I lived in Oakland, CA until I was 10 years old and I was a huge Raiders fan. John Matuszak actually lived up the block from us for a summer (these were very different times for professional athletes). I had the entire 1978 team in football cards and I went to the rally to keep the Raiders in Oakland. There I met many of the Raiders as well as the Raiderettes. My favorite player was the punter Ray Guy but I was pretty psyched to meet Jack Tatum, the infamous free safety. We shook my hands and I still remember how his huge hand completely enveloped mine. I was pretty psyched.
I found his book for fifty cents. Perfect plane reading. He talks a lot about his role on the team and his philosophy towards organized violence. Basically, he comes off as a very gentle, thoughtful person who knows his expertise and primary attributes are physical. So he uses them to the maximum within the rules allowed. He walks a thin line, sometimes sounding quite reasonable and other times quite scary. This contradiction is wrapped up quite nicely in this sentence: "I've used the word "kill" and when I'm hitting someone I really am trying to kill, but not like forever." The beginning and ending of the book go into this issue in some depth and ultimately, I kind of side with Tatum. You get the sense that the level of competition is so intense in the NFL that you have to be going for the kill or you'll lose your job.
The rest of the book follows his childhood in rural North Carolina and then urban (and rough) New Jersey, his college career and his first years with the Raiders. He also dedicates a chapter to rating his contemporaries, which brought back a lot of names and memories for me, particularily of that awesome Raiders team. They just don't build them like that anymore. Willie Brown, Fred Bilitnekoff, George Atkinson, Kenny Stabler, my man Cliff Branch.
There is one key passage that to me captures the old spirit of sports that seems totally lost today. In the last week of the 1976 season, the Raiders were guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. They had a final, meaningless to them, game against Cincinatti. The Bengals had been on a tear and if they won, they would make the playoffs and knock the Steelers out. The Steelers were Oakland's main rival, had knocked them out of the playoffs two years before and were still considered a much tougher opponent, despite losing control of their own regular season. Oakland could have let Cincinatti win and thus avoided the Steelers in the playoffs. Here is what Jack had to say about that:
When you honestly believe you are the best in any profession, you do not shy away from a challenge; you seek out the best of the competition to test your talents against. Sure, Cincinnati had the potential to "get lucky" and beat us, but it would be a most difficult task. As Oakland Raiders, my teammates and I had no need of any of the Steeler psychology to get us ready for the Bengals. To go on to win the Super Bowl without facing Pittsburgh again would have been a very shallow victory indeed. But to blast Cincinnati away and trample everyone who got in the way of our rush to become number one, well, that is what our motto "Pride and Poise" is all about. It's all a part of becoming a man and being called a professional. To hide from any player or team is cowardice. If I had felt the Raiders were going to lay down, I would have asked to sit this one out. Maybe I would have even asked to be traded. Never in my career have I ever approached a football game or anything with the thought of letting the other team win. When Monday night came along, I am proud to say that every member on the Raider team and staff went onto the field with a ruthless attitude toward the Bengals.
They ended up winning 34-21 and then went on to become Super Bowl champions.
Maybe the Mavs should have read that before tanking it against the Warriors in the final game of the regular season only to have the not-worthy Warriors slap them down and out in the first round.