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MOST DAYS START the same -- behind the wheel of a white 1997 Dodge Caravan SE outfitted with a bubble-top Mark III conversion kit, a VHS player mounted to the roof inside and a r8hers personalized plate. Mark Davis pilots this machine from his East Bay home to the nearest P.F. Chang's, where he sits at the left end of the bar, same spot every time, puts his white fanny pack on the counter, orders an iced tea and unfolds the day's newspapers. Beside him on the bar, next to the papers, is his 2003 Nokia push-button phone with full texting capability. When someone calls and asks him where he is, he says, "I'm in my office," and sends a knowing nod to the bartenders. It gets 'em every time.
He's got this laugh, Davis does. It sprints out of the blocks and carries a mildly diabolical tone, like someone trying -- and failing -- to get the part of a cartoon villain. He's been the principal owner of the Raiders since his father, Al, died in October 2011, and nearly four years into his tenure, he sometimes acts as if the reality eludes him. On a recent late-summer evening, as we approach Morimoto, his regular training camp dinner haunt in Napa, a doorman sweeps his hand and says, "Welcome, Mr. Davis," as if inviting in the queen of England. Still, Davis proceeds to the hostess stand and says, "Davis, party of two, 7:15." She looks at him obligingly as he says, "I always use OpenTable."
Most days, like this one, he wears the same outfit, a white long-sleeve Raiders T-shirt and light gray jeans. The clothing is not an affectation; it's just one more element of a pretension-free existence. When his father was alive, Mark was not allowed to fly on the team charter. It was a chain-of-succession, president-and-vice-president deal (with a healthy side of superstition), so Mark flew Southwest, bought three seats, boarded first, pulled two reserved placards from his bag, slipped them into the tray tables and lay down. "What could they do?" Davis asks. "I paid for 'em."
Here comes that laugh again, carrying with it a measure of disbelief. He's worth an estimated $500 million, but when he visits his home in Palm Desert, he drives a $12-a-day rental car to save the $50 cab ride to and from the airport. Until nine months ago, when back surgery prompted a regimen of exercise and healthy eating, he spent Tuesday nights with Oakland fullback Marcel Reece and ex-Raider George Atkinson at Hooters for $12.99 all-you-can-eat-wings night. "They never charge us," Davis says, "but it just feels better to say you're getting all you can eat for $12."
That laugh again.
Does he ever look around, soaking in the magnitude of everything it takes to run an NFL franchise, and ask himself, "How did this happen?"
His look suggests he does not.
"I know exactly how I got here," he says. "I've been a Raider all my life."
A COUPLE OF months past his 60th birthday, Davis is the most dangerous man: easy to underestimate. An only child and a lifelong bachelor, he doesn't act the part of the bespoke-suit patrician -- twirling rings and swirling Johnnie Walker Blue -- and he certainly doesn't look it. For one thing, he quit drinking 15 years ago when he realized it was time to prepare himself to run the team. "I'll go back to drinking if we win the Super Bowl or I get married," he says. He cocks his head to the side. "The first one will be because I'll want to, the second because I'll have to."
Imagine the guy down the street inheriting his favorite team. He'd probably hang out with the players after work, watch practice from the sideline and wear team gear 24/7. That, pretty much, is what we've got here.
"Mark has a good heart, and he's smarter than people might give him credit for," says a source who requested anonymity to protect business relationships. "But imagine if you were 56 or 57 years old and never had a job. And then you wake up one morning and you're running a billion-dollar company."
Although it's true Davis never had a defined role in the organization before becoming owner -- "I never worked 9 to 5," he says -- he was involved on the retail end, helping to develop the club's Raider Image stores. In fact, in 1986, after a stint working in the equipment room, he invented the now-ubiquitous muff-style hand warmer for players. Real Men Wear the Muff was the slogan, and Davis explains the economic windfall by saying, "I spent a lot of money on it." In those days, he lived off an allowance. "An unlimited allowance," says former Raiders receiver and close friend Cliff Branch, "but he never really spent very much."
"If you're in the NFL, you probably don't have much in common with the owner," says Raiders president Marc Badain. "But if you play for Mark, he just wants to hang out with you."
All owners care. They care about winning and perception and how both affect the bottom line. But Davis cares about the Raiders in ways that are complicated and unresolved, tightly braided in a knot of family and loss and self-worth. Football has always been the family business. There's nothing else to fall back on, no oil wells or hardware stores or software companies. "Perpetuating the legacy of the Raiders," he says. "That's my only real job."
The only way for Davis to uphold that legacy -- his father's legacy and the legacy of three Super Bowl titles -- is to win. And the quickest way to win, Davis believes, is to get his team out of the O.co Coliseum and into a stadium -- in Oakland or Los Angeles -- that can turn the revenue stream from a faucet into a garden hose.
