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Super Bowl XXXVII

Silent Struggle

Former Raider Davis copes with deafness brought on by hard-hitting career

January 26, 2003|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

It was so loud, then so silent. The moment is etched in Mike Davis' mind because one voice so effectively punctured the quiet. It was 22 years ago this month in the closed end of Cleveland's Municipal Stadium when Davis, an Oakland Raider safety, made the defining play of his career, an end zone interception of Brown quarterback Brian Sipe late in the fourth quarter to clinch a 14-12 playoff victory, propelling the team into the AFC championship game in San Diego.

"I made that play with 80,000 people screaming and cheering like crazy, but when I zipped in front of Ozzie Newsome and intercepted that ball -- it happened so quickly, that no one knew what had happened," Davis said. "It got so quiet that I could hear [teammate] Gene Upshaw telling Art Shell more than 30 yards up the sideline, 'He caught it! He caught it! We're going to San Diego!' "

Davis, 45, will return to San Diego this weekend to watch Super Bowl XXXVII.

Yet, the highlights of sports' loudest event -- the jet fly-over, the stadium-shaking fireworks, the crowd's roar surrounding the game's biggest plays -- will be a silent experience for Davis, who is longing for a day like that afternoon in Cleveland when he can again hear one unforgettable voice. Davis is deaf.

He believes beyond the shadow of a doubt that his condition is the cumulative result of several head-rattling hits he delivered and received during a nine-year career (1978-85 and 1987) in the NFL.

"I can't cast a dark shadow over the sport," Davis, who lives in Burbank, said this week. "I played the game with a free heart and a free will, and I have trophies to show for it. I could look to blame this on football, but then again, those were chances that I took. I took my hard licks and my lumps and I would do it all over again."

He is asked to reconsider that statement.

"I realize now that the foresight of this wasn't there," he replies, "but I would do it all over again because I loved the game, and I still love the game."

As a result of his hearing loss and a painful lower back, Davis draws full and permanent disability monthly payments from the NFL Players' Assn. He won't acknowledge how much, but an NFLPA official said retired players in most need can receive $135,000 of annual support.

Davis lives comfortably in the hills of Burbank, inside a gated community of million-dollar homes as a neighbor to child stars Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen.

Davis did well financially in the NFL, boosting a guaranteed $8.5-million contract in his final four years with the Raiders with fruitful investments.

Davis, his wife of 20 years, Mary, and their 15-year-old son Allen reside in a home equipped with a spiral staircase leading from a hallway stuffed with Davis' NFL memorabilia into an entertainment room with walls adorned by three of Davis' framed Raider jerseys, including a white one stained by too many brushes against Stickum-saturated defensive back teammate Lester Hayes.

The Davis' other child, Mike Jr., is away at school. He's a defensive back at Arizona State studying to become a pilot.

Amid the tranquillity is a gray-haired man battling unrest. About four months ago, Davis, who had previously lost all hearing in his left ear, told his wife he needed to stop by his ear doctor's office because the hearing aid that allowed for 40% hearing in his right ear was malfunctioning.

"He stepped out of the doctor's office and for the first time since his mother's funeral, I saw tears in his eyes," Mary Davis said. "He had been told his hearing was gone."

Miki Yaras-Davis, the NFLPA's director of benefits who is no relation to Davis, said "a good number of former players" are experiencing hearing loss in one ear. She wouldn't identify the players or provide a firm number of those dealing with the condition. Neither would the NFL. Yaras-Davis insisted Mike Davis is the only former player she knows who is completely deaf.

Michael Mellman, a former NFL doctor, added, "It's usually one ear or the other. Is bilateral hearing loss as a result of head trauma conceivable? Yes. Is it rare? Yes."

Said Yaras-Davis: "There's no doubt this was a result of blows to the head."

The most encouraging news for Davis is that he's a prime candidate for a cochlear implant, a device inserted near the ear that restores hearing as much as 60%. The device is expensive, estimated at $80,000, but priceless. Davis has an appointment this week to learn his implant date. It could come within five to 10 weeks.

"I know the Lord has blessed me in so many ways, but right now I'm going through some painful, frustrating things," Davis said. "You sit back and think, 'Why me? What did I do? What's wrong with me?'

"You see your children and realize you can no longer hear your son's voice change from that of an adolescent to that of a man. You see the bird flying, but you don't hear it sing. You see the wind blowing, but you don't hear it ruffle anything. I love jazz, especially fusion, and I can't hear that anymore."

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