On the sideline, as he waits for the moment when he is needed, the nation's finest collegiate placekicker wears a hat with DAVEY ALLISON etched across the front and the late NASCAR driver's car number, 28, inscribed on the side. He also has a small, 28, on the back of his silver Memphis State helmet. "Before I go in to kick," says Joe Allison, "I put my hat down and say, 'Davey, give me the strength to do the best I can, to be as strong as you were.' "
Davey and Joe were first cousins, but they were as close as brothers, even though Joe, now 22, was 10 years younger than Davey. Joe's first childhood hero was his godfather and uncle, Bobby Allison, the stock car legend of the 1960s and '70s, and also Davey's dad. During every step of his football development, Joe has worn jersey number 12, the number of his uncle's car. As Bobby's career waned, Joe began to idolize Davey as well. He became so close to his cousin that he spent several summers working around Davey's garage as a gofer and pit-crew member. Every Sunday, Joe would be on hand at a speedway, rooting for Davey to win the NASCAR race of the week.
As a senior at Miami's American High, Joe starred as a quarterback, punter and kicker, but Memphis State was the only Division I-A school to offer him a scholarship—much to the disappointment of Davey, who was a diehard Auburn fan. Nonetheless, Davey always attended at least one Memphis State game a season. In 1991 Davey spoke to the team before the Louisville game and was awarded the game ball 'after the Tigers' 35-7 victory. And Joe will never forget the day he was called away from practice to take a phone call from Davey, who asked Joe to be godfather to his daughter, Krista.
As a junior last season, Joe led the nation in field goals with 23 (out of 25 attempts) and converted all 32 extra-point tries to win the inaugural Lou Groza Award, to be given annually to the best collegiate kicker. Nobody was more thrilled than Davey. "He joked that in a couple of years, he'd have to change his schedule to watch me kick on Sundays," says Joe. But on July 12, Davey was fatally injured in a helicopter crash at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, less than a year after his brother, Clifford, had been killed in a stock car accident. "At Clifford's funeral I put my hand on Davey's back to support him," says Joe. "He said, 'This will make us work harder to do the best we can every day, because we don't know when our time will come.' I remembered that when I heard about Davey. It will always stick with me."
Since Davey's death, Joe has been inundated with expressions of support from stock car fans to whom the Allison name is almost sacred. He also has heard from many of his friends in football, including Auburn placekicker Scott Etheridge, who sent flowers, and San Francisco 49er placekicker Mike Cofer, a fellow southerner who was an avid Davey Allison fan. Yet nothing helped Joe cope with Davey's death as much as getting back to football. "I knew deep down if I let this affect me to the point where I couldn't do my job on the football field, Davey would want to kick my butt," Joe says.
On Saturday, Joe's two field goals accounted for all scoring in Memphis State's 6-0 win over Arkansas as the Tigers' record improved to 2-2. With a range that easily exceeds 50 yards, he is a cinch to be kicking in the NFL next season. He's looking forward to it, "because," as he says, "I want to give the Allison family a reason to smile again on Sundays."
Success is relative for the Memphis State senior, the nation's top field goal kicker.