The Oakland Raider teams of the 1970s hit hard, played hard and lived hard. For many Raider fans, the man who embodied the franchise’s unique spirit was linebacker Phil Villapiano, an undersized, underappreciated draft pick out of Bowling Green who smashed his way into the starting lineup as a rookie and helped anchor one of the great defenses in history.

One of the fastest linebackers of his era, Phil specialized in making big plays—none bigger than his momentum-changing goal-line tackle against the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI. All-NFL in 1975 and 1976, and All-AFC from 1972-76, Phil also played in four Pro Bowls during his 13-year career.

Upon retiring, Phil returned home to the New Jersey shore, where he eventually became involved with fund-raising efforts for ALS research and victims of the disease. Not surprisingly, he attacks this part of his life the same way he used to go after opposing running backs and quarterbacks.


Phillip James Villapiano was born on February 26, 1949, in Long Branch, New Jersey, to Dorothy and Gus Villapiano. Phil’s brother, Gus, Jr., was two years older; another brother, John, was two years younger. Their sister, Carolee, was the youngest sibling. When Phil was growing up, his father was the Athletic Director at Asbury High in Asbury Park. Gus was a former college football star. He lettered for three years at DePauw University in the mid-1930s, where he was a member of Frank Mundy’s impenetrable defense.


Phil Villapiano,
Autographed Photo
 
JockBio.com:

Did your father push you into football?

   
Phil Villapiano:

No. I loved football. I played football every day as a kid. It was my mother, not my father, who got me thinking about making a living at it. She saw how much football meant to me and said, “Did you know you can play football when you grow up?” I said, “What?” I didn’t realize guys were getting paid to play football. So that planted the seed.



Phil made the Asbury High varsity as a sophomore and was the only boy in his class to letter. The following season, he transferred to the new Ocean Township public school, where he captained the football team as a junior and senior. Phil played running back and linebacker, and hit like a train. Several colleges scouted him during the fall of 1966, with the best offer coming from an ACC school, Maryland.

   
JockBio.com:

Why did you end up going to Bowling Green instead of Maryland?

   
Phil Villapiano:

Lou Saban was the Maryland coach when I was recruited, but he left to work for the Denver Broncos. We called down there and asked what was going on, and they asked if I could wait until they hired a new coach? We explained that Bowling Green and a couple of other schools were interested in me, so it was now or never. Maryland couldn’t move, so I accepted the scholarship at Bowling Green.

 

   
JockBio.com:

You basically volunteered to play defensive end at Bowling Green. How did you make that decision?

   
Phil Villapiano:

It wasn’t rocket science. They told everyone to line up based on the position they played. There was a bunch of guys who wanted to play linebacker and only a handful who lined up for defensive end. So that’s where I went, and I played there for four years. We played a five-man line, so I was a stand-up end—very similar to a linebacker.

 


Under coach Don Nehlen, Phil flourished at his new position. The Mid-America Conference in the late 1960s featured predominantly run-based offenses. Phil learned how to shed blockers, and track and tackle running backs. By the time he completed his senior year in 1970, his linebacking skills were fully evolved.

In the Blue-Gray Game, Phil made a ton of tackles from the defensive end position. In the Senior Bowl he was shifted to linebacker, and played another great game. NFL scouts adding Phil to their linebacker list felt that he was somewhat undersized, but also noted that he ran a 4.6 40 in full gear. After the Senior Bowl, several teams were positive he could hold his own in the NFL.

 
JockBio.com:

The Senior Bowl is when you really hit the radar screen for the NFL. When did you get a sense you could play at that level?

   
Phil Villapiano:

After the Senior Bowl, I sensed I could make it in the NFL. All the top prospects were there and I was making more tackles than any of them. And the draft was like two weeks later.

 
JockBio.com:

Were you surprised the Raiders took you in the second round of the 1971 draft?

 
Phil Villapaino:

Yes. I thought I was either going to be a Brown or a Jet. They had both talked to me and were interested. But the Raiders were looking for a guy to replace Chip Oliver, a linebacker who created a lot of havoc for them. Chip had left the team.

Actually, I really thought I was going to go to Canada. The head coach for the Toronto Argonauts, Leo Cahill, was at Bowling Green every week. You could make $80,000 plus a bonus if you signed with the CFL. When I was drafted by the Raiders in the second round, they were offering a lot less. But my father and I had agreed that if I were taken in the first three rounds, I would go to the NFL. After that, I was inclined to go to Canada, because this guy was so nice to me.

