Night was when the strange things would happen. Terrell Davis
would be asleep sometimes when his father came home, and
sometimes he would be awake. A great storm would roll through
the little house on Florence Street in San Diego. Nothing would
be safe. No one would be spared. A hurricane of emotion, a
typhoon of words and activity would rattle everything in its
path. Joe Davis would be drunk again. Or high on drugs. Or
"I brought you into this world, and I can take you out!" Joe
Davis would boom.
"I'm from the Show Me State," he would add. "Show me."
No answer to that would be the right answer. Not even silence.
The four youngest boys in the family--the two oldest boys were
living with their mother in a larger house on Latimer
Street--would say "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" and would await Joe
Davis's next move. Terrell was the youngest of the youngest,
eight or nine or 10 years old. He was caught in a mix of love
and hate and terror.
Maybe his father would simply want to talk, about women or life
or anything, go into one of those familiar drinker's monologues.
That would not be bad. That would even be fun. Maybe, on the
other hand, Joe Davis would pull out the extension cord and
administer justice for some transgression he had seen or
imagined. That would not be fun.
"He came home one night, and we had these puppies," Terrell
remembers. "The puppies were making noise, whimpering and whining
the way puppies do. He said he couldn't stand the noise. We had
to give away the puppies. It was two o'clock in the morning. He
had us get dressed, take the puppies and follow him into the
neighborhood. We had to throw the puppies over fences into
neighbors' yards. I remember hearing the puppies crying, lost,
confused, on the other side of the fence. We went home. We never
saw the puppies again."
Joe Davis wanted his boys to be hard and tough. Their
neighborhood, Skyline, was a hard and tough place. The world was
a hard and tough place. There was no room for punks, for sissies.
The boys should be hard and tough because he was hard and tough.
He had been to prison a couple of times back in Missouri, for
armed robbery and grand theft, and he would go to prison again.
In San Diego, in the '70s, he worked at a variety of jobs, mainly
welding, but he also worked around the fringes of the law. A
television would suddenly appear in the house. A stereo system.
There were guns in the house. There was a scale that could be
used to measure drugs. Joe Davis was a figure of mystery.
"We always called him Diddy," Terrell says. "I guess it was
because someone had trouble pronouncing Daddy. I'm not sure.
Anyway, he came home one night and started yelling, 'Why does
everyone call me Diddy? I don't want to be called Diddy. I want
to be called Joe.' I remember waking up the next morning and not
knowing what to call my own father. Should I call him Diddy or
Joe? Did he remember the conversation the night before? I could
get the s--- knocked out of me either way.
"I called him Diddy, and I guess he didn't remember. It was O.K.
I never called him Joe."
Take nothing for granted. That was one lesson. Take nothing from
nobody. That was another. There was a lesson on how to load guns
the right way. There was a lesson on how to use the pocket knives
Joe Davis bought for his sons to take to school. He would wrestle
with the boys, slap them, throw hammerlocks on them, push a
finger so hard into their chests that it felt as if it would come
out the other side. How do you like that? Huh?
There were light moments, too. Joe would sing along to the
Temptations or Al Green, tell jokes, buy gifts, go to the boys'
games in any sport. But the light moments were followed by the
dark. Thunder could arrive at any time.
One night in the fall of 1981 Joe came home, awakened his four
youngest sons and had them stand along a wall of their bedroom.
He was holding his gun, a .38 with black electrical tape around
the grip. He said he wanted to find out how tough the boys really
were. He raised the gun, aimed and fired a bullet over each boy's
head. The bullets came so close, the boys could feel the hot air
as it passed over their hair. Plaster flew off the wall. The
smell of cordite filled the room. Joe Davis turned and left.
"We all just stood there, shaking," Terrell's brother Reggie
"I wasn't scared," Terrell says. "I knew he wasn't going to kill
us. He wouldn't do that. He loved us too much."
This was just another lesson.
No one knew that the running back from the University of Georgia
would be the answer. No one even suspected. He was another
nobody from nowhere in the summer of 1995. A starter by the end
of training camp? Super Bowl MVP by the end of his third season?