To that end, the Raiders are partnering with the Chargers to be joint tenants in a privately financed stadium spearheaded by ex-49ers president Carmen Policy in Carson, 18 miles and (roughly) an 18-hour car ride from downtown LA. (In a classic LA noir twist, the Rams are also in the mix with a stadium plan for nearby Inglewood.) Davis insists -- repeatedly and forcefully -- that his first choice is to stay in Oakland, even though his team's business history with the city makes it the third rail of local politics.
"There's definitely urgency," says Claudia Cappio, an Oakland assistant city administrator and stadium specialist. "The Raiders have been real clear: This is happening now."
We know this much: Los Angeles is getting the NFL. But is this man getting Los Angeles?
Because right now, despite his team's 12-year playoff drought, despite its 18 -- 44 record (through Week 2) since Al died and despite whatever personal quirks he might exhibit, Mark Davis possesses an abundance of that most American of virtues: leverage. The league's last great land grab, its long-awaited push to extract everything it can from LA -- that extortionist's delight, that shimmering city of near-mythic revenue streams -- could end with Davis making the 31st-most valuable franchise one of the most lucrative.
NEGOTIATORS SHOULD KNOW they're dealing with someone who welcomes their underestimation, a man whose management style can be charmingly cryptic. "I know what I don't know," he says, "so I hire people who are smarter than me." Unlike his father -- "absolutely an overlord, and a genius," Davis says -- he has no interest in diagramming X's and O's. He did, however, tell first-year coach Jack Del Rio that he expects answers. "He's going to talk to someone," Del Rio says. "I figure it might as well be me." Former Raiders marvel at Mark's savantlike ability to predict a play's success based on a pre-snap survey of the field. "Osmosis," Davis says. "Been around it for 55 years."
After the Raiders' third preseason game, a 30-23 loss to the Cardinals in Oakland, Davis went to dinner with a group that included his mother, Carol, and general manager Reggie McKenzie. With no explanation, Davis ripped the top corners off a piece of paper and handed them to McKenzie.
"This is what I need you to get me," Davis said.
McKenzie, flummoxed, turned the tiny triangles over in his hands.
Seeing nothing, McKenzie gave up. "What is this?" he asked.
"Two corners," Davis said. "I need you to get me two corners."
IN THE SUMMER of 1980, as Branch was nearing the end of his 14-year career as one of the game's best wide receivers, he approached the 25-year-old Mark Davis with a business proposition.
"Why don't you represent me?" Branch asked.
"And go against my dad?" Mark said.
"Yeah," Branch said.
Davis thought for a split second and said, "Let's do it!"
Those three words encapsulated everything Al suspected. "You're too close to the players to take over this team," he told Mark. There was no free agency at the time, so as Mark entered the room to negotiate with his father, his options included accepting what the team offered or advising his father's favorite player to sit out until he got the contract he wanted. Somehow, Mark and Al eventually hammered out a deal that included an annuity that still pays Branch, who is 67.
As soon as the deal was signed, Al kicked Mark out of the house.
"Things were tense," Mark says. "We didn't talk much for the next year."
The Raiders went on to win the Super Bowl, and Branch's play on the field (two touchdown catches) provided the salve that healed the wounds between father and son. The next year, when the Raiders uprooted from Oakland to Los Angeles and Al was speaking to Mark again, he told his son, "You make sure you live with Cliff."
Branch and Davis found a place off Sunset in Los Angeles, and one day Mark got the idea that the place needed pets. He bought two potbellied pigs, one silver and one black, and jokingly referred to them as his children.
He invited his parents over to meet the pigs. Carol Davis came in and played with them. Al stayed in the car.
"My dad was the greatest," Mark says. "I didn't deserve to be treated the way I was, and I mean that in a good way. He was the greatest father anybody could have, but he focused 99 percent of his time on the football team."
The son faced a choice: He could turn away from the game or look for seams in the defense that would get him inside that 99 percent. "Well, I did learn how to run one of those old projectors at a young age," Davis says.
Did Mark ever feel pressure to prove that he would be the team's rightful caretaker? "I probably felt that somewhere," he says. "I think you always have to feel that." He's circumspect, unwilling to reveal too much. But whatever happens over the next six months -- if he gets a new stadium in Oakland or gets ownership approval to move to Los Angeles -- he will have achieved the kind of franchise stability and financial security his father chased but never captured. The game might be rigged, but what if Al could see his boy now?
"All those years I was surprised that Mark was never more involved," Branch says. "Look at Jerry Jones' sons -- he brought them along while he's alive. But there's only one Al Davis. Mark wasn't going to be like his dad. Al understood that."
