It's a midsummer morning in 2006 in Missouri City, Texas, and Knile Davis is 14 years old. He grabs a football inside his family's modest three-bedroom house and slides into the passenger seat of a 2002 white Mustang convertible, alongside the man he calls Pops. With the Texas wind feathering their faces, Davis and his stepfather, Warren Morgan, drive the 20 miles to Rice Stadium in Houston. There, the two sneak through a chain-link fence and begin to dream.
Knile, who works overnight shifts (even on some school nights) at a local 24-hour Whataburger, starts to run the stadium steps. Under a scorching Texas sun and the watchful eyes of his stepfather, he attacks the stairs as if he's running for his life, sprinting up the concrete to the summit, then walking down, dashing up again, over and over for nearly an hour. Morgan reminds his stepson that football could one day be a path to a college education and a better life. When the workout is over, Knile and Pops play catch on the field. "That's when I fell in love with football," Knile says of that day, "and that's where my love of Pops really was formed."
IT'S A spring evening in 2012 in Fayetteville, Ark., and Davis is now 20 years old. He is strolling across the field at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, looking through the half light at the empty bleachers—"I've run enough of those in my life," he says. Then he finds the spot on the turf where everything changed. Last Aug. 11, on the first drive of the first scrimmage of Arkansas's fall camp, after fans had created a "Knile Davis for Heisman" Facebook page, he took a handoff and barreled into the line on an inside zone run. As he was gang tackled, a defender rolled up on Davis's left leg and broke his left ankle—the third time in four years he'd sustained a fractured ankle.
"As I was on the ground, I was just praying I wouldn't miss the whole season," recalls Davis. "I did, and it was very, very hard. But now I'm better than ever. I'm ready to roll. I've got a lot to make up for, and this is my year to make Pops proud."
It certainly appears that Davis, who was All-SEC in 2010 as a sophomore when he gained 1,322 yards in just eight starts, is once again 100% healthy. During winter testing inside Walker Pavilion on March 6, with his entire team watching, the 6-foot, 226-pound Davis ran the 40, and when the time was announced, the Pavilion erupted in ooohs and applause; Davis's 4.33 was the fastest of any Razorback.
At that moment they all knew: Even though he didn't play a down last season, Davis is better than ever, and Arkansas's SEC—and BCS—title hopes had gotten a whole lot more serious. "Seeing him run, that was like, Wow, Knile is definitely back," says quarterback Tyler Wilson.
Without Davis in 2011, the Razorbacks were forced to rely on the pass, and they still finished 11--2. This year Arkansas has lost its three most talented receivers, shifting the offensive load more to Davis, a redshirt junior who along with Wilson will enter the season as a bona fide Heisman Trophy contender. "He's so important to what we want to do on offense," says the quarterback. "He can break tackles; he can get the hard yards; he can pass-block; and he's a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball. I don't think there's another back like him in the country. He's a leader, because we all know everything he's been through and how he's fought to overcome it all."
It's an autumn night in 2004, and Knile is 13 years old. It has been seven years since Knile's mother, Regina Gardner, and biological father, Kevin Davis, separated. (They divorced a year later, but Knile still speaks occasionally with his father.)
The youngster is in the garage of his family's house with Morgan, who had met Regina in 1998 and will marry her in 2006. Knile is lifting a dumbbell when Morgan asks a question, "What do want to do with your life?"
"I want to play football."
"O.K., then we are going to work out every day. We are going to get you better."
"Yes, sir," Knile replies. "I'm ready."
Davis has always been fast. At age six he played center for the Sunnyside Cowboys, a Pop Warner team in Houston. The biggest player on the roster—"I was tall and chubby," he says—Davis wanted to move to running back, but his coach didn't think he had enough speed. Then one day the coach held a contest: a 100-yard dash, with a dollar going to the winner. "I won that dollar," Davis says. "And from that day forward I was our running back."
Morgan had no football experience and no background in training young athletes, but he knew how to work. Growing up in Crowley, La., he spent his summers in rice fields and rice mills, sunup to sundown, harvesting and lifting heavy bags of rice. In 2005 he was a foreman for a company that repaired railroads throughout Texas. "Warren prided himself on being able to outwork any man," says Regina. "He feared no one or no thing. Knile worshipped him. Their bond was just a thing of beauty."
