Ask 10 fans who the meanest, toughest, nastiest player was in the American Football League, and a good number of them will say Ben Davidson. Davidson loved to hit people. Running backs, quarterbacks, wide receivers, offensive linemen, referees, opposing coaches… It really didn’t matter. Watch old Raiders highlight films, and you will see #83 smacking people around before, during, and long after the whistle.
If you have read this blog for more than a couple of weeks, you likely know that Ben Davidson lives in my hometown, and despite his on-field image, is one of the nicest guys that you could ever hope to meet.
Shortly after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced suspensions and fines for the Saints leadership that was involved in the bounty scandal, I gave Ben a call to ask him if he might have time to sit down with me and explain his thoughts on this whole situation. We got together a few days later and discussed the Saints situation, and whether he experienced anything of the sort during his time with the silver and black. The following is a transcription of the interview that we conducted that day.
AFL – You were considered the tough guy of the AFL. You played a hard game with late hits. You told me once that you enjoyed making tackles near the sideline because it gave you the opportunity to possibly hit a coach. Talk about how you played the game and what it meant to you to be a defensive player.
BD – We took pride in our defense. We ran to the ball. Even in practice we’d all run to the ball and we always enjoyed being in a close-up picture of a tackle. Everyone wanted to be running in there to show that you were hustling. One of the fun things for me was when a ball carrier would get loose and I would be coming from right defensive end, maybe somewhere far away on the field, and I’d still get to grab them. They would ask, “How did that happen?” That was part of our deal, to get down field. And that’s to say nothing of the pass rush. Not to brag, but we had 67 sacks in 14 games. If you add three more to 67, that makes 70, and that would be an average of five sacks per game, all season long. That was pretty good. Some games we didn’t get five, but we got 11 at other times. We tried to be physical. When you are playing on a team with Jack Tatum, you want to get that ball carrier turned around between you and Jack so that Jack doesn’t hit you in the back instead of the ball carrier. We tried to let the other team know that they were in for a hard game when they came to play us. Nothing was more fun than rookie quarterbacks, too. You want to get them off on the right track and have them circle those Raider games on the calendar, and remember that they were going to have to play us twice. You wanted them to have respect for your team so that they wouldn’t throw any touchdown passes.
AFL – Football is a physical game, and there is the intimidation factor that you alluded to. Was there ever, that you remember, a plan to specifically injure someone to get them out of the game?
BD – No. When I heard about that with the Saints, I thought, “That’s pretty vicious.” But then there is a fine line between football selling the vicious hits because that is what publicizes the game. They get a spectacular shot and they show it all week-long to help sell more tickets. But on the other hand, you are playing hard and you are trying to let the other team know that you are in charge and you are going to beat them, they are not going to bet you, you are going to end up on top and don’t get any thoughts otherwise. So it is kind of mixed up. However, when I heard about it, especially that they were giving a bonus if someone got carried off the field, I thought that was a little crass. Obviously the league has to do something about it. I am anxious to see what happens to the subject players that were involved. That is going to be interesting. Especially with the NFL Players Association hiring a high-powered law firm to represent them. It is going to be interesting. Evidently the NFL Players Association is saying, “You cannot penalize our players for something that you are selling the game with.” It is all kind of a big jumble to me, and I am kind of ambiguous about it. There is a fine line between trying to injure someone and trying to intimidate them and do your job by letting them know that they are not going to win the game. It is all one big package.
AFL – What do you feel has been the biggest change between how defenders play the game today versus how they did when you played?
BD – We had Willie Brown, and he was big, strong, fast and physical, and he would ride players all the way down the field. Now there is the five yard rule. Obviously they are trying to open up the game for more scoring, by enabling wide receivers to get loose easier. There used to be crack back blocks. As a defensive end, you would be out there and a wide receiver could come and block you. They weren’t shy and they didn’t want to get involved in anything above the waist because that is where they might get hurt, so they would come and hit you in the knee to knock you down. Your linebacker was supposed to yell, “Crack back!” so you would know that they were coming, but that always work. They were sometimes occupied with other things. Those blocks are now illegal. I think that there is now some protection for pass rushers, too. If you are hung up with an offensive lineman, the back staying in to block cannot assist by hitting you in the knee. I know that there is no more chop-blocking. But I always liked those because if you had some quickness or some sort of anticipation, you could jump over them and go get the quarterback. Having been a hurdler, I kind of liked it when they did that. Protecting the quarterback, obviously the guy that is scoring the points you want to keep healthy as long as possible, and producing, and putting points on the scoreboard. So there is much better protection for quarterbacks. In all my years of professional football, I never got fined for anything that I did. Now they are fining players or more than I made in an entire season, so I don’t know if I would be very effective now. I’d be trying not to get fined. I’d be trying not to be playing the whole season for free.
TT – Go back to when the story first broke about the Saints. What did you think when you heard that guys were being paid for knocking people out of games?
