Here is one of my favorite interviews ever. I want to apologize to Willie Davis for just now running it. We originally recorded it just before Thanksgiving, and I had planned on transcribing it then and running it here before the holidays hit. The day after we talked, my family got sick and we dealt with that for two weeks. Willie Davis and I had talked for forty minutes (most interviews I have done here lasted about 7 to 8 minutes), so I knew that the transcription would take a while, and well, life got in the way.
I decided that this weekend, with the Hall of Fame announcements, and the Super Bowl, would be the best time to run it, so I hope you enjoy. On this day where we wait in anticipation of the big game, I happen to think this is a better alternative to watching pre-game shows. We talked about Eddie Robinson, Vince Lombardi, and a great story involving Jim Brown and a play called “flip to the flex.” Enjoy.
Q: Thank you for joining me, Willie. I think there were many fascinating things in your book, Closing The Gap. The first thing for me, when you start out–it’s a whole different world now, and I don’t think many people really fathom what it was like on the other side of the Civil Rights movement as a kid. The story you told about your mom escaping, as a share cropper, from the land barons who were guarding the house, when you were little, is amazing.
Willie Davis: Jason, you know what is more interesting than anything about that, I can never get used to it. When I think about it now, there’s some fear that seems to arrive in my mind. In every way, I just ask, how? The escape was pretty risky, because not only did they have guards out there, they had dogs. What was so strange, I remember my mother the last thing she said to me, the last time we discussed it: “you know, I couldn’t hear those dogs barking until I was way in the woods.”
I just don’t know. I guess when something like that happens, sometimes you think, it was just in the plans, for us to somehow escape.
Q: Certainly one of the things I think about is the others who did not get to tell that story, because they did not escape, and then what you were able to do with your life after that.
Willie Davis: You know, really Jason, I can tell you right now, I sit here and look back at my life, and I look at Closing The Gap, and I look at the things you go through to reach that point, and I can tell you that I am a lucky man, and I am a blessed man.
A lesser commitment, a lesser almost anything, I could have probably been sidetracked, and those things I desired most could have never happened.
Q: You say you are a lucky man, and I think whether you consider it luck or fate, another fortuitous event in your life was meeting up with Eddie Robinson, the legend, your college coach. Can you tell us how Eddie Robinson came to find you?
Willie Davis: I’m just delighted to talk about Eddie Robinson. I can still remember being at his funeral in Louisiana, and all the former players that returned for that occasion. It is well documented that I came from a broken home, which is not unusual in today’s time, and it was not unusual then.
When I went to Grambling, I needed more than anything a father figure in my life, because I had just not had the occasions to experience things in a way that would have given me the experience to go through college. My first night at Grambling was the first night I had ever spent away from home. I was petrified in some ways. I’ll point out the fact that I even left school the second day I was there, took a milk truck to Shreveport to hopefully go back to Texarkana, only to find a couple of assistant coaches there waiting to take me back to Grambling.
That in particular is when I found Coach Robinson, I mean he was more than a father to me. He gave me all the confidence and all the belief that this thing was possible. If I wanted to do it, it was possible, and he was going to be there to help me. Every time I had a feeling about going home, he wanted me to talk to him. I did that several times, and I can tell you, God bless his soul, that I probably had as many consultations with him as any player ever at Grambling.
Q: I want to bring your experience with Eddie Robinson forward to today. When you were there, you didn’t have an expectation of going to the NFL, the historic black colleges like Grambling, Southern, and Florida A&M, the NFL wasn’t necessarily going to those schools, and the SEC was segregated. Now today, we see these big programs, and kids go into them, and it is a big money venture.
Willie Davis: You know, Jason, what you said is true in a sense. It is a different ballgame today in almost every level, particularly in pro football and college football. It’s unbelievable how things have changed. I would say to you that Coach Robinson would have been a meaningful coach over time.
Now, as time went by, the conditions changed in a lot of the Southern conferences and all at once, Eddie Robinson, and LSU, and the University of Arkansas was chasing the same kids. It was very interesting, because typically the kid that went to Grambling out of that chase was worried about his academics at the other schools, and he went to Grambling out of a sense that he could go there, and probably survive. That was a true feeling, you could survive at Grambling, because there were things you could reach out to. Grambling is the place where everybody is somebody. The truth of it was, he felt that way. I think that Coach Robinson probably lived that philosophy more than anyone.