 
JockBio.com:

The Raiders were one of only a few teams that didn’t get their information from a central scouting service. A lot of teams had you as a third- or fourth-rounder, but Oakland had you rated with the best linebackers in the draft.

   
Phil Villapiano:

The rap on me was that I was a little small, but the Raiders knew that wasn’t true. Other teams had me listed at 210, but I was actually 225. Also, if you can hit, you can hit. The Raiders knew that.

They took Jack Tatum, another guy who was supposedly undersized, in the first round. In my case, it came down to me and Charlie Weaver of USC. Charlie was a great player who had a nice career with the Lions.


Phil arrived at camp as a linebacker on the outside looking in. Oakland had veterans Dan Conners, Gus Otto and Duane Benson, along with Gerald Irons and Carl Weathers (of "Rocky" fame). Like most rookies, he was just trying to win a spot on the club, and assumed he would spend the season playing special teams while he learned the nuances of a position he hadn’t played since high school. During camp, however, injuries ravaged the Raider linebacking corps and, by opening day, Phil found himself in the starting lineup.

In the season’s third game, a Monday Night Football contest against the Cleveland Browns, Phil became a household name. His speed confounded the Browns’ blockers and caught the imagination of color man Howard Cosell.


Phil Villapiano, 1972 Topps
   
JockBio.com:

Cosell was ready to adopt you at the end of that game.

   
Phil Villapiano:

Howard Cosell took good care of me. He just enjoyed the way I played. Years later I ran into him and thanked him.

In terms of that game, I was really ready to play. I was going back to Ohio, I had a lot of Bowling Green people in the stands. It was the second year of Monday Night Football and it was just starting to catch on. The Browns ran the ball a lot with Leroy Kelly, and being that I was a rookie, they ran a lot at me. That was fine with me.

   
JockBio.com:
Most players say that their toughest adjustment going from college to the NFL is the speed at which the pro game is played. Obviously, that wasn’t an issue with you.
 
Phil Villapiano:

No, in my case the biggest adjustment was mental. You had to be so prepared. My problem as a rookie was that I was losing weight like crazy. I couldn’t eat—I was so nervous about blowing a coverage. It drove me crazy to make a mistake—I hated making mistakes. Dan Conners helped me on the field. He was in his eighth season. He would make a defensive call and then signal me where to go, because there were times I had no clue.


The Raiders ended up 8-4-2 in 1971, finishing second in the AFC West to their mortal enemy, Kansas City. Oakland’s defensive line, so dominant in the 1960s, was beginning to lose a step, so coach John Madden began working in some new talent, including Otis Sistrunk, who listed his school as “Hard Knocks.” The Raider secondary was superb, with veteran Willie Brown and young Tatum earning his nickname, the “Assassin.” The linebackers were among the league’s best.

In 1972, the Raiders recaptured the division crown, but fell to the Steelers in the playoffs when Franco Harris made his “Immaculate Reception.” Phil led the team’s linebackers with three interceptions. In 1973, Oakland won the division again, this time with Ken Stabler running the offense. Four straight wins at the end of the year—including a fight-marred blowout of the Chiefs—put the Raiders over the top.



   
JockBio.com:
What was it like playing in those Raider-Chief games in the early '70s?
   
Phil Villapaino:

Those games tended to get out of hand, and the refs usually called them close. I remember when one of the Chiefs tried a crack-back block on me. I spun out of it, moved toward the sideline, and made the tackle. I looked down and I saw Hank Stram’s shoe. I pounded it with my fist as hard as I could.

   
JockBio.com:
What’s your version of the famous fight in the 1973 game?
   
Phil Villapiano:

That was a major game. The Western Division title was on the line, and we were killing them. I was coming across the field on a play and saw George Atkinson club their running back, Ed Podolak—a real cheap shot right in front of the KC sideline. Then I saw Jeff Kinney, who was on the bench, getting ready to hit Ack. Well, I nailed this guy. I hit him as hard as I could. I ended up under the Chiefs’ bench, I just disappeared. Guys were hitting me and kicking me. My father, my brother and a friend of mine—Red D’Angelis, a mailman from Asbury Park—were sitting right in that part of the stands. They tried to climb over the rail to help me but the police stopped them.