Morgan's training methods were unorthodox. Under Pops's tutelage, 15-year-old Knile would do 10 sets of 10 reps of 200 pounds on the bench press in the garage, and then 10 sets of 10 with 50 pounds on a curl bar. In the backyard Pops would tell Knile to leap over a waist-high fence, over and over, in 30-second intervals. He would perform 30 reps, exerting himself until he could barely stand, then resume jumping.
Knile told his friends of his workouts with Pops and asked them to join. One day after school, when Knile was a sophomore at Marshall High, a few of his buddies walked into the garage, ready to take orders from Pops. Two hours later they left, vowing never to return. "Your stepdad is craaaaaazy," a friend told Knile. "I won't survive another round with him. Good luck, bro."
Knile relished these challenges—and reveled in their results. By 16, he could bench-press 315 pounds, by far the most on his team. "Even as a freshman he looked like he was a senior," says Dennis Brantley, Davis's coach at Marshall. "Pops had him working hard, and it showed. He was fast, and boy, was he strong. He had all the measurables."
It's a winter evening in 2006, and Knile is 15 years old. He and Pops lug a 70-pound punching bag out of the garage and hoist it into the trunk of the Mustang. The two drive down the street to nearby Community Park. Pops attaches a rope to the bag, ties it around Knile's waist and tells him to run up a steep hill. The boy does as he is told.
As people in the park stare and point, Knile pumps his legs, feeling as if he's pulling a mountain. When he reaches the crest of the hill, Pops tells him to bring the bag back down and repeat the run. Knile won't stop churning his legs for more than an hour. "You're not just going to be a running back at any school," Pops says. "You're going to be a running back in the SEC. That's where the best football is played, and that's where you're going to go."
Knile felt he had to do something. When he was 15, his mother lost her job as a social worker and couldn't afford to buy school clothes for Knile or her two older children, son Kobe and daughter Raegan. So one day after school Knile walked into a local Whataburger and asked the manager, "Can I have a job?"
The manager told Davis that if he could buy some slip-resistant shoes for work, he'd consider hiring him. Davis went to a nearby Walmart, bought the footwear and returned 30 minutes later. Immediately he went to work, manning the grill, cooking fries, cleaning the bathrooms and, after a few weeks, running the cash register. With his first paycheck he bought a pair of Air Jordans for himself and clothes for his siblings. "Once I got paid I just wanted more, so I started working as much as I could, sometimes starting at 5 p.m. and working until 7 a.m.," he says. "After two shifts I'd head home, shower and then go to school. I was tired, but it was worth it just to have a little money and make sure my brother and sister had what they needed."
In 2007, his junior year at Marshall, while still toiling at Whataburger three nights a week, Davis emerged as the team's star tailback. Through the first four games he gained 425 yards and scored four touchdowns. Despite missing the rest of the season with a fractured right collarbone, Davis was rated the nation's No. 17 running back in the class of 2009 by Rivals.com. "He was a big man who could run fast," says Arkansas running backs coach Tim Horton. "Just on tape, you could tell he was very, very special."
Scholarship offers poured in from across the country—Arkansas, LSU, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas A&M—and the phone began ringing nonstop. But in just the second game of his senior year, Davis broke his right ankle, forcing him to miss the rest of the season. Suddenly the calls from recruiters slowed down. But Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino never wavered.
"We knew what kind of potential he had, and we weren't going to back away in any respect," Petrino says. "And we knew just how special of a person Knile was."
Impressed with the Hogs' staff, Davis committed to Arkansas, graduated from high school a semester early and enrolled in Fayetteville in January 2009. Warren and Regina helped him move into his dorm, and then Davis and his mother toured the stadium. Pops said he couldn't join them—he wasn't feeling well—so he rested in their hotel room. "In three or four years you will be playing for a national championship, as long as you keep working hard," Pops told Davis before he left campus. "Never quit and never stop chasing the dream."
Two months later, during a spring scrimmage, Davis received a handoff and bolted around the left corner. As he was turning upfield, a defender grabbed him by the back of his jersey and pulled. Before Davis even hit the ground, he heard a sickening popin his right ankle—the same one he'd fractured in high school. Again it was broken, and his freshman spring was lost.
