The bus was a mistake. Troy Davis could feel it with each mile;
a cold dread uncoiled inside him as town after faceless Illinois
town spun by in the dark. Aurora, Dixon, Moline. None of it had
sat right--not the long, storm-tossed plane ride from Miami, not
the five butt-crushing hours on the gummy floor of a Chicago bus
terminal, and certainly not this 10-hour meander across the
heartland. All around him passengers gave off that low hum of
anticipation, looking forward, wanting to go somewhere. Not
Davis. No, all he could think of was where he had come from. It
was as if he could feel his heart flattening beneath the wheels
of the bus as they rolled into Iowa. Davenport, Walcott
Junction, Cedar Rapids. When he stepped off the bus in Ames in
the morning, the greatest running back the town had ever seen
took one look and knew: I hate it here.
Typical, yes? Isn't it the freshman's fate to regret, if only
for a while, even going to college? Trouble is, for Davis in the
late summer and autumn of 1994, the loathing never ceased. His
first day at Iowa State he called his parents in South Miami
Heights and announced, "I'm ready to come home." He didn't
unpack for two weeks, and every day he called home three, four,
10 times, crying thick tears and saying he couldn't take it; he
had nobody close in Ames, he had nothing. One of the assistant
coaches, Arnie Romero, would go to his room and rub his
shoulders as he sobbed, and try to find soothing words. "Come
on, Sugar," he would say. "It's all right. Your daddy's here."
Nothing helped. Nobody on the football staff had seen anything
like it. "Never in my whole goddam life," Romero says. "The
homesickness was awful, just pitiful. Crying--and I mean crying
like a baby. I'd stay there till two in the morning."
August was a nightmare, then came September: The Cyclones began
their spiral toward a winless season, the head coach was on
borrowed time, and Davis felt alone and betrayed. He would call
home and tell his mother and father he was going to kill
himself. Since they had no money to bring him back to Florida,
there was nothing to do but console him. Asked how, at the time,
he expected Troy's freshman year to end, his younger brother
Darren says, "Suicide."
August 25, 1996
"I was pretty close to it," Troy says. "I felt that bad." He
gives a little laugh at this, and from the perspective of two
years later, it does seem slightly comical. Davis is, after all,
the running back who brought distinction to Iowa State last
year, becoming the first sophomore in history--and only the
fifth NCAA player ever--to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a
season. (The others were Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders in 1988,
USC's Marcus Allen in '81, Colorado's Rashaan Salaam in '94 and
Nebraska's Mike Rozier in '83.) He carries himself as you would
expect someone who finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy
balloting in 1995 and may finish first in '96: gracefully, his
muscles bunching with every step.
His high school coach describes the 5'8", 185-pound Davis as a
pit bull: small and savage. His eyes are watchful, and his
massive head and shoulders taper down to tiny feet. If that
upper body isn't menacing enough, Davis has adorned himself with
the emblems of gangsta chic: two gold-plated front teeth and a
mass of tattoos. He had a pit bull and the number 1001
emblazoned on his left pectoral after he crossed that yardage
barrier last year. A crest on his left arm commands thank god,
and his initials are carved into his right biceps.
Indeed, Davis looks the very essence of toughness, and it is all
a sham. Anyone who knows him will tell you how fragile he is,
less pit bull than retriever--eager to please and easy to hurt.
Once during practice at Miami's Southridge High, coach Don
Soldinger ripped into Davis, then a junior, for some mistake and
couldn't believe what came next. Davis, who would lead
Southridge to an undefeated season and the state title the next
year and who is renowned for his taste for bruising contact,
burst into tears. "He said, 'Coach, I don't want to disappoint
you,'" says Soldinger, now an assistant at Miami. "If you ask
this kid to do something and he feels you're in his corner, he'd
die for you. He takes everything literally, and the criticism
really hurt him."
Romero found this out at the first team meeting of Davis's
freshman year at Iowa State. The coach, who had cultivated Davis
when all the big-time Florida schools backed off and stood by
him when he struggled to nail a passing score on the ACT, gave
him a profanity-filled blistering for having turned down
tutoring help. Romero called Davis a baby and said he would send
him home. Davis called Soldinger, stuttering with pain. Davis
never forgave Romero. "He was saying he really doesn't need me
now," Davis says. "He called all the time when he was recruiting
me, but once I got up there, he turned his back on me."