Q: You told many fascinating stories in your book, and I love the history in the NFL in the late 50’s and 60’s. There was one story that stood out to me among many, there was one occasion where there was a conflict between Jim Brown and Paul Brown, and you were in the middle of it. Can you tell us how that went down?
Willie Davis: It was very uncomfortable for me in many ways when Coach Brown and Jim Brown, and happened to evolve over to me, I was looking very quickly for a way to get out of it. I had a great concern and fear of getting on Coach Brown’s bad side. Jim Brown just didn’t care. Now, I can truly say that Coach Brown never made Jim Brown feel the fear that probably most athletes feel with the coach.
Q: Well, when you are one of the most talented people ever, you can call the shots some time. The story that I am thinking of was one where Jim Brown wanted a play run, and Paul Brown refused, and you ran the play in.
Willie Davis: Yeah, that was one of the most interesting situations, because I went into that day thinking I was going to start and play defensive end. I came off the field after the first series and I was told, “you’ve got to go play offense” because Lou Groza got hurt. My first thought at that moment was to panic. I tried to think about the plays, and every thing was just so strange to me at the time, but I thought, “hey, if you expect to be around, you better get serious.” I turned out to be one of the guy shuttling the plays in.
Well, we had a play, and it was called “Flip to the Flex”. You would get an end outside, and you would have the ball just flipped to Jim Brown. Typically, on the strong side, you would have three blockers. On this particular play, you had two blockers basically. I remember we had ran two or three plays, and they weren’t going anywhere. Jim Brown said, “tell Coach Brown to call the Flip.”
So I went to Coach, and said, “Jim Brown wants you to call the Flip.” With that, it’s like I had committed the ultimate mistake. He had to tell me who was the coach, and who was calling the plays. In the meantime, I am in the process of shuttling the plays in. Jim asked if I told him, I said “yeah, he just didn’t want to deal with it.” Jim came out with a few expletives. We go back in, and we run a couple of other plays.
Then Coach Brown decided to call the play. Jim Brown ran a forty yard touchdown, and the last ten yards, he went in backwards, because he was hollering “I told you, I told you.” It was so interesting, going back to Coach Brown, his comment to me was, “hey, you tell him we’ll call the play, we know when it’s ready.”
That’s it, I was glad that was the last confrontation where I was in between Paul Brown and Jim Brown.
Q: You not only played under Paul Brown, you also got traded to the Packers and played for Vince Lombardi. A lot of great stories, and here’s a small one that stood out to me. You talked about the 1960 Championship Game, because you talked about how disappointing that was, because you lost to the Eagles in a close game. Coach Lombardi went for a fourth down in the fourth quarter in Eagles territory, rather than kick the field goal. There’s a debate about whether coaches are aggressive because they have had success, or whether the great coaches were more aggressive. Was that his nature, to be aggressive like that?
Willie Davis: You know, there’s no question that Coach Lombardi, he would kick a field goal as a last resort. He probably had given real consideration as to whether he felt we had a chance to get a touchdown. I would say I trusted his judgment more than any coach I had been around. Even today, I say to myself, “what would Coach Lombardi do?”
He had a good record in dealing with field goals and fourth down attempts and everything else. I would say to you it was because of the confidence he had in his team, and in the end, he felt you could overcome most obstacles.
Q: Now would you say that mentality, where you lost and came up just short . . .
Willie Davis: That is correct, I remember it like it was yesterday, Chuck Bednarik sitting on Jim Taylor, and we were on about the 12 to 14 yard line. He just, he was there waiting for the time to run out on us, and they even changed some of the rules on that after that play.
I would say maybe one of the more interesting things was when we were in the dressing room, Coach Lombardi said, and it was probably in reference to Chuck Bednarik and Jim Taylor, and he said, “we didn’t lose this game, time didn’t permit us to win.” [laughing]
Q: Do you think that play with Chuck Bednarik would have been called a penalty today?
