As the Raiders' charter flight to Houston headed toward the runway, the familiar aisle seat in the second row of the first class section sat empty.
It wasn't a big surprise, given the weakened state of Al Davis and the fact he'd missed a Week 2 cross-country trip to Buffalo.
Yet on Oct. 7, 2011, Davis' absence wasn't a foregone conclusion.
"Honestly, we didn't know until right up to when the door closed whether Al was coming or not," said John Herrera, the Raiders former senior executive.
Instead, Davis remained less than a mile away at the Oakland Airport Hilton, staying in a suite which had become his home and base of operations because of its proximity to the club's Alameda facility on Harbor Bay Parkway.
Davis would be driven for occasional visits to the office in the afternoon but did most of his film study at the Hilton, talking with people by phone and occasionally conducting business there in person.
At 2:45 a.m. on Oct. 8, Davis died in his suite at age 82 of heart failure related to myriad physical problems, including an aggressive form of skin cancer. According to the death certificate, Davis had undergone throat surgery only three days before.
Word spread in Houston at 6 a.m., with coach Hue Jackson informing the team at a morning meeting.
What followed the next day was an emotionally charged 25-20 win over the Texans, with safety Michael Huff intercepting a Matt Schaub pass in the end zone on the game's final play.
"I'll carry that with me as a real special play in my career because of what it meant and who it was for," Huff said this week.
Oddly, The Raiders had only 10 men on the field. It was unintentional, of course, although in Raider mythology, the 11th man will always be the man who constructed the team in his own image starting with his arrival as head coach and general manager in 1963.
Oct. 8, 2011, was the day the franchise changed forever. At the conclusion of the season, Davis' son, Mark, who declined to be interviewed for this story, hired general manager Reggie McKenzie to plot a new course for the Raiders.
A year after his death, some of those closest to Davis are still coming to grips with his loss. Being a friend of Davis could be intense and exhausting, while at the same time rewarding in terms of depth and loyalty.
Special assistant and Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown first met Davis while stretching on the field for the Denver Broncos before a game against the Raiders.
"He told me I'd look great as a Raider," Brown said. "They'd call that tampering now, but it wasn't then."
Davis traded for Brown in 1967 and 45 years later, Brown was sitting in the front row of the club charter for away games.
"He wanted me there so he could tap me on the shoulder if he needed to tell me something about the team," Brown said. "Sometimes I still expect him to be there."
Jim Otto, the Hall of Fame center who works special projects for the Raiders, sat directly in front of Davis in a Coliseum suite during home games.
"When I retired, he said, 'You sit right there in front of me,' " said Otto, who retired in 1972. "And that's where I've been sitting ever since. So it's an unusual feeling not to have him there."
Former Raiders quarterback Jim Plunkett enjoyed the give and take with Davis during games.
"He'd have an opinion about certain players, and I didn't always agree," Plunkett said. "He was sharp-witted and pretty acerbic. You'd think he wasn't listening to you, and then half-an-hour later he'd bring it back up and ding you if you were wrong."
For Herrera, who served in different capacities for the Raiders and Davis since age 16, any phone call carries with it a conditioned response.
"I jump a little bit because I had so many thousands of phone calls," Herrera said. "You had to be on your toes and hopefully you would have the answers and information he was looking for. Whether it was a good call or a bad call, it was always an interesting call."
Said Raiders CEO Amy Trask: "Not a day goes by that I don't think of him. I miss our interaction -- the wonderful interaction and even the screaming-and-yelling-at-one-another interaction."
Although Davis' health was in obvious decline as he went from walker to wheelchair, he kept the details from just about everyone except his physicians. During news conferences, the media would be let in with Davis already seated and excused before he departed.
A kind of 'denial'
He never appeared on the field at training camp in 2011, showing up in Napa only once to conduct a three-hour meeting with the coaching staff and then return to the Bay Area. Stefen Wisniewski, the Raiders' top draft pick in 2011, never even met the man who drafted him.
"You knew he wasn't well, but he was just so tough you figured whatever it was, he could beat it," Brown said.
Otto voiced similar thoughts, although he conceded, "I could see his toughness waning, and it hurt me terribly to see that. But then I'd say, 'He's all right. He'll pull through this.' "
Herrera said he was in a kind of "denial" about Davis' health but marveled at his ability to keep working.
"It was beyond difficult, watching Al, not just older, but obviously going downhill," Herrera said. "There was weight loss, skin problems, all the physical ailments the last couple of years. It was just amazing that he was able to focus on the Raiders. He was working until the very end. I think it sustained him in a way."