Someday he may grow weary of these gigs. For now, however,
making triumphant returns is still a novelty for Terrell Davis.
It was shortly before lunch period when Davis, a second-year
running back with the Denver Broncos, paid a recent visit to his
old high school, Lincoln Academy in San Diego. Kickoff for the
Hornets' game with Scripps Ranch High wasn't until 3 p.m., which
left plenty of time for the 24-year-old Davis, class of '90, to
pull up a folding chair in the football office and shoot the
breeze with a few of his former coaches. At one point Davis
suggested that they break out a VCR and check out some of
Lincoln's stirring victories of yore.
Who could blame Davis for feeling nostalgic? Here he was, the
NFL's leading rusher, returning to the scene of past
glories--glories achieved not so much by Davis, truth be told,
as by other Lincoln players. Just beyond the windows of the
football office lay the field Davis used as a springboard to,
well, a mediocre college career. For Davis, who would head up
the NFL's Alltime Late-Bloomers Team if such a squad were ever
named, Lincoln's field was where it all didn't begin.
Vic Player, who coached Lincoln off and on for 20 years,
resigned following the 1993 season. He and current coach Tony
Jackson were in the office this day, along with Chali Brown ("I
don't pronounce a lot of my r's," Brown said, explaining his
oddly spelled first name), who coaches the team's wide receivers
and whose son Charles Jr. played in the same backfield as
Davis--and outshone him.
Back then, who didn't outshine Davis? Eight players from
Lincoln's 1989 squad, which went 12-2 and lost in the 2A city
championship game, received Division I-A scholarships. Davis was
among them only because the coaches at Long Beach State were
persuaded by one of their tailbacks--Terrell's older brother
Reggie Webb--to take a flier on this fullback-noseguard-kicker
who could play guard in a pinch.
Davis's problem--and it didn't turn out to be such a problem,
did it?--was that he came late to the game. He didn't play
football until his junior year in high school, after
transferring to Lincoln from nearby Morse High. That season he
played noseguard. Blocking Davis "was like trying to block a
greased pig," said Jackson. As a senior Davis played both ways,
at noseguard and fullback. In the off-season he ran track. "He
still holds the school record in the discus," Player said.
"Is that up on the wall yet?" Davis asked. The coaches laughed,
and Davis had his answer. Track and field records are posted on
a board in the school's spartan locker room, but the discus
record, among others, hasn't been updated this decade.
Even as he grumbled, "I get no respect around here," Davis had
trouble wiping the grin off his face. This is part of his shtick
whenever he visits Lincoln. In the front hallway is a
glass-encased shrine to Marcus Allen, who graduated in 1978 and
won the Heisman Trophy at Southern Cal before embarking on his
storied NFL career. Lincoln has retired Allen's number 9; an
enormous portrait of the Kansas City Chiefs running back hangs
in the school's main office, as if this were Iraq and Allen were
"And I can't even get my discus record on the wall," said Davis.
Again his indignation was feigned, though one might sympathize
with him if it hadn't been. It is Davis, after all, who leads
the league with 817 yards rushing, and who on Sunday in a 45-34
win over the Baltimore Ravens, ran for a team-record 194 yards
and two touchdowns. It was Davis, a sixth-round pick, who became
the lowest-drafted player in NFL history to run for more than
1,000 yards. Early this season he gained 100 or more yards in
four straight games, a streak that ended on Oct. 6, when he got
a migraine during a 28-17 win over the San Diego Chargers and
sat out the second quarter.
Davis has suffered from migraines all his life, but until this
season he has never been unable to play football because of
them. After absorbing a monster shot from Tampa Bay Buccaneers
linebacker Lonnie Marts in the second quarter of Denver's game
against the Bucs on Sept. 15, however, Davis left the game with
a burgeoning headache. "It got to the point where I couldn't see
anything," says Davis. "It was a blur out there." After taking a
migraine medication called Lidicaine, he returned in the second
half and carried the Broncos to victory, rushing for 94 of his
137 yards and the go-ahead touchdown in a 27-23 win. There would
be no such heroics against the Chargers; on that day his
migraine conquered his medicine.
