Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Grambling greats: Willie Davis

One step further
May 29, 2006

By Nick Deriso
Former Green Bay legend Willie Davis, Grambling's first Pro Football Hall of Famer, returned in a reflective mood from an emotional recent reunion at GSU.

"I was down at my old school just last week for a 50-year celebration of my class," he told The Green Bay Press-Gazette, "and I tell you, I was just shocked with the number of football players that were part of the teams I was on that are no longer with us."

Davis helped former Grambling coach Eddie Robinson win his first black college national championship as part of a 1955 squad that went 10-0 - earning him a spot on our GRAMBLING80 list.

Davis was then part of all 5 NFL title-winning teams under Packers coach Vince Lombardi, making 4 1/2 sacks in Super Bowls I and II - marks that would rank as the best ever, if that stat had been officially recorded back then.

Years later, he's considerate of that legacy.

"I want my grandkids to have this (memorabilia) as a reminder of their granddad," Davis said. "There is some stuff I'm willing to part with, and if that helps some fundraising efforts (for charity), I plan to contribute some of those things."

This Lisbon native has gone on to an impressive career, establishing several businesses in the hopes, he's said, that people would "remember me as a player who moved on to success off the field."

He deserves it. Davis got some of that recognition, quiet as it was, in his return trip to Grambling. But I'd like to see the community go one step further, perhaps by establishing a larger, more public event in honor of this SWAC Hall of Famer.

Why not have Willie Davis Week during the upcoming football season? That would be fitting tribute to one of Robinson's most influential former pupils.

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Greats still in high regards
July 4, 2004

By Nick Deriso
Four Grambling State greats were among those honored Saturday as part of Family Digest magazine's salute to the best black college athletes of all time.

Willie Brown, Junious "Buck" Buchanan, Willie Davis and Doug Williams - all former players under the legendary Eddie Robinson - were recognized.

"It's good to have four from Grambling honored," Williams said. "But there could be an argument that there should be more. The thing with honors like this is that you are grateful that people recognize you - but you realize that there are other people who deserve the same kind of honor. I'm certainly glad to be in that number."

Only Brown, now a coach and personnel director with the Oakland Raiders, attended the ceremony, held in Las Vegas. Buchanan died of lung cancer in 1992.

All four men are members of the Southwestern Athletic Conference's Hall of Fame.

Here's a look at Willie Davis:

-- Davis, the first Grambling player to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was an All-NFL selection five times in the six years from 1962-67 for Green Bay - and was selected to play in five consecutive Pro Bowls.

A stalwart presence on the decade's most dominant team, Davis helped the Packers to five NFL championships and six divisional titles in eight seasons.The Lisbon native was the very portrait of reliability: Davis didn't miss a contest in his 12-year, 162-game career. The Sporting News placed him at No. 69 in its list of the Football's 100 Greatest Players Ever.

But Davis always had other aspirations, often saying that he wanted people to "remember me as a player who moved on to success off the field."

He would use a University of Chicago MBA to launch a second career. Davis is now chief executive of five radio stations - and has served on as many as 10 corporate boards of directors, including Sara Lee, Dow Chemical and Metro-Goldwyn Mayer.

"I guess it's a lot of stuff," Davis said. "But I certainly don't have any specific day in mind for when I'll retire. At the moment I'm not having fun, I'll step back. But right now, I feel blessed and I'm enjoying myself."

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Glory days always close for legends
GSU family paid honor to '55 team
October 31, 2005

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING - It's been 50 years, a half century of football. But for Melvin Lee, center on the 1955 undefeated team at Grambling State, the time has flown by.

"To the individuals on the team, we remember it like it was yesterday," said Lee, who was honored before last Saturday's homecoming game along with the rest of that black college national championship squad.

"We had an opportunity to bring some legends back," said GSU coach Melvin Spears. "With the alumni coming back, looking to see what kind of product we are putting on the field, it's important to show them that the legacy continues."

