Born the son of sharecroppers, Willie Davis never took success for granted.
He attended a historically black college in the 1950s, far off the NFL’s radar. He was drafted in the 15th round by the Cleveland Browns. Then drafted into the U.S. Army at the onset of the Vietnam War. Then traded two seasons into his career.
“The road to success,” Davis once famously said, “runs uphill.”
No, Davis wasn’t a likely candidate to become the Hall of Fame anchor for Vince Lombardi’s defensive line. Here he was, given a fresh start at age 26, an outcast joining the Green Bay Packers in 1960.
Finally, that road reached its peak. Finally, Davis’ path started to trail downhill.
Davis, whose NFL career was surpassed only by his post-playing career, died Wednesday at age 85. He left behind a legacy of unquestioned success, a Packers legend who retired to become a millionaire business owner.
Davis died in Playa del Rey, California, after battling kidney failure, the Packers said.
"One of the great defensive players of his era, Willie was a significant contributor to the Packers' five NFL championship teams during the 1960s," Packers President/CEO Mark Murphy said.
"I enjoyed getting to know Willie and his wife, Carol, especially when he served as our honorary captain for the 2010 NFC championship game and Super Bowl XLV, and again for the 2014 NFC championship game. He also was a great role model for our players, having gone on to a very successful career after football and serving on the Packers Board of Directors."
Davis’ parents escaped that sharecropper’s farm in Lisbon, Louisiana, to make a new life for their son. His father left the family when Davis was 8, but the family forged on. Blessed with size (6-foot-3, 243 pounds) and athleticism, the defensive end teammate and roommate Jerry Kramer nicknamed “Dr. Feelgood” became a stalwart for all five Packers world championships in the Glory Years of the 1960s.
Lombardi never had a doubt.
“I consider speed, agility and size to be the three most important attributes in a successful lineman,” Lombardi told Davis when he arrived in Green Bay, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “Give me a man who has any two of those dimensions, and he’ll do OK. But give him all three, and he’ll be great. We think you have all three.”
Davis, playing at a time before sacks became an official stat, likely is the most accomplished pass rusher in Packers history.
Clay Matthews is the Packers’ official all-time sacks leader with 83.5 in 10 seasons. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila is second with 74.5 in nine seasons, Reggie White third with 68.5 in six seasons.
Davis would have lapped the field if pass-rush production was documented during his career. John Turney, a statistician for the Professional Football Researchers Association, projected Davis had more than 100 sacks in his 10 seasons with the Packers — and perhaps as many as 120.
Davis, whose 21 recovered fumbles remain the Packers’ career record, certainly thought of himself as the franchise’s ultimate sacks artist.
"I would think I would have to be the team's all-time leader in sacks,” Davis told Packers.com in 2004. “I played 10 years and I averaged in the 'teens' in sacks for those 10 years. I had 25 one season. (Paul) Hornung just reminded me of that the other day."
Even without his numbers recorded in history, Davis had Hall of Fame accomplishments. He was enshrined in Canton in 1981 after being selected to five all-NFL teams in his 10 seasons with the Packers. Davis was part of five straight Pro Bowl teams from 1963-67.
"Willie’s extraordinary athleticism was an undeniable factor in Green Bay’s winning tradition of the 1960s under Coach Lombardi," Hall of Fame President & CEO David Baker said in a statement. "He helped the Packers through an unprecedented championship run and to two Super Bowl victories. Willie was a man of true character on and off the field. The Hall of Fame will forever keep his legacy alive to serve as inspiration to future generations.”
Davis received his MBA from the University of Chicago in 1968. After retiring following the 1969 season, Davis worked as a color commentator for NBC’s telecast of NFL games in the early 1970s.
The experience sparked an interest inside Davis. In 1976, Davis became owner of All-Pro Broadcasting Inc., which operated five radio stations in the Midwest and Southern California.
A combination of talent, intelligence and perseverance made Davis one of the most respected players inside the Packers’ locker room. In the middle of the civil-rights movements, Lombardi named Davis his team’s defensive captain.
It was a fitting conclusion to an unlikely path that led Davis to Green Bay. None of it would have been possible without that Browns trade.
“When I was at Cleveland,” Davis told The Big Lead in a 2013 interview, “pretty much everything you heard about Green Bay was a negative. Paul Brown even said, ‘If you don’t like it here, we can send you to the Siberia of football, Green Bay.’ That had been probably said, and in many ways adhered to, and players just didn’t want to go to Green Bay.
“Lo and behold, I go there, in 1960, and the next 10 years had been the greatest 10 years in my life. It’s just amazing. Green Bay, if it was Siberia, it went to whatever the top of that heap would be at the end. I say that, my experience at Green Bay, the fans there are the greatest football fans in this country.”
Funeral services for Davis will be private, but his family said a "future, public celebration of his incredible life is planned."
The Willie Davis file: Facts and figures
Born: July 24, 1934; Lisbon, La.
School: Grambling State.
Hall of Fame: Packers Hall of Fame, Class of 1975; Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1981.
Packers playing career: Played 162 career games, including 138 consecutive; five Pro Bowls and five all-NFL teams; member of five Glory Years world championships; unofficially the Packers’ all-time sacks leader; team-record 21 fumbles recovered still stands; scored one touchdown in 1962; spent first two seasons with Cleveland Browns.
Post playing career: Business owner. Worked as NFL color commentator for NBC; All-Pro Broadcasting Inc. president and CEO; member or former member of the boards of Alliance Bank, Dow Chemical (1988-2006), Johnson Controls (1991-2006), K-Mart, L.A. Gear, Manpower, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, MGM Mirage, Rally’s Inc., Sara Lee, Schlitz Brewing and WICOR Inc.
Quote: “The road to success runs uphill.” — Willie Davis