A headache succeeded where NFL defensive coordinators have
failed: It took Davis out of a game. "It's weird," Broncos
fullback Aaron Craver says, referring to Davis's success in
light of his underwhelming pigskin pedigree. "You never know
who's going to end up being great."
It is weirder still that a 5'11", 200-pound guy who volunteered
to play noseguard in high school to get on the field is already
considered one of the most complete backs in the league.
"There's not an area in his game that isn't strong," says
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, citing Davis's soft hands, reliable
pass protection and devastating lead blocks.
Denver management was so impressed with Davis's rookie
performance that last summer it tore up the final two years of
his contract and signed him to a five-year, $6.8 million deal,
which spiked his average annual salary from $166,000 to $1.36
million. As The Denver Post noted a day later, "Anytime anyone
receives an 819 percent pay raise in one day, it is a good day."
No Bronco begrudges the kid a dime. "We have a high level of
respect for him," says tight end Shannon Sharpe, who then poses
a rhetorical question: "How many teams say to their best back,
'Look, we're going to give the ball to the fullback, so we want
you to take on their best linebacker'? I don't think they say
that to Emmitt Smith or Barry Sanders. We tell Terrell that, and
he crashes up in there. He's all man."
But he is not the Man. In Denver that honorific belongs to
quarterback John Elway, whose appreciation of Davis runs as deep
as, if not deeper than, any Bronco's. Elway has played in three
Super Bowls despite being saddled for most of his 14-year career
with ordinary backs and receivers. No more. Through Sunday the
Broncos had the NFL's top-ranked offense. This is the most
potent running attack Denver has had for Elway, who has
engineered 39 fourth-quarter game-winning or game-tying drives.
It would not break his heart, Elway admits, if he no longer had
to spend the waning minutes of games scrambling around like a
man with scorpions in his pants. "I'd much rather hand the ball
to Terrell in the fourth quarter," he says. "I'd rather bleed
the clock than race against it."
Davis gives Elway, now in his NFL dotage at 36, a chance to
finally win it all. And to think that 21 backs were selected
before Davis in the '95 draft. "It makes you wonder," says
Elway. "How many guys have been hidden like that and never got
Davis proved to be a pleasant discovery for the venerable George
Allen, the coach at Long Beach State when Davis arrived in 1990.
As a freshman he was the star of the scout team. Allen called
him Secretariat. But tragedy struck the program at the end of
that season. The 72-year-old Allen died of heart failure on Dec.
31. After the following season Long Beach State officials,
citing budget shortfalls, dropped football.
Two schools threw Davis a lifeline: Georgia and UCLA. "Georgia?"
he said when his roommate told him the Bulldogs' recruiting
coordinator had called. "Where the hell is Georgia?"
"If you'd have given me a puzzle of the 50 states," says Davis,
"I wouldn't have known where to put Georgia. But it was a free
trip, so I went."
Listen to his recollection of that visit, and you'll understand
why he chose the Bulldogs: "They took me through this big old
museum-looking building with all these trophies and video
screens. When you touched the screens, they showed famous plays.
Downstairs, in the locker room, it's all red and pretty. They
give you cleats and gloves--at Long Beach we had to pay for
those things. You get a game helmet and a practice helmet. They
had my jersey with my name already on it. I was like, 'I'm here!'"
So was Garrison Hearst, who would finish third in the 1992
Heisman voting. Davis backed him up that year. The next season,
after Hearst departed for the NFL, Davis rushed for 824 yards
and was reminded constantly that he was no Hearst, no Rodney
Hampton, no Herschel Walker.