The man with a nine-year, $56 million contract by the start of
his fourth season? No one knew. Not even the running back from
He was a sixth-round draft choice. Twenty running backs had been
taken before him, 195 players. He was listed sixth and last on
the Denver Broncos' depth chart. His goal was to make the
practice squad. He was shocked to learn that the practice squad
had only five players. He thought there would be 22, a backup at
every position. Five?
Every day was another tryout. Every play. He'd never had to fight
his way onto any team. He tried to finish off every block. He
tried to catch every pass. He tried to run to every prescribed
hole. Was anybody watching? Did anybody care? He could not
control that. All he could do was keep moving, fast and hard. All
he could be was himself. Nobody from nowhere? Everybody comes
He knew how far he had traveled.
The name came from Tammi Terrell, the R&B singer. The other boys
had middle-of-the-road names: Joe and James and Reggie and Bobby
and Terry. Terrell was the baby, the only son born in
California. Ain't nothing like the real thing, bay-bee. Ain't
nothing like the real thing. His mother just liked that song,
Tammi Terrell's duet with Marvin Gaye. Tammi Terrell had died
young, a tragedy.
Terrell. Terrell Davis. That would be a fine and proper name.
Tell the truth, Kateree Davis was hoping for a girl. Eight
months pregnant and 23 years old and already the mother of five
when she carried that child across half the country in the back
of a Greyhound bus in September 1972. It was time for a girl,
time for braids and party dresses. The entire trip--two days and
one night, St. Louis to San Diego, Kateree and her five boys and
her big belly--was about change. St. Louis had become too mean
and cold. Joe Davis had been in jail for more than a third of
their first seven years of marriage. Two of his friends had been
shot dead in holdups. San Diego would be different. Joe would be
different. The baby would be a girl.
Oh, well, things don't always work out. "I was 16 years old when
I got married," Kateree says. "I didn't know anything. I thought
I'd have a houseful of kids and we'd all go to church on Sunday
and I'd cook dinner every night and my husband would say, 'Hi,
honey, I'm home.' Well, Joe Davis wasn't exactly the
San Diego mostly was St. Louis with sun. The problems were the
same. Joe was Joe. He arrived in town a month after Kateree and
the boys did, in time to see Terrell born. Now there were six
boys instead of five. Trouble was still no farther away than the
front door. Joe could find it. The boys could find it.
The biggest change was inside Kateree. She had become tough. Not
hard, but tough. The very act of moving everyone to California on
nothing more than a recommendation from her grandfather was a
sign of her strength. She was taking charge. California was where
she would grow.
A high school dropout, she had picked up her GED in St. Louis.
She took courses at San Diego City College and then went into
its nursing program. She did all this while working full time as
a nurse's aide and raising her sons. Terrell looked at his
mother and saw a whirlwind. She would work until midnight,
studying for her courses during idle moments, and in the morning
make breakfast and send the kids off to school, making dinner at
the same time so the kids would have something to eat when she
was at school or on the job. Even when she graduated, her pace
did not slacken. She worked double shifts, still managing the
meals, the laundry, the affairs of the house. Joe would take
care of the kids at night.
"I never saw anyone with as much energy as my mother," Terrell
says. "She would always be doing something."
Kateree still called him her baby. Joe didn't like to hear this,
saying Terrell was "the youngest, not a baby." When the couple
separated in 1980, the four youngest boys--Reggie, Bobby, Terry
and Terrell--went to live with Joe simply because their school
was closer to his house and he could be home at night. Joe Jr.
and James, already in high school, stayed with Kateree because
they were self-sufficient and could be home alone while she
worked. On weekends all the boys stayed at her house.
The separation lasted a year and a half. It ended with gunfire.
One night Kateree's cousin Mickey Thomas and Joe became involved
in an argument with a friend. The friend went home and got a
shotgun. He returned and started blasting away at the house on
Florence. Joe and Mickey brought out their own guns and returned
fire. All this happened while the four boys were in bed in their
rooms. Terrell, who was nine at the time, slept through all of
it. He woke up to a room filled with policemen with drawn guns.
A spotlight was shining in his eyes.
"Mickey had gone out the back door," Terrell says. "The police
didn't know that. They thought he was hiding in the house. They
made us all go outside, where there were all of these squad cars,
the lights flashing and everything. And they took our father
Joe and Mickey weren't charged in connection with the incident.
