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Backing It Up

Broncos: Davis returns to the place where his arduous journey to the Super Bowl began, but in reality he has never left.

January 21, 1998|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — They had their Super Bowl at Lincoln High School on Tuesday.

The band was playing, the cheerleaders were jumping, the crowd was cheering, the trophies were handed out and everybody went home happy.

The winner? Not the Green Bay Packers, who certainly weren't 13-point favorites on the campus of this San Diego high school. Or favorites in any way.

That role was reserved for DenverBronco running back Terrell Davis, the favorite son who came home to his roots Tuesday to have his high school jersey retired.

No big deal for a Super Bowl athlete?

It was for this one. It was, as a matter of fact, probably as big to Davis as anything that will happen Sunday when his Broncos face the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII in nearby Qualcomm Stadium.

Even if the Broncos defy the odds and win.

Even if Davis eludes the grasp of Gilbert Brown, glides beyond Santana Dotson and makes it into the end zone.

Even if Davis gets a chance to hug the Vince Lombardi Trophy tightly to his chest and lets the roar of a sellout crowd wash over him.

He won't hug that trophy any tighter than he did his retired jersey or relish the crowd more than he did those packed into the gym for Tuesday's ceremony.

When a member of the crowd yelled out, "We love you, Terrell," Davis responded, "I love you back."

This wasn't just a photo-op for Davis, a chance to grab the spotlight of Super Bowl week for a moment.

Davis matched a corporate gift by presenting his old school with a check for $10,000. He is a frequent visitor to the school, which has produced an astonishing number of NFL players, 25, including future Hall of Famer Marcus Allen.

This is not merely the place where Davis' roots are planted. His life may have branched out, but he has never really left.

"In school," he said with a big grin, "I was a nerd with a backpack and Fs for grades."

And in some ways, it's easier for him to see himself in that role than in his current role as the leading ballcarrier for the American Football Conference entry in Sunday's game.

That's understandable considering how much he has overcome and how quickly he has done it. If he were to run over all 11 Packers on the field Sunday, it wouldn't be any more impressive than the obstacles he has run over merely to get onto the field at Qualcomm.

This was a kid:

* whose childhood was shattered by the death of his father;

* who went to Long Beach State to play football only to have the program fold;

* who went to Georgia to play football only to find a running back already established there, Garrison Hearst;

* who was drafted by the Broncos, but only on the sixth round, the 196th player taken.

So much for all the experts and all the computer printouts and all the scouting combines.

In his first NFL season, Davis rushed for 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns. In his second season, he increased those totals to 1,538 yards (best in the AFC) and 13 touchdowns. This past season, despite sitting out a game because of an injury, he ran for 1,750 yards, second only to the Detroit Lions' Barry Sanders, and scored 15 touchdowns.

That's a long way from the troubled kid who was so saddened and dispirited by the death of his father, Joe, that he flunked P.E.

"I was a little disobedient at that stage," Davis said. "It took me a while to get my life straight."

Not that he was ever involved with gangs or drugs. But as a ninth-grader suddenly without a father, Davis was a lost soul.

Sports put him back on a straight course to success after he came to Lincoln.

"It was a new atmosphere, a new environment," Davis said. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Davis became a track and football star at Lincoln.

Vic Player, who coached Davis at Lincoln and was proudly on hand Tuesday, remembered a track meet in which Lincoln, desperately needing a win at 400 meters, pinned its chances on Davis.

Davis gave Lincoln a one-point victory.

"Who is that guy,?" asked one of the opposing coaches.

Soon, everybody knew.

Davis played six positions on the Lincoln football team, serving as fullback, nose tackle and on special teams.

That earned him an All-San Diego Section second-team selection and a chance to play football at Long Beach State, where the coach was a man who had seen quite a few great running backs in his time--George Allen, former coach of the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins.

Davis spent his first season at Long Beach working only on the scout team. That was enough for Allen. He took a look at Davis' acceleration, determination and durability and nicknamed him Secretariat, after the great racehorse.

Allen was planning to put Davis in the starting gate in Davis' second season at Long Beach. But Allen died before the season began.

Still, Davis showed enough in that final Long Beach season to land a spot in Georgia.

Which led to Denver.

Which led back to San Diego. And to Lincoln.

After receiving his framed No. 7 jersey Tuesday--the number worn by Denver quarterback John Elway; Davis wears No. 30 with the Broncos--the Bronco running back had a presentation of his own. He gave flowers to his mother, Kateree, who has moved to Denver to be near her son for the season.

Standing there, surrounded by students and family, the 25-year-old Davis looked and acted more like a student on graduation day than an NFL star. He doesn't wear gaudy jewelry. He doesn't talk arrogantly about his accomplishments. And it took him a long while just to get over the awe of being handed the football in the backfield by a star like Elway.

Davis lingered after Tuesday's ceremony had ended. Back in the downtown area, his teammates and the hoopla of Super Bowl week awaited. But Davis seemed in no hurry to leave.

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