Lee said the players, even as college-aged youngsters, could sense that Eddie Robinson was not only a bright football mind, but also an emerging leader of national scope.

"We all looked up to him, and the country would recognize how special he was in later years," said Lee, who was later Robinson's long-time offensive coordinator. "As individuals, we were really impressed by his leadership. He always inspired you. There was always something that was different and unique and very stimulating."

Among those also in attendance at Robinson Stadium were: halfbacks Paul Green and Edward Murray; fullbacks Howard Scott and Levi Washington; ends Mack Moore and Fred Franklin; guards Joseph Dixon and Huey Hill; center Leon Larce; and quarterbacks Jammie Caleb, Dorth Blade, Robert Smith and Willie Kennedy.

With these men, Robinson forged a tough, run-oriented team that also played stingy, gritty defense.

"We're proud the fact that we didn't allow more than 24 points in any game that year," said Lee. "The offense was based around the tailback; there was never a question about passing. We ran to the right most of the time. We more or less came right at you."

Lee credited the school president and its sports information director for helping establish the team - and spreading the word about this then-new football power.

"It started at the top, of course," said Lee. "R.W.E. Jones set the stage and then Collie J. Nicholson gave us so much attention in news print. That helped Coach Robinson focus on being a consistent fundamentalist. They allowed us to learn and progress as the years went by."

Willie Davis, a senior tackle, was the only player to find consistent success at the next level, earning Pro Football Hall of Fame honors for his part in the 1960s championships of Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers. Yet Lee said many of the lessons taught on the practice fields spurred the players to leadership roles in the community, working as educators and businessmen.

"As we played for that championship, Coach talked about giving your best effort and that, looking back, you would see this as your finest hour," said Lee. "I'm sure most of us look back and realize that was a fantastic time. It can only happen to a few individuals, and not very often."

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A legacy that lingers
January 30, 2007

By Nick Deriso
Green Bay's 1966 team -- with Grambling product Willie "Thumper" Davis as a cornerstone -- was named the No. 6 all-time Super Bowl squad by a 53-member panel of pro football experts during an NFL Network special tonight.

No surprise there, since Davis was part of a startling roster of legends on that first-ever title team, from Coach Vince Lombardi to players like Bart Starr, Bill Curry and Willie Wood.

Curry, though, turns the whole show on its ear with a frank exchange about how Davis helped him overcome whatever last whispers of latent racism he'd harbored having grown up in the old rural South.

Davis ran into the rookie during Curry's first Green Bay training camp, then held at tiny St. Norbert College. That was a long way from College Park, Ga., where the future standout center was raised during the 1940s.

"This voice," Curry says on the program, "comes out of the darkness, 'Bill.' It was Willie Davis; I thought it was God. I just sat down in the grass terrified. He said, 'I'd like to speak with you.'"

Davis offered something that Curry never forgot, something that illustrated both Davis' towering leadership but also what made this team so special: Davis said he would become Curry's benefactor, his port in the storm.

"He said ... when (legendary Packers defender Ray) Nitschke's snapping your facemask and Lombardi is screaming in your face and you don't think you can take another step," Curry remembered, "you look at me and I'll get you through it.'"

This wasn't about football anymore. This was the beginning of something else, a friendship that thundered through Curry's heart.

"He didn't just help me to play in the NFL for 10 years, he changed my life because I was never able to look at another human being in the same way I had," Curry said on the program. "It was an unexpected, undeserved, unrewarded act of kindness by a great leader and a great man. I've never forgotten that and that is the difference in the outstanding teams and the others. If you've got Willie Davis, nobody can beat you."

And few did, not on Eddie Robinson's Grambling teams of the 1950s (where Davis sparked an undefeated '55 campaign) or on Lombardi's 1960s teams (where he helped Green Bay to five NFL titles in seven years).

Curry, however, helped underscore something that's made Davis just as important in the long legacy that he built after football, as a leading businessman and philanthropist.

Willie Davis was just getting started back then. You can't say that about many football players, once their careers are over.

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