The Raiders avenged their playoff loss to the Steelers with a 33-14 pounding in the first round of the 1973 playoffs, but Miami beat them 27-10 in the AFC title game. The 1974 Raiders went 12-2 and beat the Dolphins in the playoffs on a last-minute TD pass, but Pittsburgh stifled the high-powered Raider offense to advance to the Super Bowl. The Raiders won the West for the fourth straight year in 1975, but fell again to the Steelers in the title game.

The Raiders had the grave misfortune during the 1970s of being a great team at the same time as the Steelers and Dolphins were peaking. No one wanted to play any of these three juggernauts, but the Raiders were easily the most feared team in football. By this time, Ted Hendricks was wearing silver and black, and John Matuszak, picked up from the Chiefs, joined the club in 1976.




Phil Villapiano, 1973 Topps
   
JockBio.com:
You guys were fearless, and you had a lot of love and respect for one another. What was it like facing teams when knew you were going to annihilate them? Did you just have no respect at all for them?
   
Phil Villapiano:

Oh, we abused teams that didn’t come to play. If they didn’t prepare for us, we had no respect for them. That reputation also helped us when we weren’t up for a particular game. Sometimes we would play a horrible team, like the Denver Broncos in the early 70s, but we were thinking about a game a week later against Kansas City or Pittsburgh. We didn’t play our best game, but they would just let us win. It was weird. Late in a game, if we needed an interception, it was as if they gave it to us. We would think, "What’s with these guys?"


   
JockBio.com:
Did you ever go into a game unfocused?
   
Phil Villapiano:

Sometimes, we needed a wake-up call. Some guy would hit me from behind and starting on the next play, I’d be all over him for the rest of the day. We were all like that. When you faced us, you knew you were in for a game. We hit you hard. The left side was me and Tooz, the right side was Otis and Teddy. We actually competed against each other. We would go out and have drinking contests. We used to argue left side-right side during games. The corners would get into it sometimes, and we’d have to say, "Get out of here! You’re a corner!"



The 1976 Raiders finally put it all together. Outside of a so-so kicking game, the team did not have a significant weakness. On offense, Stabler was at the peak of his powers, leading all quarterbacks with a 67% completion rate and 27 touchdowns. He had three of the game’s top receivers in speedster Cliff Branch, tight end Dave Casper and possession specialist Fred Biletnikoff. Oakland gave opponents a lot of different looks in the backfield with Mark van Eeghan, Clarence Davis, Carl Garrett and Pete Banaszak. And the offensive line was anchored by Art Shell and Gene Upshaw. Teams that stopped the Raiders had to contend with punter Ray Guy, owner of the strongest leg in the game. Besides its famous leftside-rightside quartet, Oakland still had DB’s Tatum, George Atkinson, Willie Brown and the immortal Skip “Dr. Death” Thomas.




   
JockBio.com:
What made the Raiders such a special team that year was not just the stars, but the role players, too. Everyone seemed to be on the same page, every day, all the time. How close were the players?
   
Phil Villapiano:

The players on that 1976 team were very close. If you asked me to pick a guy on that club who “didn’t belong” it would be very difficult. Even the guys Al Davis picked up during the season—guys you never heard of—they all seemed to fit. Every Thursday night was camaraderie night. If you were on the Raiders, you’d better be there.


   
JockBio.com:
You went 13-1 in the regular season and survived a scare against the Patriots in the playoffs. Then you destroyed Pittsburgh in the AFC title game before routing Minnesota in the Super Bowl. It has been said that the Raiders enjoyed the sharpest week of practice in the history of pro football prior to the Viking game. True?
   
Phil Villapiano:

Oh, it was so intense. We were so focused, we were really concentrating. It was a great week of practice—we knew exactly what the Vikings were going to do. And we dominated the entire game. It wasn’t until late in the fourth quarter, when we went into a five-defensive back set, that they finally started moving the ball.

Funny story about that week. They had us practicing on some school field somewhere, and they erected an eight-foot hurricane fence all the way around with a screen so people couldn’t see us. These kids were hanging over the top of the fence, watching our practice. Fred Biletnikoff dropped a pass and the kids started laughing. Freddy ran over there and threw his helmet at the fence to scare them off. But it went over the fence. Obviously, he never saw that helmet again.


   
JockBio.com:
With all that confidence, Ray Guy gets his punt blocked early in the game, the Vikings take over on the three-yard line, and they have all the momentum. At that point you make one of the legendary tackles in football history—you must have known the play was coming your way.
   
