The Autumn Wind is a Raider
Pillaging just for fun
He’ll knock you ’round and upside down
and laugh when he’s conquered and won.
— “The Autumn Wind,” written by Steve Sabol
One of the luckiest breaks of my life was becoming friends with Steve Sabol. There really wasn’t anyone like him. He was, as you undoubtedly know, the president of NFL Films — he co-founded NFL Films with his father, Ed. And he was the truest of true believers. Before we’re done here counting down the Football 101, you might just get a full essay on Steve.
But this essay is about the Raiders … specifically two players who defined the Raiders mystique: Howie Long and Ted Hendricks. We would view them differently, I suspect, if they were not Raiders; and we would view the Raiders differently were it not for the imagination and vision of Steve Sabol.
You see, Steve was just a natural-born storyteller. He didn’t see football players. He saw warriors and giants and avengers and heroes and, yes, pirates. He didn’t see football teams so much as he saw bands of brothers and mischievous friends and blue-collar factory workers and, in the case of the Raiders, misfits who come together to form the most intimidating team known to man.
Do you know the first time Howie Long and Ted Hendricks met? Long had just joined the team, and he was raw and wide-eyed and entirely dumbfounded by the many mavericks and characters on the Raiders. Lyle Alzado was a wildman on the field, but he went to bed at 9 p.m. John Matuszak was a mountain of a man who acted on the side and lived life on the very edge. Lester Hayes was a ferocious bump-and-run cornerback who, until they stopped him, would smear stickum all over his body.
Long went into a bar called the Bamboo Room, near where the Raiders trained.
“Howie,” Hendricks said, “come on over here. I want you to meet Molly. She’s my date tonight.”
And he introduced Long to a full-size blowup doll that was sitting on the stool.
They were so different in temperament. Howie Long always seemed on the brink of war. He’d lived a rambling and nomadic childhood in and around Charlestown, the oldest neighborhood in Boston, moving from house to house within his family, never really having a place to call home. At one point, he skipped 45 straight days of school, and the family tried to get him into a vocational school to become an electrician.
“What if he’d been accepted at that school?” the great football writer Paul Zimmerman asked Long’s aunt Aida.
“Well, he’d be an electrician right now,” she said. “A tall one. He wouldn’t need a ladder.”
He was always tall for his age, always the biggest in his class, and he was a superior athlete — but he didn’t want to play football. There was something about the sport that turned him off. He only began when he was 15, but by the time he was 18 he was already showing signs of becoming a star. He went to play tight end at Villanova, they moved him to defensive line, where he was good enough to earn his way into the old Blue-Gray all-star game, and he was so dominant in that game that he was named the game’s defensive MVP.
The Raiders worked him out for less than five minutes but still took him in the second round.
And he played angry — they called him “Caveman” right from the start — and he got into fights, and played with fury, and he intimidated.
“I’m going to get you in the parking lot after the game,” he snarled at Chicago Bears guard Kurt Becker, “and beat you up in front of your family.”
Ted Hendricks — he was entirely different. He played football with a smile. “It’s a grimace,” he insisted, “a malevolent grimace.” But it definitely looked more like a smile. He always seemed to be amused by the whole thing.
Hendricks was an awkward-looking 6-foot-7, 220 pounds — his size and shape earned him the nickname “The Mad Stork”* — but he was a brilliant player who blocked more kicks than anyone and played about three steps ahead on defense.
*Bill Curry offered perhaps the best-ever description of Hendricks: “He looks like a series of toothpicks.”
Long, among others, would marvel how Hendricks would come into Monday morning’s film sessions hung over from the night before — “or,” Long says, “it was just a continuation of that night,” — and the coaches would put video of the next week’s opponents, and Hendricks would simply call out the plays before they even happened.
Ted Hendricks would do math problems in his head just to pass the time.
His style wasn’t often appreciated. He began his career in 1969 in Baltimore, under Don Shula, and in his first full season as a starter after an All-America career at the University of Miami, he led the Colts to their first Super Bowl title. The next year, he had five interceptions, five sacks, a fumble recovery for a touchdown and might just have been the best defensive player in the NFL.