At times Davis felt as if the whole place had. Cyclones head
coach Jim Walden had taken one look at Davis's performance in
high school--he had been the first back in Dade County to rush
for more than 2,000 yards in a season--and thought he would
build his offense around him. But while the NCAA clearinghouse
delayed approval of his transcript, Davis missed most
two-a-days, and by the time he worked his way into shape, the
Cyclones had de-emphasized the I-back in their offense. In
addition Walden, who was aware of Davis's unhappiness in Ames,
says he was afraid to count too heavily on a guy who might bolt
town any moment. Davis finished the season with only 35 carries
and was still plagued by homesickness. He blew off classes and
came, he says, "very, very close to flunking out."
He didn't care. He had never lived outside of Florida before. He
had been so mystified by snow on his recruiting trip that he had
tried to take some home in a bottle. Now here he was in frigid
Ames, a town so white that Romero, who's Hispanic, enlisted his
tavern cronies to help sell the place to black kids. "I'd get
this guy named Smoke," says Romero. "And he'd come out and say,
'Oh, this place is so great!' The next day I'd bring out a guy
named Sam, and he'd say, 'Oh, man, this place is great!' Those
are the only black people I had up there to help recruit the
kids: Sam and Smoke."
One morning in September, when Davis had finally had enough, he
called his father, William Webster, at 3:30 am, told him his
bags were packed and demanded to know when the next bus was
leaving Ames. "If I'd had money in my pocket, I'd have been
home," Davis says. "It was just a question of money."
His father understood better than anyone. It had been the same
way for him when he left South Dade for the first time, shipped
to the juvenile home in Mariana, Fla., in 1968, for stealing
cars. During his 11 months there he had a yearning for home that
burned like poison, and when he finished doing time in juvey and
the Job Corps and the Army, he went back to South Dade intent on
staying for good. He worked every kind of job, and met Eular
Davis. They picked tomatoes in the steamy fields and had seven
kids, all built the way Webster was--like a pit bull--all
learning the lessons he lived.
"I am the biggest reason for them to stay in school," says
Webster, who now sprays yards as an exterminator while his wife
works as a maid. "I told them: Drop out and your life is over."
The Webster-Davis family has bunkered in the same house in the
concrete-block development of South Miami Heights for 19 years.
They've gone to church together, learned to depend on one
another. Growing up, the six boys slept in the same room,
rushing to the shower because the first three out grabbed the
bed and the others got stuck on the floor. They never fought.
As tight as the six brothers were, no one could get between
Darren and Troy. Darren was a year younger than Troy and
followed him everywhere. Four years ago, when Troy got his teeth
plated, Darren did too. When they played Optimist Football,
Darren made openings in the line and Troy ran through them. "I
just knew there'd be a hole for me," Troy says. "And every time
I'd break a long one, Darren would always be right behind me."
They played together at Southridge during Troy's senior year,
Darren in the slot, Troy at tailback. In one game Troy returned
the old favor, moving to fullback and bulling open holes so
Darren could run free. In the 1993 state championship game,
against Bradenton, Troy scored three touchdowns and Darren four.
The year after Troy left, Darren became the second back in Dade
County history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in one season.
To Iowa State cornerback Kevin Hudson, who played against the
Davises in high school and who roomed with Troy his first two
years in college, Troy's misery in Ames is easily explained.
"They're like twins," says Hudson. "Troy wasn't used to being
separated from his brother." When Darren visited Ames for three
weeks during Troy's freshman year, William and Eular suddenly
realized that the phone calls had stopped. "Well ... Darren's up
here," Troy explained.
Darren himself would not tolerate Troy's whining. One night in
the fall of Troy's freshman year, when he was home on
Thanksgiving break, word came that the oldest Davis brother,
24-year-old George, had been shot. During a dispute over a
radio, a man had pulled out a .38 and fired five bullets into
him. Troy hurried to the scene. "A shiver came through my body
when I saw him there," says Troy. "I saw the blood on the
street. My mother was crying, and I couldn't even move. I
thought he wasn't going to make it." George survived, and two
days after the shooting Troy returned to Ames. The calls kept
coming. Troy kept asking for Darren. He kept crying. He kept
saying he wanted to come home. "It was making me sick," Darren
says. "A big grown boy like that...."
"You don't know what it's like," Troy would say.
Darren didn't care. "Don't call anymore!" he would shout. Then
he would hang up.
