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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Davis Should Land in the Hall of Fame


All dressed up with nowhere to run, Terrell Davis yet lit up the place with his glorious smile. One last time he had put on the Broncos uniform, stood tall and snapped off a Mile High salute.

He'd come to tell his friends good-bye.

Though he couldn't play, he wanted to be on the sideline to feel again the electricity generated by the Denver zealots, many of whom seem compelled to paint their faces orange and blue.

They'd seen him run into, over, around, through and away from defenders a thousand times. Now they would see him leave them.

A knee. Isn't it always a knee with running backs? Football's stars, they're also the game's disposable parts, always one step away from the end.

Somehow, the gods stay in one piece: Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith. But mortals know the day is coming, sooner than later, when they will go down in a shriek of pain never to be the same again.

How it must hurt an extraordinary athlete to realize he has been rendered ordinary. Gone is the package of lightness, speed, instinct and ferocity that Bear Bryant called "reckless abandon."

In its place, memory.

Small wonder, then, that Terrell Davis wanted to wear his play clothes one more time.

He'd gone on the Broncos' injured reserve list. The move was effectively a retirement after three seasons in which a knee made him a part-time player.

Nor was it a surprise, memory being powerful and pleasant, that at day's end Davis told reporters he might not be retired at all.

"I think I have a lot of football left in me, a lot of great football left in me," he said.

When we hear such talk from an aging athlete--a bad knee at 29, you're old--there is playing under the words the melancholy music of denial. No star wants to be asked off the stage, taken out of the key light that makes him the cynosure of all eyes.

So we saw Willie Mays stumble, and we shouted that he should have quit long before. Why, oh why, did Johnny Unitas ever play with a lightning bolt on his helmet instead of a horseshoe?

We saw Michael Jordan limp behind gazelles 15 years younger, and we wished he hadn't done that.

Why does Mario Lemieux insist? Will someone, please, tell Evander Holyfield to look in a mirror?

The conventional wisdom is that these stars betrayed their legacies by staying at the dance too long (or coming back uninvited). The kinder truth is, even their failures were life-affirming. They squeezed from their work every drop of satisfaction. They left nothing undone that might have been done.

Naturally, Terrell Davis believes he has football left in him. Without such passion, no 196th draft choice could have become a Super Bowl MVP and Hall of Fame running back. There's talk of surgery that might cause a regeneration of bone that would let Davis run again.

There's a chance rest will work a miracle.

Dave, stop it.

Two sentences back, you mentioned the Hall of Fame for Davis. You cannot be serious.

Great guy, sweet guy, but Davis played only seven years, and the last three he barely played at all. Explain to us why you're sending him to Canton.

Three reasons. First, impact. It's simplistic but true that John Elway lost every Super Bowl he played before Davis arrived and won every one with Davis. That's 0-3 without T.D., 2-0 with him. Elway would have been a Hall of Famer in any case, but Davis' work will make it possible for the golden boy to walk into Canton head high.

Second, numbers. To measure how astounding Davis' first four seasons were, stack up his numbers against the best four-year stretches for the gods Brown, Payton, Sanders and Smith:

* Davis--1995-98, 61 games, 1,343 carries, 6,413 yards, 4.8 average, 105 yards per game, 56 touchdowns.

* Brown--1962-65, 56 games, 1,090 carries, 5,849 yards, 5.4 average, 104 yards per game, 49 touchdowns.

* Payton--1977-80, 62 games, 1,358 carries, 6,317 yards, 4.7 average, 102 yards per game, 45 touchdowns.

* Sanders--1994-97, 64 games, 1,287 carries, 6,989 yards, 5.4 average, 109 yards per game, 40 touchdowns.

* Smith--1992-95, 61 games, 1,401 carries, 6,456 yards, 4.6 average, 106 yards per game, 73 touchdowns.

Third, rare work. Among those five, only Davis and Sanders rushed for 2,000 yards in a season.

Only Davis rushed for 100 yards in each of seven consecutive playoff games. Only Davis scored three rushing touchdowns in a Super Bowl.

The weakness in any Hall of Fame argument for Davis is he had only those four good years, followed by 17 games in three more seasons. Most Hall voters likely would see Davis unqualified simply on the matter of longevity.

In dissent comes the Broncos' coach, Mike Shanahan, whose personal bias is at least in part neutralized by his expertise and up-close observation.

"Nobody played big games better than Terrell Davis," Shanahan says. "He is a first-ballot Hall of Famer."

Washington Times columnist Dan Daly would have doubters remember John Henry Johnson. Elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1987, Johnson played 143 games in 13 seasons. He carried 1,571 times for 6,803 yards and 48 touchdowns.

Those are nice numbers basically matched by Davis in less than half the games.

"And," writes Daly, "you're going to put John Henry in the Hall but not Terrell? Explain that one to me."

Shanahan and Daly have it right. We owe the man our own salute.

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