Phil Villapiano:

We were thinking, we’ve got to hold them to a field goal. We pretty much knew what Minnesota’s short-yardage offense was about. The first play they came out in their regular offense, with two wide receivers, and Chuck Foreman tried to sweep around my end. Tooz and I got there together and brought him down around the three.

On the next play, they got rid of their receivers and brought in four tackles. Well, we knew there were only two plays they ran out of this set. As we watched the new players come in, I was saying “We got em where we want em!”

Ron Yary, who’s normally a tackle, lined up across from me as a tight end. The instant the ball was snapped I was by him and into the backfield. As they handed the ball off, I stuck my face right in there and knocked the ball out of Brent McClanahan’s arms and we recovered.

Jack Tatum was one of the first guys to reach the sideline, and he told John Madden, “Man you’ve got to do something about Phil. They’re on the two and he’s screaming, 'We got em where we want 'em!’”

When I came off the field, Madden stopped me. He said, “Did you say ‘We got em where we want 'em?’ What is that all about?”

I said, “Coach…we did!”



Phil Villapiano, 1974 Topps


The Raiders went on to win their lone Super Bowl of the 1970s, 32-14. The back-breaking play was Willie Brown’s 75-yard interception return, but the outcome was all but assured early in the second half. In 1977, Phil tore an ACL in the season’s second game, against the Steelers.




   
JockBio.com:
How frustrating was it to lose a season like that in your prime years and in the team’s prime years?
   
Phil Villapiano:

It was a shame. That was the first time in my career I felt totally confident and completely comfortable as a football player. Everything was perfect. And I injured myself on a stupid play. I’d done the same thing a million times, but this time I snapped my ligament.


   
JockBio.com:
How good a friend was John Matuszak during a year when you must have been going crazy?
   
Phil Villapiano:

John was the best during my rehab. He and I worked out all the time, during the season and then after the season, and he busted my ass. By the following summer, I was as good as new; I didn’t even need a brace! When I came into camp, Al Davis said, “Where’s your brace?” I said Al, “I don’t need a brace. I’m fine. I’m perfect.”



Phil did indeed return to full strength, although the Raider linebacking corps never recaptured the glory of ’76. A new scheme that flip-flopped Phil and Ted Hendricks diminished the effectiveness of both players and led to speculation that each had “lost a step.” A December loss to the Broncos kept Oakland out of the playoffs in 1978, John Madden’s final year at the helm. Tom Flores took over as head coach in 1979 and the team was unable to recover from a slow start and missed the playoffs again. Prior to the 1980 season, the Raiders, in dire need of a possession receiver to replace the retired Biletnikoff, traded Phil to the Buffalo Bills for Bob Chandler.




   
JockBio.com:
You were the heart and soul of the Raiders, one of Al Davis’s favorite players. Did you see the trade coming?
   
Phil Villapiano:

No, I never thought I’d be traded. I was so dedicated to the Raiders. I said some stupid stuff in the papers sometimes, like when they announced the team was moving to L.A. I said it was ridiculous and the only person who was going to benefit was Al Davis. But he knew I was one of his guys. I would have killed for him. So now I was in Buffalo. I played just as hard, but it was for a new company.



Powered by Joe Ferguson and Joe Cribbs, the Bills were one of five teams in the AFC to finish with an 11-5 record in 1980. The team had a good, balanced defense that gave up just 260 points. In its first-round playoff game with San Diego, Buffalo led through three quarters but Dan Fouts engineered a 20-14 comeback win by the Chargers to end Phil’s season.

The Bills enjoyed another solid campaign in 1981 and beat the Jets in the playoffs, but then ran into a red-hot Cincinnati team in the second round. Buffalo muddled through the strike year in 1982 at 4-5, then played .500 ball in 1983, Phil’s final NFL season.



   
JockBio.com:
Who were the toughest opponents for you to handle during your career?
   
Phil Villapiano:

Tight ends. When a guard would hit you, you were meeting head-to-head. It was much more difficult controlling tight ends, because they would come at you with their hands. Tight-end wise, the hardest to handle were Russ Francis, Bob Trumpy, Riley Odoms, and Tom Mitchell. Mitchell got me good a few times. He would come off the line like a maniac.

My biggest concern—the guys I had to physically fight to bring down—were the fullbacks. The guys I hated most were Larry Csonka and John Riggins. Man, those guys would hurt you. These were 250-pound running backs who could run as fast as me. .



Phil Villapiano, 1978 Topps
   
JockBio.com:
Practical jokes were practically an art form with the Raiders. What are some of the ones that stand out in your memory?
   