In July 2009, as Davis rehabbed in the morning and attended classes in the afternoon, he received a phone call from his mother. With urgency in her voice, she told Davis to come home immediately. Pops was sick.
That episode from January turned out to be one of the first signs that Morgan had lung cancer. The last day of Pops's life was Aug. 1, 2009. Before Morgan drew his final breath, Davis, sitting at his bedside and holding his hand, whispered into his ear that he was praying for him. "Thank God," Morgan replied softly. "Always thank God."
Davis was still clutching Pops's hand when he passed away. Moments later Davis walked outside, alone, tears streaming down his face, and wandered into Community Park, one of the places where he and Pops had dreamed their big dreams.
A week later Davis returned to Fayetteville. His heart was heavy, but suddenly—and all the Razorback coaches swear to this—he started playing with the determination of someone running for two.
In that freshman season of 2009, Davis saw limited action, rushing for 163 yards on 33 carries. "But in practice, holy cow, we all knew something big was going to happen with Knile," says senior receiver Cobi Hamilton. "He always ran like he had something to prove."
Davis started the final six games of 2010. Facing some of the nation's top rushing defenses over that stretch—South Carolina (12th), Mississippi State (15th) and Ohio State (third)—he rushed for 852 yards on 138 attempts, an average of 6.17 yards per carry. He'd finally figured out the secret to being an effective running back: To go far, you need to slow down.
"It finally dawned on me after watching tons of film that I was just rushing into the line and not waiting for my blocks," he says. "Before, I was just a wild runner, but then I started using my mind, waiting for holes to open up, being patient. I started being smart.
"I started thinking about what Warren would tell me to do."
It's a sunny afternoon in Fayetteville, and Davis is riding shotgun in an SUV. Through the windows he sees Reynolds Razorback Stadium towering in the distance. He is in good spirits; a bone-density test recently revealed that his core bone strength is above normal. For precautionary reasons, though, coaches will hold him out of the team's first scrimmage two days later.
As the SUV rolls closer to the stadium, Davis's brown eyes stay locked on the bleachers. "Even though I missed last year with the ankle injury, I was told by many that I would have been a second- or third-round pick in the [NFL] draft," he says softly. "It was tempting [to leave early] because my family could use the money. But Pops always told me that great rewards await those who take the hard road. That's what I believe."
A few hours later Davis donned his red number 7 jersey and hit the field for a spring practice. Midway through the workout, in an 11-on-11 drill, Davis received a handoff. He cut to his right, paused, saw no hole, then bolted to his left. Juking a linebacker, he cut up the center of the field, and then, as if twin boosters had been ignited, he dashed into the end zone. He did so with such speed and ease that even Petrino flashed a smile, his first of the afternoon. (On Sunday, Petrino was involved in a motorcycle crash outside of Fayetteville. He was taken to a hospital and is expected to make a full recovery.)
"Hopefully this is just the beginning," Davis says later that evening as he walks out of the football complex and into the night. "I've got a long way to go for Pops. Long way to go."
SAYS DAVIS, "I'M BETTER THAN EVER. I'M READY TO ROLL. I'VE GOT A LOT TO MAKE UP FOR, AND THIS IS MY YEAR TO MAKE POPS PROUD."
"I WAS JUST A WILD RUNNER, BUT THEN I STARTED USING MY MIND," SAYS DAVIS. "I STARTED BEING SMART."
Photograph by TODD ROSENBERG
'BACK IN ACTION Less than eight months after suffering a broken ankle, Davis ran a team-best 4.33 in the 40. An All-SEC pick as a sophomore in 2010, he's critical to Arkansas's conference and title hopes.
Photograph by TODD ROSENBERG
PRACTICE PARTNERS The workouts that Morgan (in sunglasses) put young Knile through helped prepare him for the drills he'd endure once he achieved Morgan's dream for Davis—becoming an SEC player.
COURTESY OF REGINA GARDNER
[See caption above]
Photograph by TODD ROSENBERG
SITTING BULL Though he was held out of the first spring scrimmage last Friday for precautionary reasons, Davis has been going full-speed in practices and is set up for a big season.