addressing the wishes of Jerry Porter to be traded last Aug. 1, Davis reached back into Raiders history in attempt to illustrate that not everyone is easy to deal with and that teams face these sort of challenges all the time.
“I wish I could take you back to 1963. I had one of the greatest players who has ever played this game and he was tough to handle,” Davis said. “He was the T.O. of his time and he was great. His first year for us he carried us. He caught 16 touchdowns. His name was Art Powell.”
I immediately made a note of it. Locate Art Powell. See what he thinks about being called the “T.O. of his time” and get his thoughts.
Maybe he’d angrily hang up on me and act like I expect Terrell Owens to act 40-something years from now. It would be an amusing little note.
But if you’re in this business awhile, you learn that very seldom do stories go the way you expect them to go. I started to do some backround on Powell and saw some striking similarities with Owens in terms of physical skill and circumtance, but some very big differences in terms of what they faced and how they went about their business.
An on-line encyclopedia revealed Powell was cut by the Philadelphia Eagles for refusing to stay in a segregated hotel in Norfolk, Va., where the Eagles were playiing a pre-season game. He was involved in a walkout by African-American athletes at an AFL All-Star Game in New Orleans in 1963. He was one of four African-American Raiders players in 1964 who got Davis to pull out of an exhbition game in Mobile Ala.
As a player and as a man, Powell was ahead of his time. He scored touchdowns at a greater per-game rate than Jerry Rice, but his career ended due to injury shortly after he was traded to Buffalo along with Tom Flores, with the Raiders acquiring quarterback Daryle Lamonica.
Powell was both an incredible talent and an agent of social change who has been long-forgotten by not only football fans but current African-American players who owe him and others of his era debt of gratitude for making their lives easier and more prosperous.
This was a man with a story to tell. Or more accurately, many stories to tell. He wasn’t known for being particularly cooperative with reporters in his day. How about now?
It turns out there was some help in this regard. Joe Barrington, a teammate of Powell’s at San Jose State and a close friend, was one of the people I called for backround.
Barrington told Powell he ought to do the story. When I called Powell and asked him about being the T.O. of his time, he was ready.
His answer took 20 minutes. It was the beginning of two lengthy phone interviews as well as a handful of follow-up calls to check facts and details. Powell, 69, answered every question with patience, candor and humor.
Powell’s story, which runs Sunday in ANG Newspapers, gives a historical look at what black athletes faced n the late 1950s and early 1960s. A second story, concerning the Raiders role in aggressively seeking African-American talent, is scheduled to run Monday.
While it’s fair and necessary to question the manor in which the Raiders have been run since they returned to Oakland in 1995, it’s also true Davis remains revered by black athletes of Powell’s era for seeking talent from small black colleges and being the symbol for an organization which saw no color.
It should be a key component of the Davis legacy, more important than the dated slogans, the three Super Bowl titles and even his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.