Afterward Joe and his family were reunited on Latimer. Kateree
saw "a softer, gentler Joe." He still drank too much, got angry
too much, ran around too much, but he stayed out of big trouble.
He was a firm hand that the boys needed--that was Kateree's
thought. If Joe said the moon was purple, well, the boys would
agree that the moon was purple. "It was funny," she says. "He
was such a tough guy. Old school. He'd say, 'Get me... ' and the
boys would be moving before he even said what he wanted. If he
said 'do,' they did."
For the next 5 1/2 years life was more stable than it had ever
been. Kateree still worried about the perils of the
neighborhood--the gangs, the drugs, the temptations, the guns--but
nothing particularly bad happened. The two oldest boys joined the
service: Joe Jr. went into the Marines, James the Navy. The four
youngest went out every day and came home every night.
"The only one I didn't worry about was Terrell," Kateree says.
"The other boys...when they went out the door, I always wondered
if they would come back. I never felt that way about Terrell. He
always had a maturity about him. He was the youngest, but he was
always the most mature."
In April 1987 everything changed. Joe Davis died.
He had been sick for a while with lupus, an autoimmune disease
that causes the body to attack itself. He had refused to take
the medication. The painkillers, sure--he would mix them with
alcohol. He would stagger and fall down. He lost weight. For the
longest time his boys thought that was nothing unusual. He was
He became weaker and weaker. Kateree finally persuaded him to go
to the hospital after she had to take him to the motor vehicles
office to get his driver's license because he was too weak to
stand in line. Four days later he was dead.
"They called me to the waiting room," Kateree says of the day
Joe died. "I'd worked at the hospital, so I knew that was the
place where they delivered bad news, but I was still hoping. I
thought maybe he'd be better and come home, and it was all just
a big scare. Everything would work out for the best."
Terrell and his three youngest brothers were collected from a
dirt baseball field and taken to the hospital. They knew what had
happened when they entered the waiting room and saw their mother
"It's strange, the twists and turns of life," Kateree says. "I
often wonder what would have happened if Joe had lived. I wonder
if things would have been different. I think so."
"Maybe I'd have been a first-round draft choice if he'd lived,"
Terrell says. "Maybe I wouldn't have played football. I don't
know. Something would have been different. I think about hating
my father when he'd be beating on us, but you know what? That
pain goes away. The impressions are what remain. Those are what
form you. Maybe that's not a bad thing."
Joe Davis was buried on his 42nd birthday. Terrell was 14.
The running back from Georgia had a roommate at his first
training camp, in Greeley, Colo. The roommate was another nobody
from nowhere, Byron Chamberlain, a tight end who had gone to
Wayne State. He had been drafted even lower, in the seventh
The two nobodies from nowhere would talk at night about their
day, about their hopes, about their worries, about their lives.
Were they getting a real chance? Or were they simply living and
breathing tackling dummies for the veterans? They couldn't tell.
"You know, you look a little familiar to me," the running back
from Georgia said early in their conversations. "Where are you
"Fort Worth, Texas," Chamberlain said. "But you look familiar to
me, too. Where are you from?"
"I lived in San Diego until my parents moved to Fort Worth when I
started high school."
It was eerie. The two guys at the bottom of the Broncos' depth
chart knew a lot of the same people, had played in the same
public park and the same Pop Warner program. Chamberlain had an
uncle who lived two doors away--two doors!--from the house on
"We used to go over to the potato chip factory," Chamberlain
said. "They'd throw out these perfectly good bags of potato
chips. We'd get 'em....
"From the dumpster?" the running back from Georgia said. "We did
Everybody is from somewhere.
The death of the father meant the firm hand was gone. The
barriers, the roadblocks to misbehavior, had disappeared. His
boys were free to do things. These were not the best things.
Even Terrell was affected. Always a good student, a hard worker,
the "mature" one--a onetime paperboy, out and on the job every
morning--he entered Morse High and did nothing. He didn't study,
didn't listen to his teachers, didn't go to class half the time
and, when he did, didn't show up until midway through the period.
He didn't even go out for football.
In Pop Warner he had been a terrific running back. His coach
nicknamed him Boss Hogg, and he was a star. Now Terrell didn't
even care about football and couldn't have played if he'd wanted
to because his grades were so low. "I was just disobedient," he
says. "My teachers couldn't stand me. I can't blame them."