But he could feel his time running out in Baltimore — “all my friends were gone,” and so in 1974 he signed with Jacksonville of the World Football League. That didn’t work out, but the Colts were sufficiently upset and so they dumped him on Green Bay. (“I’m putting you in cold storage,” Hendricks recalled Colts GM Joe Thomas saying.)
Hendricks was fantastic in ’74, his one year in Green Bay — being named first-team all-pro as a linebacker and blocking a record seven kicks — but because he had signed with Jacksonville, which promptly folded, he was an NFL free agent.
And Al Davis wanted him for the Raiders.
What Al Davis wanted, Al Davis usually got. He gave Green Bay two No. 1 picks and expected Hendricks to be the missing piece that would make the Raiders Super Bowl champs, and that was all he cared about. He didn’t care that Hendricks was viewed as being a bit flaky. He didn’t care that Hendricks wanted out of Baltimore and Green Bay.
“Our only inflexible goal,” Davis said, “is to win.”
Hendricks did not start right away for the Raiders because, at the time, Davis and coach John Madden were feuding. But in Oakland’s 1975 playoff game against Cincinnati, Madden had to put Hendricks in because of injuries … and Hendricks sacked Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson four times.
Hendricks would say that the Raiders never particularly loved his game and that after the 1979 season all of them except one voted to get rid of him. But Al Davis had the only vote that mattered, and in 1980 Hendricks had a fantastic season with 8 1/2 sacks, three interceptions, four fumble recoveries and a safety. The Raiders won the Super Bowl, the third Super Bowl victory for Hendricks.
Two years later, he had seven sacks in a nine-game season, and the Raiders won the Super Bowl again.
All the while, he did it his way, freelancing whenever the mood struck him, changing the plays, following his own instincts. And nobody had better instincts. There was one famous moment when the Raiders were playing the Dolphins and Hendricks’ legendary old coach Don Shula … and the master called a play that was supposed to lure Hendricks in and set him up for a crack-back block.
It goes without saying that Hendricks saw it from the start.
“That’s an insult, Don!” Hendricks yelled.
“Ted went where Ted wanted to go,” Howie Long would say. “That was the magic of Ted Hendricks.”
Ah, the old school Raiders. They represented something. They were quirky and mean and odd and brilliant. Hendricks once came to practice on a white horse while wearing a German World War I helmet painted silver and black. He once set up a table on the sideline with an umbrella and he sat there and sipped margaritas. There are too many stories to count.
And Long? He was constantly fighting. Constantly. The rage he played with sometimes overshadowed the brilliance; Long was the rarest kind of defensive end, someone who was equally fierce against the run and the pass. He rarely put up the big sack numbers* of guys like Mark Gastineau, but as he so bluntly put it: “Let me know when Gastineau decides to play the run.”
*Long did have a five-sack game against Washington in October of 1983. That game was an absurd battle; Long would call it, “The longest, hardest game I’ve ever played in.” But it’s a quote from the man who was blocking him, Washington’s George Stark, that I think says all that needs to be said: “Howie Long was great. He was fighting, spitting at people, but after the game he came up to me and said, ‘You guys were great.’”
Long was often blunt. My favorite Long story, as shared by Paul Zimmerman, was of the time the Raiders were playing and pounding Seattle. During a timeout, Long wandered over to the Seahawks huddle and said to the trainer, “Hey give me that water. They don’t need it. They’re not doing anything.”
Yes, those old school Raiders. They were unlike any team in professional sports. They were a reflection of Al Davis — “our only inflexible goal is to win” — and so they were a hodgepodge of castoffs and flakes and rebels and meanies. And they always won. As Al Davis used to say, the Raiders had the best record in all of professional sports over the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s and were the only team to play in Super Bowls in each of those decades. The Autumn Wind was a Raider.
It’s all changed as the years have gone along. Davis is gone. Sabol is gone. Even the Raiders are gone … now in a glitzy stadium in glitzy Las Vegas. They still wear the uniforms, but they’re not quite the same as they were when Ted Hendricks was blocking kicks and Howie Long was throwing punches. Then again, is anything ever really the same?