BD – I am far removed, now 30-some years retired. I thought that it was vicious and awful, the typical fan’s thought. Then I thought about it a little bit more, and I thought that was what we were trying to do. Not necessarily have someone carried off the field, but we were trying to intimidate the other players, and as I said, make them know that they were not going to win the game. Then I talked to several other former players. Some were laughing about it, like “what is the big deal?” But my first thought was that it was awful and vicious. It takes away from sportsmanship, and things that you would like to imbue the youth with. You see little league coaches yelling, “Go out and kill them, kill them!” That is kind of the same thing. Evidently the locker room speech that Gregg Williams gave was pretty vicious. John Madden once told us not to worry about the horses being blind, just load the wagon. We didn’t get into the vicious speeches. We were a little more humorous, I think. That was one pregame talk, and we were all looking at each other, going, “What’s he talking about?” But he knew that we were ready to play. It was against the Chiefs, and it was a pretty important game, so he wasn’t going to foul up things by making it worse. He was just going to confuse us about what wagons had to do with it.
TT – The players that were involved with this make multiple millions of dollars. From what I understand, the largest bounty was for $1,500. Do you think that money was really the driving force behind this, or was it the celebration in the locker room, and your coach awarding you as the tough hitter in front of your teammates?
BD – Yes, I think that’s it. Guys making that much money would probably spend the $1,500 at the post game party. Yes, it is the team camaraderie and recognition from your peers that you did something extra-vicious to help the team. That is what it is. I was thinking what they could have paid us. We weren’t making that much money, so $1,500 might have done it for us! That would be one or two games pay. That might have been a good incentive! I did see incentives during my career. I don’t want to besmirch the good name of the coach, but one team I played for, if you made the tackle inside the 20 yard line on a kickoff, you could get $15. If you ran it back past the 40, or had a key block, I think there was another $15 for that. We had one player who later became a head coach in the NFL, whose wife ran a tight ship, and he wanted to go out with the guys during training camp, but he didn’t have any money. So he had to volunteer to go down on kickoffs and make a tackle and get his $15 so that he could go out that week. So I did see an incentive system, but it was pretty paltry. There were some other rewards, but that is the only one that I remember since it applied to me. Making a tackle inside the 20 on a kickoff was a pretty big deal, so there would be a big hoorah in the locker room and a five and ten-dollar bill, and everyone was happy.
TT – Obviously there are players that are better than others. Was there ever the idea that you tried to go after one particular player harder than anyone else, or did you just try to play the game?
BD – We did have one incident with the Raiders… I was going to look into my football book to see exactly when it was. Larry Csonka was a rookie, and he had a reputation. I don’t know where I’d heard it, but the rumor got spread abound that Larry Csonka got knocked out a lot when he was at Syracuse, and we thought that was pretty special. So we were hitting Larry Csonka in the head. I was going to look it up to see if we lost the game, but somewhere along the line we figured that instead of trying to hit him in the head and knock him out, maybe we should just tackle him. That might be an even better plan. So we did have that one incident to see who could do the job on Larry Csonka’s head, but as it turned out, he was a pretty sturdy guy. He played a lot of years and took a lot of hits. I don’t know who started the rumor. It might have been one of those insidious Al Davis rumors that spread around.
The Saints were fined pretty heavily in this situation. Were the fines harsh enough? Too harsh?
BD – I think it was pretty severe, but on the other hand, it was a pretty ugly situation. I think that the commissioner knows a lot more about this than I do, and he has a lot of people advising him. I felt sorry for Drew Brees for having his charity event here and having to answer repeatedly about this instead of honoring the charities that he was raising money for. But that is part of the deal. But yes, very severe. I got a kick out of Bill Parcells saying, “Retirement is a lot better than going back into that mess.” Someone asked John Madden if he was going to go back and straighten out the Raiders somewhere along the way. He also said that television was a lot simpler than getting involved in football again. Myself, as a coach, I don’t see how anyone can deal with those guys making that much money, and their posse’s and taking cell phone calls during meetings and all of that stuff. How do you deal with guys like that? It has got to be a tough job. I admire guys that can pull it off and succeed. Some of the guys that stay on top, like Mike Tomlin, and the others that can handle it… It is tough. You start giving guys that much money… My joke is that these guys are captains of industry and they want to go down to Home Depot and tell a guy, “Here, I’ll give you a helmet and shoulder pads. You go play for me. I’ll get the money and I’ll pay you to do it. I’m a millionaire. I don’t need to take that kind of abuse.”
TT – That raises an interesting point. In normal life, the higher that you rank in terms of authority, the more money you make. In professional sports that is often reversed. The head coach is often paid substantially less than their star players. I wonder how coaches are able to discipline in a situation like that. How does a coach maintain any kind of authority when it is so obvious that he is lower than the players in the overall pecking order?
