Ex-Colt Milt Davis blends intellect, humanism

November 22, 1998|By JOHN STEADMAN

Being a two-way minority, African-American and American Indian, gave Milt Davis a distinction and perspective on life that lifted him into a dignified and rarefied realm of humanity. He grew up in a Jewish orphan home while practicing the Roman Catholic faith. Such a diverse background has created an extraordinary man gifted with enormous intellect and individuality.

There's respect for what he believes and the way he expresses himself. Educated, with three degrees, he has a certain refinement and gentility. A classic antithesis of the stereotyped put-down known as the athletic mentality.

Milt Davis is special unto himself. His family escaped the dust bowl of Oklahoma in a Model T Ford that over-heated its way along Route 66, accompanied by all earthly property tied to the roof.

The faraway objective to reach the promised land of California was fulfilled during the Great Depression when his parents and assorted kin made their "Grapes of Wrath" odyssey from Fort Gibson, Okla., to what they hoped would be the better world of Los Angeles.

Father was a Muskogee Creek and black. Mother was from the Kiowa tribe and black. The early 1930s represented a constant struggle for a family that was desperate to escape the dirt-poor poverty of Oklahoma.

"I became a Catholic when St. Odelia's Church at 53d Street and Hooper Avenue in South Central Los Angeles gave children a doughnut if you came to Catechism class," he said. "When problems arose in our family, I lived at a Jewish home facility, Vista del Mar. I was there for 17 years, even after I got married. I didn't play football but loved baseball."

He never thought of football until his college years at UCLA, where his speed in track made him an interesting study for the coaches. He became a defensive All-American halfback in 1952. This led to being drafted by the Detroit Lions, and then, in another strange bounce of the ball, becoming a Baltimore Colt and starting in two championship victories in 1958-1959.

Davis arrived in Baltimore for the 40th reunion of that first title team. It was almost an accident he wound up with the Colts, via a dirty play by management in signing him off the band squad of the Lions by refusing to recognize a gentleman's agreement that free agents in such a role would not be bothered by a rival club.

"The reason I was receptive is after the second game of the 1956 season, the Lions released me and Pete Retzlaff over the public address system at Willow Run Airport. It happened that way. Just imagine. We were coming back from playing the Colts in Baltimore, and coach Buddy Parker had it announced over the PA that the two of us were being placed on waivers."

The next year Davis was in Baltimore, signed as a free agent after Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb worked out with him at Denker Playground during the off-season and told him he was going to tell the Colts about him. General manager Don Kellett called, and Davis consented.

In the 1958 championship, he was the only player wearing low-cut basketball shoes. It was thought he wanted more traction on the partially frozen Yankee Stadium field. But that wasn't the case. "I broke the metatarsal bone in my right foot against the Los Angeles Rams two weeks before when I accidentally bumped a teammate, Steve Myhra," he said. "I wanted to disguise the injury, and the softer shoes, instead of cleats, were easier to wear. I took a shot of Novocain to ease the pain before the game, but the fallout was painful when it wore off in the fourth period. But John Sample took over for me and was outstanding."

After the 1960 season, he left football to get a doctorate in education at UCLA. Then he went to work 12 years as a scout in the NFL, representing the Colts, Dolphins, Browns and Lions. He also was a movie extra and was cast in television commercials for Texaco and Western Airlines.

Davis has been married for 42 years to the same woman, of French and African-American descent, and now makes his home in Elmira, Ore., in the foothills of the Willamette Valley. He calls his 50 acres "Leave It if You Can" in reference to the scenic surroundings.

He has 20 head of sheep, raises and sells lambs, and engages in a select harvest of the Douglas fir trees on the property.

Davis was asked if there were times when he felt out of place in the Baltimore of 40 years ago because of segregation. "Yes. I have to tell you that. One of the most embarrassing moments was when I asked a young white priest from St. John's in Westminster to go to breakfast in Baltimore. When we went to a restaurant, the manager would say, 'You can come in,' meaning the priest, 'but you can't,' meaning me. I didn't want to create a scene, but I asked, 'Is this the land of the free and home of the brave?'

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