Everyone who didn't list Davis first in last year's Heisman
balloting had a good reason. Too young. Too many losses (Iowa
State was 3-8). Too many yards when the outcome was already
clear. But the fact is undeniable: Davis could not be stopped.
He ran for 183 yards against Kansas State when it had the
nation's best defense. He ran for 89 yards against Oklahoma
after the Sooners, whose defense was No. 1 against the rush, had
vowed to keep him below 88 and deny him the distinction of
reaching 1,000 yards in only the season's fifth game. He ran for
121 yards against top-ranked Nebraska. Davis finished the year
with 2,010 yards and 15 touchdowns. Ohio State's Eddie George,
with 1,826 yards and 24 TDs, won the Heisman. "If Eddie George
can rush for 1,800 at Ohio State, Davis might've rushed for
3,000 at Ohio State," says Walden, who was a TV commentator in
Ames last season. "He has tremendous balance. And an awareness
that only the great backs have: He knows where the next block is
before the blocker knows. I watched not more than a quarter of
football before I knew he was something special. Then my next
reaction was, Who am I fooling? I'm at Iowa State."
Davis should've been the next great back to play at a Florida
powerhouse, the next Emmitt Smith or Warrick Dunn. But his two
failures to pass the ACT made the local schools back off and
gave Romero his opening--and he took it, calling William and
Eular daily, offering Troy a free ride if he could pass the test
on his third and last try. When Troy finally succeeded, in May
of his senior year, Florida State and Miami rushed in with
scholarship offers, but the Cyclones had stuck by him and he
stuck by them. Romero had pulled off one of the great recruiting
coups in history.
That said, Davis had every intention of transferring when Walden
resigned at the end of the '94 season. However, new coach Dan
McCarney, fresh from Wisconsin, notched his first victory by
gaining Davis's trust and insisting that he would be the focus
of the offense. "The first day we got into live drills, he lit
up one of our linebackers," McCarney says. "A lot of backs
block, but they don't really like it. Troy stepped up and just
stunned him. You don't see many running backs do that. All the
coaches looked at one another; we knew we had something amazing."
So began a year of amazing feats. Davis rushed for 291 yards in
the opener against Ohio, 302 against UNLV. Over the season he
averaged 182.7 yards per game, 5.8 yards per carry, and he was
named first-team All-America. He recovered in class, attaining a
2.92 GPA last fall to help lift his overall average to its
current 2.22. He became the first player to rush for 2,000 yards
or more and not win the Heisman. He didn't care. "I wasn't
disappointed at all," he says. "I came out of the blue: Troy
Davis? Who is Troy Davis? Nobody even knew. But now all eyes
will be on me."
They were all after Darren: Miami, Florida State, West Virginia,
Kentucky and dozens of others. It didn't matter that he had
broken his right leg in two places his senior year at Southridge
and had played in only four games. Recruiters took one look at
Troy's '95 season and they came calling. But they needn't have
bothered. Darren will be a freshman at Iowa State this fall.
There was never any doubt. "He wanted to come play with his
brother," says Troy.
A cloudy afternoon in South Miami Heights. Darren sits at his
parents' kitchen table, Troy looks through cabinets for
something to chew on. He says to Darren, "It's a whole different
level now. You can't just step on the field and say you can do
it. You got to work in the weight room hard." Darren nods, and
Troy says, "But both of us work. All the coaches will tell you:
The Davis boys always work hard."
Darren needs this. He probably could use a year of redshirting
to rehabilitate his leg, but he doesn't want it. Should Troy
approach last year's numbers, he's sure to enter the NFL draft,
and Darren wants them to play in the same backfield one last
season. He wants to make sure Troy doesn't get complacent. He
wants Troy to win that Heisman. "He's the only one who can push
me," says Troy, "because I know if I slip, he'll be the starting
Darren nods and says, "That's the thing about Troy: If I run for
100 yards, he's got to get 200. If I get two touchdowns, he's
got to get four." Darren stands. The two brothers roll out the
front door in a rush and get in the car for the ride to the gym.
Troy needs this. He is a quiet person, and he feels most
comfortable with someone who understands him without words. He
has been waiting for Darren for two years. "I'll have fun,
because I know he'll be with me wherever I go," Troy says. "I'll
The two are in the gym now, Darren lifting a 60-pound weight
with each arm. Behind him Troy spots him almost tenderly, his
hands cupping Darren's elbows, his eyes searching his brother's
face for any sign of pain. But everything is fine. They are
strong together. This autumn in Ames, Troy Davis finally plays