He wasn't in a gang, but a lot of his friends were. He hung
around with so many gang kids that everyone assumed he was one of
them. He became familiar with the drug dealers in the nearby 45th
Street park, with the shoot-outs, with the police cars chasing
suspects down the streets. He saw people shot. He saw people
killed. He was in that grim, exciting urban teenage environment
in which wearing shoelaces of the wrong color could mean the end
of your life.
"You never see yourself in any danger," Terrell says. "You get
immune to all that stuff around you. You see it so much. You're
14, 15, 16 years old. It's a phase. You have to have a
reputation. The thing was to be hard. I was hard. Also, everyone
knew I had older brothers."
All this terrified his mother. What could she do? She was just
about overwhelmed. She had to work long hours to pay the bills.
She also had to try to keep her sons under control. Reggie had
fathered a daughter, but he and the mother were still in high
school, so they often dropped the baby off at the house. O.K.,
Kateree could take care of the little girl. Kateree's
grandfather had suffered a stroke and had come to live at the
house. O.K. Terry had punched a teacher and had been sent away
to serve 245 days at a work camp. And Bobby...Bobby was her
biggest worry. Terrell's skipping school wasn't even on the same
list of worries as Bobby.
"Of all the boys, Bobby was most like his father," Kateree says.
"He was quiet and shy but also had that anger inside him. I don't
know where it came from."
Bobby, two years older than Terrell, embraced everything the
streets had to offer. He drank too much. He had a gun. He
listened to nobody. Kateree even bought a pair of handcuffs and
would handcuff him to her arm to try to keep him from sneaking
out the window and getting into trouble. "He was so bad that all
of us actually were hoping he would be arrested," Terrell says.
"Something had to stop him. If he wasn't stopped, he was going to
be shot dead."
In March 1991 Bobby attempted to rob a woman named Maria Flores
outside a San Diego check-cashing office. She had cashed a
welfare check for $378, and the money was stuffed inside a purse
that Bobby tried to pull from her arms. She pulled it back. He
was holding a gun on her. The gun went off. Maria Flores dropped
to the ground, a bullet in her chest. Although her wound was not
fatal, she was at least five months pregnant at the time, and
the baby she was carrying did not survive. Bobby was charged
with, among other offenses, murder of a fetus.
Even Kateree had not imagined anything this bad. She sat in the
courtroom and couldn't believe what she heard. Murder. "You hear
them talking about your son, and you say, This can't be the same
person I know," she says. "He's 19 years old."
The case would change California law. The issue was the
viability of the fetus. Was the fetus a person, even if it was
still within the time limit for a legal abortion and probably
wouldn't have been able to survive outside the womb? Pro-choice
groups took one side. Antiabortion groups took the other. The
botched armed robbery by Terrell's brother became part of one of
the 20th century's perpetual debates.
Bobby was found guilty of murder of a fetus, robbery and assault
with a deadly fire arm and sentenced to life without parole.
Terrell sat with Reggie and their mother in the courtroom as the
sentence was read. "The life went out of me," Kateree says. "The
feeling started at the top of my head and drained right to my
feet. I cried for two days."
The verdict was appealed. Bobby's lawyer was Jeffrey Thoma, who
was then with the San Diego public defender's office. He liked
Bobby, thought he was a confused kid who had done a terrible
thing but hadn't set out to murder anyone, certainly not a
five-month-old fetus. Thoma also liked Bobby's mother. He said
he'd had "about 20,000 clients, and Kateree Davis stood out from
all of them. Her smile. Her spirit. Her devotion to her son."
Thoma took the case all the way to the California Supreme Court.
The essence of the appeal was that the judge had given unfair
instructions to the jury. The judge had directed the jurors to
find Bobby guilty of murder if the fetus possibly, not probably,
could have lived outside the womb. That one word meant
everything. Possibly? Almost anything is possible. The verdict
had to be guilty.
Three of the jurors had been so distressed by the judge's
instructions that they went to the Supreme Court hearings. They
talked with Kateree in the hallway, even cried with her one day.