During camp before his senior season, Davis felt a slight tear
in his hamstring. After he missed a day or two of practice,
coach Ray Goff "yelled at the trainers," Davis recalls. "He was
ticked off. Why wasn't I out there?" Davis returned to practice
before he felt ready, and he aggravated the injury. "So, after
I've been in the training room for about a week," he says, "Goff
comes in again, telling me if I don't practice this week, I
In a game against Tennessee early in the season, Davis reinjured
the hamstring, this time severely. "I ripped it to shreds," he
says. "I missed three games after that." He came out of his
senior season with a disappointing 445 yards rushing, a
reputation for being injury-prone and an aversion to Goff.
Then he ran a 4.7-second 40 at the '95 NFL scouting combine and
thought, That's it, I'm a free agent. When the Broncos spared
him that fate, he felt anger. "I was thinking, When you get
drafted this late, all you are is camp meat," says Davis.
Camp meat is what players call the poor stiffs who have little
or no chance of making the club, guys who give the veterans live
bodies to collide with. It quickly became clear that Davis
wasn't camp meat. He ran with authority and made a bunch of
tackles on special teams. Covering a kickoff in a preseason game
against the San Francisco 49ers, Davis eluded a blocker, then
annihilated the ballcarrier. "Terrell knocked the guy back 15
feet," says Reggie Rivers, another Denver running back. "Just
blew him up. It was incredible."
So was the speed with which Davis ascended the depth chart. He
moved from fourth string in mid-July to first string on the eve
of the season, winning the starting job with his talent and
smarts. Says Broncos running backs coach Bobby Turner, "I tell
my players, 'You're either coachable or you're a coach-killer.'
You tell Terrell something once, he gets it. Tell him twice, he
owns it. He's coachable."
Davis is an offensive lineman's kind of back, if such a thing
exists. "When he goes through the line of scrimmage on a pass
route," says Turner, "he's chipping those defensive
linemen"--bumping them with a shoulder, then continuing on his
route. "By the fourth quarter, hopefully, we're wearing down
those tackles and ends. We like to help our linemen as much as
we can." Denver's hogs would express their appreciation were it
not for their policy of fining one another $25 for being quoted
"Afraid not," said left tackle Gary Zimmerman when asked if he
cared to comment about Davis.
"Can't risk the fine," said center Tom Nalen.
Against the Washington Redskins in his third NFL game, Davis
scored three touchdowns, thus matching the number of TDs he
amassed in two years at Lincoln. In addition to rushing for
1,117 yards as a rookie, he caught 49 passes for 367 yards.
During the Broncos' bye week last season he made a triumphant
return to Georgia. While on campus he saw Goff, who was later
fired, but did not talk to him. "I'm afraid I might have been
kind of rude to him," says Davis.
Back in the Lincoln football office, Davis reclined in the
folding chair and assured his high school coaches that given the
chance to do it over again, he would attend Georgia. "The whole
thing made me much tougher mentally," he said. "What doesn't
kill you makes you stronger."
"Nietzsche said that, right?" said a visitor.
"Nitschke?" said Jackson.
"Friedrich Nietzsche," said Player. "Nihilist philosopher."
Noticing that everyone was staring at him, Player felt compelled
to explain. "I've studied philosophy," he said.
The time was ripe, Davis decided, to stroll down to the main
office, say some hellos. As he moved down the corridor, warm
testimonials followed in his wake.
"I hadn't met him until just now," said Tim Williams, a junior
cornerback. "He's a nice guy."
"He's just a wonderful person," said Paulette Watson, who works
in the career counseling office.
"The guy's worth $6.5 million," said Jeff Person, a former
Lincoln wideout who played with Davis and now coaches at San
Diego Mesa College, "and it hasn't changed him a bit."
Nobody had any dirt on the guy; everybody wanted to tell you
what a prince he is. Davis would never admit it, but the kind of
reception he got at Lincoln probably felt as good as having his
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Davis has found a home in Denver, and neither he nor the Broncos could be happier. [Terrell Davis]
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Despite not being drafted until the sixth round, Davis rushed to the top of the Broncos' depth chart. [Terrell Davis in game]
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Davis has become one of Lincoln's most prominent alums, but he's still no match for the revered Allen. [Terrell Davis standing beside trophy case dedicated to Marcus Allen]