A week after his father died, Mark had a torch installed at the Coliseum with one word -- al -- inscribed on the base. Before every home game, Davis picks someone to light the torch, and he has used the honor to forgive old sins. Marcus Allen, the former running back who famously feuded with Al, lit the torch early in the 2012 season. Almost two months later, it was coach Jon Gruden, who was traded to Tampa Bay after leading the Raiders to a pair of division championships.
"I know there were bad things between my dad and them," Mark says. "I know it was probably blasphemous to some people that I did that, but I still believe that once a Raider, always a Raider. Nothing against my dad, but if the vision for this franchise is to move it into the future, changes had to be made."
In fact, Davis tried to change the past into the future by rehiring Gruden. "I've been meeting with Jon for three years," Davis says. "It's yes-no-yes-no. It was driving both of us crazy." (Gruden, an ESPN analyst, declined to comment for this story.) Before hiring Del Rio, Davis also interviewed former Raiders coach Mike Shanahan, who famously feuded with Al Davis over $250,000 he claimed the Raiders owed him after he was fired in 1989.
There has always been a home-grown mythology built up around the Raiders. Al's eternal flame -- in all its necromancer's glory -- is the perfect symbol: the legend looming, the smoke hovering in mute judgment of all that transpires below.
Mark seems to understand the danger in hanging on to a slavish devotion to a grand past that keeps Dopplering further from view. Still, for years the most sloganized team in sports persisted with its greatest hits: Just Win, Baby; Pride and Poise; Commitment to Excellence; Team of the Decades. Tradition threatened to veer toward fetish.
Since his father died, Mark has used the slogan most associated with Al -- Just Win, Baby -- only twice, both in full-page newspaper ads: for the Golden State Warriors before the NBA Finals, and for the U.S. women's national soccer team on the day of the World Cup final.
"There are times when I feel it fits," he says. "One was a local team, the other was a national team and women. Both were important to us."
Perpetuating the legacy, it turns out, sometimes means protecting it from itself.
SO, ABOUT THE HAIR It's a bowl cut, yes, in the Roman centurion mold, but it's much, much more. The reddish-blond bangs, each strand the exact same length, the geometrically precise feathering over the ears -- not so much a haircut as a feat of engineering.
In perfect Davis family fashion, it's a middle finger to convention. Davis travels to Palm Desert to get it cut, just as he traveled to Chico from Oakland to visit a preferred barber long after he left college at Chico State. "I think he's had three barbers since college," Branch says. "If he likes something, he stays loyal."
He's aware of the public fascination with his hair. Damn straight he is. When news stories relating to the team are emailed to him, Davis, Badain says, has been known to respond by writing, "The comments on this one are all about my hair."
Has anyone ever suggested an alternative?
"Every day," Branch says. "Every day. That's the No. 1 topic."
And Davis' response?
"He ain't changing it," Branch says. "When people say something, he just laughs. The more they tell him, the more he's going to keep it. If they back off and don't say anything, he might change it."
AT THE NFL owners meetings in San Francisco in May, Davis walked up to a group of Raiders fans standing outside the hotel chanting "Stay in Oak-land." He stopped, shook hands, signed autographs and listened until he felt compelled to raise his hand in a gesture that seemed to express solidarity. "We're trying," he said. "We're trying."
A sad-looking guy with his face painted silver and black and wearing a No. 26 jersey, a dreadlock wig and a Raiders hard hat pleaded with Davis through the crowd.
"Mark, just know that we support you. That's why we're here."
"I know that," Davis said. "Believe me, I know that. We're trying. I mean, what can we do?"
The question is meant to be rhetorical, but all of a sudden here is this young man with the painted face and the hard hat, his voice stiffening, providing an answer:
"Hire someone to help you here in Oakland," he said. "Hiring Carmen Policy is dividing our fan base."
"Hey, listen," Davis said, "I'm not trying to divide any fan base. Every time I talk to anybody, I'm trying to stay in Oakland. That's my No. 1 choice."
"You find money for land out there, find money for land here too."
Davis looked up briefly, as if surprised at the persistence. Suddenly uncomfortable, as if the immensity and reality of the situation had just landed, he thanked the crowd and walked away.
There's no way around it: He's going to make people unhappy. He's not accustomed to that, nor does he welcome it.
He speaks of a blessedly weird moment from last year's 3 -- 13 season, a particularly desultory campaign even by 3 -- 13 standards. It was one of those crass Thursday night specials that promises more than it can deliver. It was pouring down rain. The Chiefs, 7 -- 3, were the opponent. The Raiders were 0 -- 10, seven weeks removed from firing an overwhelmed, eternally grimacing head coach (Dennis Allen) and replacing him with a blustery, borderline desperate guy (Tony Sparano) who buried a football -- as if he were some JV assistant drawing inspiration from the Bill Belichick poster on his wall -- as his first act.
They sold the damned place out.
"And we won!" Davis says. "Where else can you get that?"