The Supreme Court ultimately reversed the murder conviction,
ruling by a 6-1 vote that the killing of even a nonviable fetus
was a capital crime in California but that this interpretation
of the law could not be applied retroactively. Bobby's
convictions for robbery and assault with a deadly fire arm still
stood, but his sentence was reduced to 11 years in prison; he
would be eligible for parole after 5 1/2.
"I talked with Bobby after the ruling," Thoma says. "I told him
that he had been given his life back and that he had to do
something with it. He understood that."
The case, beginning to end, took more than three years.
Meanwhile, back on Latimer Street, Terrell had been following
Thoma's advice without having heard it. He had taken back his own
life. He had decided to do something with it.
The running back from Georgia carried the ball one time for zero
yards in the first exhibition game. He was disappointed. Was that
his audition? One carry? Zero yards? See you later?
No. The second exhibition game was in Tokyo, of all places. He
got his chance. Tokyo! He ran the ball 11 times for 46 yards and
one touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers. Even more
important, he delivered a devastating hit on a Niners kick
returner. It was one of those cartoon moments, the returner's
legs flying into the air before he landed with a loud thump! It
was a moment to make people take notice. "On that hit alone you
just made the team," a veteran told the running back.
Could that be? He climbed higher on the depth chart with each
exhibition. He carried the ball more and more. He was the leading
rusher on the team. Yet....
On the day of the final cut he was staying in a room at the
Holiday Inn near the Broncos' training complex in Englewood, a
suburb of Denver. Chamberlain was in another room. The players
who were being released would be called in their rooms and asked
to bring their playbooks to the office. The former roommates
called each other about every 20 minutes.
"Did you hear anything?"
"Stop calling. You're scaring me to death."
"You stop calling me."
No one else called. They both made the team. One week before the
season opener, the running back from Georgia, the sixth-round
draft pick, the 196th player chosen, was told that he would be
the starter for the coming season. Nobody from nowhere. Starter.
There was no grand moment of inspiration, no lightning flash that
made him change. It was more like a voice talking to him, nagging
him every day. Terrell, you're screwing up. Terrell, what are you
going to do with yourself? It had not hurt that his mother would
yell at him when he brought home report cards studded with F's.
Wasn't he better than that?
Near the end of his sophomore year he made a wise decision. He
transferred from Morse High to Lincoln High. He figured he could
never change perceptions at Morse. The teachers he had abused and
confused would never believe that this was a new person in front
of them. A new school would mean a new life.
He was ably abetted by his best friend, Jamaul Pennington.
Everybody figured Terrell and Jamaul were cousins--especially once
Jamaul went to live in Kateree's house when Jamaul's mother had
some hard times. The two boys thought alike. They talked alike.
They had plans. They would open a business together someday.
Maybe a nightclub.
Jamaul encouraged Terrell. Terrell encouraged Jamaul. Terrell's
first step was to go to summer school to improve those terrible
grades. His second step was to throw himself into his junior year
at Lincoln, going to the library, doing the work. The third step
He arrived late to the program at Lincoln, behind the kids who
had played as freshmen and sophomores, but that was all right
with him. Running back was filled? Fine. He became a 195-pound
noseguard on defense. He became a kicker. Jamaul was too small to
play football, 160 pounds after a good meal, but he videotaped
the games, concentrating on the activities of the noseguard.
Terrell and Jamaul laughed at what they saw. Football meant
something again. School meant something. This had been the plan.
"Lincoln was where I always wanted to go anyway," Terrell says.
"I liked the teachers. I got involved in extracurricular
activities. I wrestled. I ran track. Football.... "
In his senior year he got a chance to run with the ball. Boss
Hogg was back in operation. He had moderate success, rushing for
700 yards on a team that made the city playoffs. He was hoping
for a college scholarship, but the big-time schools weren't
filling up his mailbox. His best offer, it turned out, was
generated by his brother Reggie.
Reggie always had been seen as the promising athlete in the
family. All of Kateree's sons had played football at some
level--"I don't worry about the violence in football," Kateree
says, "not compared to the violence on the streets"--and Reggie
had been the most successful. He had been a running back at Morse
and moved along to Long Beach State on a scholarship.
"I was walking by the coaches' office one day, and I heard them
talking," Reggie says. "They were saying they were having
trouble finding running backs. I told them there was a pretty
good running back at Lincoln High they should take a look at. I
didn't mention that he was my brother."
