Ben Davidson, who died Tuesday, was a true original.
Davidson came to the Raiders in 1966, after brief stints with the Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins. Al Davis was a good judge of talent at that point and he realized that all Ben needed was a chance. He was relentless as a defensive end, playing as hard on the last snap of the game as the first.
With the Raiders, Ben developed an image which he cultivated assiduously, with a handlebar moustache which added to his ferocious image. He was known for his flattening of quarterbacks, but in a 1967 game, it was the Raiders’ other defensive end, Ike Lassiter, who broke the jaw of Joe Namath with a ferocious hit. The photo of that play adorned the walls of the Raiders office for years.
In the immediate aftermath, everybody thought it was Ben who had broken Namath’s jaw. He tried to give the credit to Lassiter, but his good friend, Tom Keating, told him, “Are you crazy? This is great for your reputation.”
So, after that, whenever anybody asked Ben about the play, he just smiled and twirled his moustache.
Ben was an imposing figure at 6-foot-8, 275 pounds, much bigger than the average defensive end in those pre-steroids days. Once, when the Raiders were playing in Kansas City, he was injured, so he sat in the stands. The Chiefs’ fans were very rabid, but nobody bothered Ben.
He was just as unorthodox off the field. He and his friend, Keating, were avid motorcycle riders and one offseason they decided to ride their motorcycles down to Mexico. They rode them through the rural areas of Mexico, drawing oohs and aaahs about the “gringos muy grande.” When they stopped, the locals would come up to them, warily, and Ben, who knew some Spanish, would talk to them. Often, they wound up posing for pictures with the locals.
I was covering the Raiders at the time and, when they got back, they told me about their adventures. I told them I thought that would make a great magazine story, so I contacted Argosy and they gave me the assignment. Since Ben and Tom had all the information and pictures as well, I split my fee with them.
Ben was also very friendly with the Raiders fans and the first to volunteer for charity events. In those days, few of them ever paid the participating athletes. Bob Bestor, then the Raiders publicity director, told me one day, “The next time a paying gig comes in, Ben is the first one I’m going to contact because he’s done so many freebies.”
Ben also participated in many charity events after retirement. One of them was the Alta Bates Celebrity tennis tournament at the Berkeley Tennis Club, in which I also played. Ben was a good athlete in his youth, competing in the hurdles in high school, but by then his knees were in bad shape, so he could hardly move on the court. That made no difference to his fans, who just wanted to see Big Ben and talk to him between matches.
Ben Davidson was a class act. He’ll be missed.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.