Wide receiver had brief, spectacular career
before being derailed by prison, alcoholism
Warren Wells streaked through Raiders history like a comet, the prototypical Al Davis deep threat whose career was derailed by personal demons but whose staggering talents were unforgettable to those who saw them up close.
Wells died Thursday of congestive heart failure at age 76 in his hometown of Beaumont, Texas, a story first reported by NBC Sports Bay Area.
“When you think about the vertical game and the AFL, he was a big part of that,” Raiders owner Mark Davis said in a phone interview.
The Raiders mourn the passing of Warren Wells, who was an integral part of the Raiders’ vaunted vertical passing game. He will forever be a part of Raiders lore.
The thoughts and prayers of the entire #RaiderNation are with the Wells family at this time.
Wells has spent most of his later life in Beaumont in declining health, struggling with alcohol abuse and dementia. His post-NFL life included convictions for aggravated assault with prison time as well as stints in psychiatric hospitals and halfway houses.
He was in Oakland as recently as Dec. 20, 2015, accompanied by family at the behest of Davis and lit the memorial torch in honor of late owner Al Davis.
The numbers Wells put up from 1967 through 1970 with the Raiders look like something out of a video game, in particular a 1969 season where he caught 47 passes for 1,260 yards and 14 touchdowns — a staggering average of 26.8 yards per catch.
In other words, every time Wells caught a pass, the Raiders covered more than a quarter of the field.
“Warren was way ahead of his time,” said former Raiders safety George Atkinson, who broke in as a rookie cornerback practicing against Wells every day in practice. “With today’s rules, he’d catch a hundred balls in five games. Warren was an attacker. If he found you were soft, he’d wear you out. It’s not even fair to players today to compare them to Warren Wells.”
Wells was paired with Fred Biletnikoff, an eventual Hall of Famer, at wide receiver. He excelled at the deep routes Al Davis loved and together with quarterback Daryle “The Mad Bomber” Lamonica, helped strike fear into opposing defenses.
He would end up catching 156 passes for 3,364 yards and 42 touchdowns with the Raiders. His 23.1 yards per catch for his career was an NFL record for years, until the criteria was changed to a minimum of 200 career receptions.
“You could compare him to anyone who played the game. He was that good,” Biletnikoff said in a phone interview. “Some of the things I saw him do, the catches I saw him make, were amazing. He was a great friend. Could be tough to get a smile out of sometimes, but he still had a great sense of humor. It’s sad to see another one of our friends pass away.”
Despite the issues that followed his career, teammates remembered Wells as soft-spoken and dedicated to his craft.
“Warren was a team player in every aspect,” Atkinson said. “He just ran into personal issues. If this was a perfect world, we’d have perfect people. The world isn’t perfect and neither are the people living in it.”
Former Raiders defensive tackle Art Thoms wore No. 80, so he had his locker next to Wells, who was No. 81, in 1969-70. He recalls Wells as someone who mostly kept to himself.
Typical to the era, Thoms said, “He’d bum cigarettes off me . . . I don’t know that we ever had any long, serious conversations. He was quiet, he didn’t really say a lot. He’d go out there and produce and kind of jog around and then when game time came, he would just go deep.”
After the 1970 season, Wells was arrested and handcuffed in the locker room after the Pro Bowl in Los Angeles on a probation violation from a conviction two years earlier for aggravated assault. He had originally been charged with rape.
Following a 10-month prison term, Wells made a brief attempt to get back into football, but never played again.
“I remember when he came out of prison and wanted to get back into his career, he wasn’t talking to very many people but for some reason he was talking to me,” Mark Davis said. He told me they took his soul while he was in prison.”
A string of legal troubles followed, mostly having to do with Wells’ alcoholism. Consetta Wells, Warren’s sister-in-law, told the Daily Review in 1996 Warren had begun to get his life in order with the help of his brother Oscar. But when Oscar died suddenly, followed in short order by the deaths of both of his parents, “it was like he wanted to give up,” Consetta said.
When Wells appeared at a card and memorabilia show in Fremont in 1996 and was asked what advice he had for athletes, he said, “Stay off the alcohol and the weed, stay off drugs. Don’t ruin your life and your career like I did mine.”
When Mark Davis learned that Wells no longer had possession of his 1967 AFL championship ring, he attempted to order a replacement. The idea was to present it to Wells before a game in front of Coliseum fans. However, Davis said the ring company replicated the 1976 Super Bowl championship ring instead.
Wells made the visit, but Davis was never able to get him the replacement ring.
“It’s a big loss for the Raiders organization to lose Warren Wells,” Davis said.
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