BD – Exactly. I think therein lies the problem. However, teams are still succeeding and winning games. It would be interesting to be back in a locker room and see how all this plays out. It is beyond my comprehension how this all works now. When I got to the Raiders, Al Davis was the coach and if you didn’t like it, you could go get yourself a job in a gas station or whatever you were qualified for. There were about 10 of us that had off-season jobs at Golden Gates Fields Racetrack in valet parking. You could get a professional football player to run and get your car for a $1 tip. I had one guy that I knew who he was. He came just about every day, and he didn’t tip. I always tried to get his car. And there was a preacher, a very loud preacher who was on the radio at the time that the track let out, named Reverend Ike. So I would get his car, drive it up and put it on the station for Reverend Ike. As I pulled up, I would turn the volume up full blast. He would say, “Thanks,” and then get in his car, start the ignition and Reverend Ike would be screaming full blast. Everybody would be looking. That was my revenge for the guy that wouldn’t tip a dollar. He got to have everyone look at him for playing Reverend Ike at full blast. But it was a whole different deal then. Dollar tips at valet parking. In fact, I still tell valet parking guys, “Hey. I got my start in valet parking. Keep up the good work!”
TT – Many of your former teammates are now dealing with brain injuries that were caused by football. The NFL is now changing the rules to attempt to lessen the damage caused by collisions on the field. Do you think these rules are effective? Are they something that the players can actually deal with during the course of a play that might last five seconds and you are getting hit by four different guys?
BD – I think it is somewhat of a window dressing, but on the other hand, you have to do something. I have signed up to donate my brain to the Boston University. My wife carries the card. They will slice it up and see how much brain trauma I had. My understanding, and I haven’t really studied this too much, but it is the constant banging away in practice, and not the big hits and concussions. It is the cumulative effect of banging away in practice three or four days-a-week, and during training camp, and of course the game. That actually used to be one of my banquet jokes. You are knocked out and sitting on the bench and the coach comes running over. Your defensive line coach is going to check you out and see if you can go back in. He holds up some fingers and asks, “How many fingers am I holding up?” You are trying to focus and you say, “Three!” The coach gives a count and says, “Oooh. Well, close enough. Go back in.” And I would hold up four fingers for that. I got knocked out several times, but never laid out on the field. Actually, my whole career I never laid on the field. Even with my torn Achilles tendon I got up and walked off the field. They asked what the matter was, and I told them it was my Achilles. They operated on it the next morning and reattached it. In fact, it fascinated me in the game films how I knew where to line up when I didn’t know a thing about it. I knew that I was the right defensive end, and I knew that if the tackle blocks down to look for a trap and then go on a pass rush. I guess that it is like when a boxer is out on his feet, but still knows to cover up and hit back. But it is kind of an interesting phenomenon. One time I was sitting on the bench and I became lucid again. I realized with the noise of the crowd that I was in a stadium, and finally that I was in the middle of a football game. I then came back to consciousness. That was an interesting experience, kind of like they give you smelling salts, or whatever they do for that. That was always funny, too, when they gave a guy smelling salts. He would jerk his head up to get away from it and bang his head on the ground again. That was the good old days. But I played at the University of Washington and the coach ascertained that the hardest thing that we had was the crown of the helmet, and so we did everything with our heads. In fact, we just had a player die that had years and years of severe dementia. He didn’t have any idea of who he was or where he was. He was a Canadian playing on our team, and played in the CFL after playing on our team at the University of Washington. He just died, but he was in bad shape for years. But he was a guy that had a lot of hit. He would come down and hit somebody with his head. I remember that we played UCLA in the L.A. Coliseum, and after one play there were three UCLA players laid out on the field, and this guy got one of them. Then another guy that was born in the U.S., but grew up in Mexico, Ricardo Aguirre, he got another one of them. I don’t know who got the other one. But one got up by himself, another got up after a while, and the third one got carried off. So if you can envision that scenario, you pretty well know that you are going to win that game after taking down almost one-third of their defense in a single play. Actually that is that intimidation factor and letting them know that they are not going to win the game.
TT – What do you think about these new rules of how you can and can’t hit a guy? When you are reacting in a single play that might take four seconds, and you are traveling at full speed, on a course to run into someone else who is also moving at full speed, is it even possible to think fast enough to ensure that you don’t hit him in a forbidden way?
BD – It applies more to defensive back and linebackers than it does to defensive linemen, because we were kind of bunched up in there. Sometimes you are just throwing your body into stopping someone. But you do have a choice of how you hit a quarterback in a pass rush. Playing against George Blanda when he was still with Houston, I came from the right defensive end spot and hit him right in the back of the head with my helmet, and knocked him out. He left the game and didn’t come back. He brought that up the first time I saw him when he had come to the Raiders. “You didn’t need to do that!” I said, “George, I am sorry.” He said it was ok, and that was that. But George didn’t suffer fools gladly, but he let me off the hook for that one. But I did have a choice of where to hit him, but where do you hit him? Do you hit him right above the waist in the kidneys? Or do you hit him in the shoulder pads, or in the head? You do have somewhat of a choice, when a quarterback has his back to you… Which is not a bad situation for a right-handed quarterback and a right defensive end.