It's probably fitting that Terrell Davis is going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in this manner. He nearly gave up on football during his rookie season because his chances of making the Denver Broncos were literally remote. Injuries also plagued Davis so much that he wound up playing just seven NFL seasons. So waiting 11 years to be elected to the Hall feels like the appropriate ending to his fairy-tale story, especially because perseverance always defined his professional career.
If numbers were the only means of determining how great Davis was, then he likely wouldn't be preparing an induction speech today. His 7,607 career rushing yards don't even place him among the top 50 runners in league history. That narrative changes when you talk about the players who excelled at making the biggest plays at the most crucial of moments. Davis went from being a no-name longshot to being both a league and Super Bowl MVP, all because he had a knack for elevating his game when the stakes were highest.
Davis isn't being immortalized because he was prolific. It's happening because he was clutch.
"My regular season stats were good, but I don't know if I'd be here if that's all I had going for me," Davis said. "I needed everything I could muster to get to this point, because I'm a unique case. I think a huge part of this is what I did in the postseason, and that's something that I'm proudest of. When the lights came on, I performed."
What makes Davis unique is that he did so much in such a short amount of time. He is one of just six players to ever rush for more than 1,000 career yards in the postseason. He joins John Riggins as the only other player to gain at least 100 yards in his first four playoff games, and Davis also earned MVP honors in Super Bowl XXXII (as he ran for 157 yards and a Super Bowl-record three rushing touchdowns while briefly battling a migraine). Oh yeah, Davis followed that season by rushing for 2,008 yards in 1998, a performance that helped lead the Broncos to a second consecutive Super Bowl victory.
Those numbers only partly tell the story of Davis. It wasn't just what he did but the way he produced that stirs the memory. He was the perfect fit in Denver's running attack because he ran decisively, with a certainty of his destination and a faith in the men around him doing their jobs. Davis darted when others danced, capitalizing on every block around him and often times leaving frustrated defenders grasping at air in his wake.
Davis likely ran with such conviction because his career started with an undeniable sense of urgency. He came to Denver as a sixth-round pick out of Georgia in 1995, a player who ran for just 1,269 yards in his final two years of college and who had a reputation for being injury-prone. Davis also didn't do much to impress the Broncos during his first few months with the team as a rookie. His disillusionment at his lack of opportunities hit such a low that he contemplated quitting when the team traveled to Tokyo for a preseason game with the San Francisco 49ers.
Davis didn't merely alter his career by sticking it out. He opened plenty of eyes by cracking 49ers return man Tyronne Drakeford on a second-half kickoff tackle that has become legendary within the Broncos organization. That play served as the first striking example of why Davis is now heading to the Hall. When all seemed lost -- and he had plenty of reasons to give up -- he seized the moment and showed the world what ultimately made him special.
Even when Davis was piling up impressive numbers (the 56 touchdowns he scored in his first four seasons are more than any modern-era running back currently in the Hall amassed during that same time frame) along with continual honors (he was named first-team All-Pro three times and league MVP in 1998), Davis never forgot the importance of being a great teammate.
"What drove me every year was knowing we had something special in Denver and wanting to get to that big game in February," Davis said. "If you look at the big games I had in the year I ran for 2,000 yards, I didn't care about the numbers. I left some games in the third quarter or at halftime. The people who know me knew I didn't care about anything but winning."
Davis still feels a strong sense of pride in being part of a Broncos team that boasted plenty of greatness on its roster. Three of his former teammates already have busts in Canton -- offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman, tight end Shannon Sharpe and quarterback John Elway -- and Davis is lobbying for center Tom Nalen and wide receiver Rod Smith to join the party. Davis also is entering the Hall with a class that includes some other men who had special circumstances surrounding their playing days. Kenny Easley's career was cut short by a severe kidney disease that forced him into retirement after seven years, while Kurt Warner spent half of his 12 NFL seasons either splitting time or plagued by injuries.
Davis can relate, because health problems cursed him as well. He played in just four games in 1999 after tearing the ACL and MCL in his right knee and appeared in only 13 games the following two seasons before retiring in 2002.
"Just think about this class," Davis said. "Kenny Easley only played for seven years, so his situation is unique. Kurt has a unique story of his own. It just goes to show you that maybe voters being caught up on how long a guy played is becoming a thing of the past. It's really about the kind of impact you had while you were out there."
That ultimately will be how Davis is best remembered. He admits that there were plenty of days when he questioned if the voters would appreciate him enough to select him into the Hall. Davis was first eligible for induction in 2007, and it took him seven seasons just to reach the finalist stage. When he received that call in 2014, he literally had to pull his car over to the side of the road because the excitement had overwhelmed him.
Davis was even more emotional when he finally made the cut in February. When David Baker, the executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, delivered the good news on the evening before Super Bowl LI, Davis wept before hugging both Baker and his family. There have been numerous other men who've waited years to receive such an honor. Few have traveled a path as extraordinary -- or filled with as many road blocks -- as the one that led Davis here.
So Davis goes into the Hall the same way he became a star in the NFL, with an unyielding faith and a flare for the dramatic. He won't have the most jaw-dropping highlights, and his numbers surely won't blow people's minds. What Davis will have, however, is the knowledge that he shined brightest when the spotlight found him. That quality alone was enough to make him one of the best to ever play the game.