The question dangles in the air. The prospect of selling out any Los Angeles -- area stadium for an 0 -- 10 team on a rainy Thursday the week before Thanksgiving is about as likely as the Black Hole being sponsored by an Amish farm.
But in Los Angeles there's money, so much local money that goes directly into the team's pockets. So much money that can be turned into signing bonuses for big-name free agents. There's also the prospect of a Super Bowl -- worthy stadium without a dirt infield. But please take one last moment for Oakland, where a 3 -- 13 team in the last year of its lease sold 40,000 season tickets.
"I learned in Los Angeles the first time that Just Win doesn't work if you're not winning," Davis says. "We had games where we had 93,000 people and the next week 37,000."
In St. Louis, the Rams are being offered $400 million in public funds. In San Diego, the enticement is $350 million. Oakland, following the advice of practically every living economist, is offering precisely zero public funds.
The situation is "very emotional for me," Davis says. "I tell people, 'Find me one time where I said I didn't want to be in Oakland.' They can't. We're not playing games. We've got $500 million to invest on that site to build a stadium. We're here. You've got us. Help!"
The $500 million -- $300 million from the Raiders, $200 million as part of the NFL's G-4 loan program -- leaves a $400 million shortfall for a proposed $900 million stadium. For Oakland, the project has a certain Rube Goldberg feel. It needs to build a football stadium and a baseball stadium on 120 acres while retaining the parking that the Raiders demand. It needs to partner with a developer (the last one, Floyd Kephart, failed) to provide the retail and residential development to justify the private investment. "There's nothing more the Raiders can do based on the numbers," Davis says. "We need a partner. It would be suicide for us to do it by ourselves."
But the source who requested anonymity says, "No one has called the Raiders out because Davis is saying all the right things. But they're pouring a ton of money into the Carson project. In Oakland, they're just saying, 'Deliver me the project.' It's a classic case of put your money where your mouth is."
Davis disagrees. "I'm not doing this to put money in my pockets," he says.
This seems laughable, of course; it's practically government-mandated that NFL owners exist to put money in their own pockets. Davis, though, is making this statement while talking on a 12-year-old phone, driving a $12-a-day rental car and wearing a Raiders T-shirt. Give him this: He can make the impossible sound conceivable.
THIS SEASON FIGURES to be one of those drawn-out, syrupy elegies to a team and its city. There will be odes to the boys in the stands wearing full pads and shoulder spikes. There will be teary pleas at city council meetings and cranky letters to the editor and sober economists speaking in practicalities. Davis will be shown on TV in his owner's suite, wearing his game-day white cap, worn neither symbolically nor metaphorically. No matter who the Raiders' opponent is, Oakland vs. Los Angeles III will be the story.
For now, though, Davis chooses optimism. The team has a new 18,500-square-foot practice facility estimated at $30 million. Despite the Raiders' business-as-usual 1 -- 1 start, Davis believes Del Rio is a coach with some gravitas, a Football Guy who roams the practice field wearing a Panama hat and a try-me look, someone whose eyes don't do the hummingbird shuffle when he's asked about a lineman's tweaked ankle.
On the ride back from Morimoto, I ask Davis about his van.
"How do you know about my van?" he asks. The tone takes me aback. To be honest, it's slightly accusatory.
This is 2015. It's on the Internet.
"What?" He's genuinely incredulous. "My van's on the Internet?"
We're riding in the back seat of a black Suburban driven by a walking muscle named Ava. Butch, from Raiders security, is in the passenger seat. They're clearly all buddies, and right now they're laughing as I hand Mark the proof: a photo of the van with a blog post from Barstool Sports.
Mark begins to read out loud:
I was driving through Walnut Creek, CA a few days ago when I spotted the unmistakable bowl haircut. Your boy Mark Davis leaving PF Changs after his daily visit for lunch. He pays the valet attendant and hops in this wagon.
Can this guy get any better?
The answer is no, a resounding no, it can not get any better than this. Mark Davis is the people's owner. Flies Southwest, hangs out at Strip Clubs" -- here Davis delivers a skeptical look, as if to refute this claim -- business lunches at Hooters, and now this, a license plate on his Dodge Caravan that says R8HERS. He is my favorite owner in Sports and it's not even close. Now if only he could actually put together a football team, then we'd be cooking with Gas. Pile in the Caravan boys and girls, next stop 5-11."
As Davis reads, the shoulders of the guys in front bounce in rhythm. Davis is laughing too. He starts, stops, restarts. He's laughing about the van and the bowl cut and a little less about that 5 -- 11 business. The Suburban rolls to a stop in front of the hotel, and Davis is wiping away tears of laughter as he gets out. He turns to Ava and Butch and says, "My van's on the f---ing Internet." Then he just stands there, holding his hands out to his sides, as if to say, What a crazy world.