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Raiders’ Warren Wells: Did a scary cult derail his career?

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Whatever happened to Warren Wells?
That question haunted Oakland Raiders fans throughout the 1970s, when the dynamic wide receiver wowed everyone with his electrifying talent, only to suddenly vanish from sight. It wasn’t until last month, when Wells died at the age of 76 in his hometown of Beaumont, Texas, that his name sadly resurfaced in national headlines.
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“Split End: The Curious Case of Warren Wells” is a revelatory — and heartbreaking — new documentary that attempts to answer the nagging question, but raises even more. It premieres at 7 p.m. Saturday on NBC Bay Area (Channel 11) and will have an encore airing at 8:30 p.m. Jan. 24 on NBC Sports Bay Area. (Visit for additional air dates and times).
Produced and written by Ted Griggs, the hourlong film alleges that Wells, who had troubles with alcohol, began a downward spiral after being “sentenced” in 1972 to a now-defunct facility called Synanon. Heralded as a new-age rehabilitation center, Synanon was actually a dangerous cult run by a violent con man.
It was there, we’re told, that Wells was exposed to various forms of brainwashing and thought control. Though he spent only six months at Synanon, by the time Wells returned to the Raiders training camp, he was a drastically different man. The speed and slick moves that had made him one of the most dangerous deep threats in the waning years of the American Football League were no longer evident.
Warren Wells, photographed in 2015. 
“He seemed to be emotionally void,” recalls Raiders’ former tight end Raymond Chester in the film. “Everything seemed to be in slow motion.”
Wells was released by the Raiders in 1971 and never played pro football again.
With narration by Sway Calloway that occasionally feels clunky and overwrought, “Split End” pieces Wells’ story together, starting with rapturous testimony delivered by several Raiders legends.
“If he could have played long enough, he could have been the greatest wide receiver who ever played,” claims former coach John Madden.
“He was probably the best receiver I’ve seen,” adds Hall-of-Famer Fred Biletnikoff.
The subject of their praise was a marvelous athlete with soft hands and breakaway speed who, in his four seasons with the Raiders (1967-70), caught 156 passes for 3,634 yards and 42 touchdowns. In the 1969 season alone, he caught 47 passes for 1,260 yards and 14 TDs — a  staggering average of 26.8 yards per catch.
Emmitt Thomas, who played defensive back for the Kansas City Chiefs, describes Wells as “my worst nightmare.”
Unfortunately, Wells’ success on the field became overshadowed by his problems off it. He dealt with various legal difficulties, including a sexual assault case in 1969 and, later, an altercation in a Texas bar. The film implies that Wells’ troubles were exacerbated by a vindictive judge looking to make an example out of him.
Griggs and his collaborators have done a tremendous job compiling vintage footage, along with interviews with former legends, including Daryle Lamonica and Cliff Branch. And longtime Raiders fans will surely appreciate reliving some of Wells’ greatest moments, the best of which was a miraculous, last-second, game-winning touchdown catch against the New York Jets in 1970.
Where “Split End” falls a bit short is its failure to adequately fill in the blanks between Wells’ Raiders’ release and his final years, during which he suffered from the ravages of alcohol abuse and dementia. The absence of things left out is noticeable and it feels like unfinished detective work.
Nevertheless, the film, ultimately, makes for a riveting story. And Griggs, who grew up a passionate citizen of Raider Nation, deserves ample credit for following through on a personal quest that took him to Beaumont, where he gained access to Wells and his family.
What he managed to gather there are emotionally wrenching scenes of Wells being cared for by devoted relatives as he struggles to walk and voice only a few slurred words at a time.
At one point, he is shown a photo of Synanon headquarters and asked if it was a good place, or a bad place.
“Uh huh,” Wells mutters as he lowers his eyes. “Bad place.”

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