Phil Villapiano:

We found this butcher shop over in East Oakland, which was a nasty part of town, and I put fliers up advertising free turkeys for the Raiders for Thanksgiving. We figured only the rookies would fall for it. But Jim Otto saw it and it sounded like a pretty good deal to him, so he called up and cancelled the 25-pound bird he had already ordered. Mind you, he had his entire family coming over so basically we had ruined his Thanksgiving.

He drives over to this place, walks in and announces that he’s Jim Otto and he’s here for his turkey. The people there are like, "Who? What? Get outta here!" Otto went completely nuts.



   
JockBio.com:
What about the time you broke into Matuszak’s house?
   
Phil Villapiano:

John had a huge album collection—over a thousand records. We broke into his house and we lined every wall with albums. Then we took his bed and put it in the kitchen, took the kitchen table and put it in his bedroom, put the dining room in the bathroom—rearranged everything. We came back a month later, and John was still sleeping in the kitchen!


   
JockBio.com:
What are your memories of the Bamboo Room in Santa Rosa?
   
Phil Villapiano:

The Bamboo Room was a great place to drink. During training camp, it was so hot and we were so thirsty that we’d jump in the shower and head over there in flip-flops and tee shirts, and literally drink out of pitchers. There was a girl that used to hang out there—we called her our Queen. She was a great gal.

Anyway, one day she announced that she was getting married to one of the guys who hung out there, too. We offered to throw them a wedding at the bar—Ted Hendricks was the best man, and everyone had a role they played. We bought them a Honeymoon and even arranged for a police escort out of town. Art Thoms, a defensive lineman, performed the ceremony and we made them up a marriage certificate.

It was a great wedding. Only it was totally bogus. No way it was legal. For all we know, they still think they’re married!



   
JockBio.com:
The Raider air hockey tournament was your invention, wasn’t it?
   
Phil Villapiano:

Yes. I got this Coleco air hockey table at a charity basketball game. Isaiah Robertson and I raced each other on miniature bikes at halftime and I won. The air hockey table was the prize. I brought it back and we started a tournament amongst the Raiders, which became kind of an annual tradition.

Later, I met this guy from Coleco and told him about it. He asked if he could bring a couple of executives to watch. After that, Coleco threw us a big dinner in Oakland at a restaurant called Francesco’s. All the TV stations showed up—it was a big deal, and all of the Coleco big shots were there, along with about 30 players.

Well, the tournament quickly degenerated into the worst food fight ever. I look up, and I see the president of Coleco throwing dinner rolls across the room! George Blanda didn’t participate, but he saw the food fight on the evening news. The next morning at practice, he pulled me aside and said I was a disgrace to the Raider uniform.


 


Phil Villapiano, 1979 Topps

   
JockBio.com:
You have become very involved raising money for ALS. How did that affiliation start?
   
Phil Villapiano:

It goes back to my rookie year. My brother was a fireman, and they were involved with Muscular Dystrophy. I would do whatever I could to help raise money for the charity, and got some of the Jet players I knew involved in some fun events. I also worked with Muscular Dystrophy groups in Oakland when I was with the Raiders.

After my career, I continued working to raise money and increase awareness, when I was approached to do something specially for ALS. I didn’t know much about it, but I agreed and began to learn about the disease. I got to meet some of the great people involved in the charity here in New Jersey. We now hold an annual fund-raising event, The Phil Villapiano Field of Hope Gala, which gets bigger and bigger every year. This past year we raised more than $450,000 We had a great sports memorabilia auction with some unique pieces, and Bruce Springsteen stopped by and sang "Jersey Girl" to Joan Dancy, his manager's girlfriend, who we were honoring that night. Then we auctioned off the guitar he was playing for $15,000.



   
JockBio.com:
What can people do, right now, while they are reading this on their computer, to make a difference?
   
Phil Villapiano:

They can contact MDA at 732-389-0855 and make a donation to the Phil Villapiano Field of Hope Gala. The money raised by this event is earmarked specifically for research on ALS, so there is no better way to make a difference.

You can also donate sports memorabilia to the auction. If you’ve got a great piece that no longer has a place on your wall, imagine the good it can do in our hands. I have also signed some pictures for JockBio.com. Every penny of the selling price goes to fight ALS, so it’s a nice way to make a small contribution and get a little bit of football history at the same time.


   
 
 

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Phil Villapiano,
Autographed Photo

 

 

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