Reggie was the only member of the family who was not a son of
Joe Davis. During one of Joe's stretches in prison Kateree had
had a relationship with an older man, Ike Webb. Reggie was the
product of that relationship. Reggie Webb. The Long Beach
coaches went to Lincoln to look at this Terrell Davis and liked
what they saw. They began recruiting him. If they noticed that
the house they visited on Latimer Street looked a lot like
Reggie Webb's house and that the woman they met looked a lot
like Reggie Webb's mother, they never mentioned it. Kateree and
Terrell also never mentioned it. Long Beach offered Terrell a
"I remember being really happy when Terrell graduated from high
school," Kateree says. "Terrell and Jamaul graduated together.
Terrell was going off to Long Beach. Jamaul had enlisted in the
Navy. I remember feeling they had survived. They had come through
it all, and they were safe."
Terrell was redshirted his freshman year at Long Beach under
veteran coach George Allen, but during his second year--after
Allen died suddenly and was replaced by former NFL defensive back
Willie Brown--he played a bit at running back. He even played in
the same backfield with Reggie.
"He got me moved to fullback," Reggie says. "That was when I
thought he might be really good. I was the tailback and taking it
easy, not worrying about anything. I thought I had it made.
Terrell beat me out."
At the end of the season Long Beach dropped football. Reggie's
eligibility was up anyway; he was off to an NFL combine, where a
balky knee would end his tryout and force him into football
retirement. Terrell at first thought he would transfer to UCLA,
but he was dazzled by a recruiting trip to Georgia.
Years later he would be asked a lot of questions about his time
at Georgia, about why he never became a star, why NFL scouts
never noticed him. Terrell sat for a while behind Garrison
Hearst, an All-America. He feuded for a longer while with Ray
Goff, the coach. He never had the chance, really, to put up the
kind of numbers that get the scouts' attention.
There was no question about his lowest moment at Georgia. It was
a phone call. Jamaul Pennington was back in San Diego after four
years in the Navy. Terrell had asked him to come to Georgia, to
live with him his senior year. Jamaul, who had an apprenticeship
with an electrician, politely refused. He stayed in San Diego
and was shot one night in an argument over gambling. Kateree sat
in the same waiting room in the same hospital where Joe Davis
had died. She received the same sad news. She called her son,
the youngest of her boys.
He came home for the funeral.
The running back from Georgia still wonders sometimes how he
landed where he has landed. MVP of the Super Bowl. The big
contract. A spot on David Letterman. He was just trying to make
Why him? He is like the holder of a winning lottery ticket. No,
no, more than that. He is like the survivor of some awful crash,
the last one standing. Why him? He carries so much in his heart,
in his head.
He thinks, perhaps, he is the end product, the final result, of
all the people in his life. He is tough like his father,
tenacious and energetic like his mother. He has learned his
lessons from the lives of his brothers. He did not go into the
service like Joe Jr. and James. He did not become a father early
like Reggie. He did not blow off high school like Terry. He did
not fall to the streets like Bobby. He got away from San Diego,
He is the beneficiary of time and place, of circumstance. What if
he had been born earlier in the chain of brothers? He does not
think he would be where he is. He thinks he would have fallen.
Maybe one of his brothers would be in his place. Maybe someone
else. Why him?
"I think it is fate," he says.
Everybody has to come from somewhere.
The family gathers on a night at the end of August at Del
Frisco's Double-Eagle Steakhouse in Greenwood Village, on the
outskirts of Denver. The occasion is a publishing party. Terrell
has written his autobiography with the help of Denver Post beat
writer Adam Schefter. The book is titled T.D.: Dreams in Motion.
All the brothers are at the party except James, who is a
schoolteacher in San Francisco. Kateree is there.
She lives in Aurora, Colo., now, around the corner from her
famous son. He wasn't so hot on the idea at first--NFL star's
mom comes to NFL star's neighborhood--but he has learned to
enjoy the benefits. NFL stars need to eat. NFL stars need clean
clothes. He bought his mother a house. There Kateree, now 49, is
raising a second family: two kids fathered by Joe Jr. and two
more she has adopted. Their ages range from five to seven.
"It's not so bad," Kateree says. "Fifteen years and it'll be
done. Fifteen years isn't such a long time."