Willie Davis: No question, no question, no question. The intent would have clearly been noticed by officials. He had made the tackle, and Jim Taylor was trying to get up, and he was not going to let him up, with the time that would have given us another chance for a play.
Q: After that, would it be fair to say that even though you were unsuccessful there, that motivation propelled the team through the rest of the decade?
Willie Davis: There is no question, because the one other thing, when we got to training camp the next year, he said something that kind of resonated with all of us, I think, the rest of the time. He said, “I can tell you one thing. We will never” and he repeated, “we will never lose a game like that again.” He said, “There is no way we are going to get there and not finish victorious.” You know what, we never lost another game in that particular situation.
Q: And that’s certainly true, you won the next two years, and then there were two years where you didn’t get to the championship game, and one was when Hornung was out, and that was a factor. The next year, 1964, has to be one of the unluckiest years a great team has ever had, you guys blew out teams, but lost in some crazy fashion, often with field goal misses.
Willie Davis: Yeah, yeah, we sure did. I mean even at night, it was almost where I couldn’t sleep, not worrying so much how we could defensively compete against a team, we just never felt sure or comfortable with our kicking.
Q: Once luck turned, though, you guys proved to still be pretty good from 1965 to 1967. When did the team, and maybe it was right away, it seems there was a transition from being a power running team to an elite passing offense with Bart Starr at some point. When did that transition take place where it became his offense?
Willie Davis: You know, it was interesting, because we had never featured our tight end consistently, and we really didn’t necessarily do it after that, but we put the tight end into the system to the extent that Marv Fleming and some of the other tight ends made some big plays for us, that we had not done before, because we had not featured the tight end.
Q: One thing I wanted to touch on was getting named captain by Vince Lombardi, which was an immense honor, and it was also something where he didn’t let the team vote on it that year, he just came out and said, “Willie Davis is our defensive captain.”
Willie Davis: That was kind of stunning and shocking, or whatever term you could use about it. I think the years before, we had always put it to a team vote. I’ve asked myself many times “why, why coach did that”. We went into the dressing room that day, and he said, “Willie Davis is our defensive captain, and Bob Skoronski is our offensive captain.” Bob had been the year before, and he didn’t say much else about it.
Everybody kind of looked, and I’m sitting there saying, “wow, this is surprising.” I think in some ways Coach did it because he didn’t want it to become a controversy. The truth is, they had not been, they being Green Bay, they had not been accustomed to an African American player having that kind of presence or role. I said to myself, “why did he do it?”
There’s no question in my mind that I had probably displayed the kind of leadership and spirit and all the other things that a captain would be prepared to do. At that time, it was still Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Green Bay, not only had they not had a captain, they were just getting over the situation of having just one or two black players. To do it, I felt was very much Coach Lombardi’s doing.
You know, it was interesting, to this day I can tell you, the reaction of players, Forrest Gregg, Bob Skoronski, Jerry Kramer, all those players, I mean they really did, they really did get along. They offered me tremendous support. Those were offensive players. No question that Henry Jordan and people on the defense were of the same mind.
Q: Certainly one of the factors, you were also getting your MBA, you were going to school at night, you wanted to pursue a career in business. The NFL has changed quite a bit since 1964, 1965. Now, players if they are stars, get a substantial amount of money. Obviously, you want to get as much money as you can and get what you are worth. I want your perspective on how having to get a second career impacted your development and preparing for your future, for life after football.
Willie Davis: There are two things that impacted my sense of wanting to pursue additional education toward employment opportunities after football. When I got drafted by Cleveland, I went there, and I was frankly shocked and amazed at the problems that some of the black players, who had been heroes at Cleveland, and it was very difficult for them to get a job. What was shocking was trying to get people to talk to them about getting a job.
I said to myself, “you know, whatever happens to me in this league, I don’t want to be in that position.” I was stunned that they had about five African American players that left Cleveland and didn’t have jobs or second careers, and I said that was not going to happen to me.
Q: It is a fascinating book, I enjoy all the old stories that pre-date myself, but I can tell you my dad grew up, he was born in 1946, he grew up in Kansas City, but watched the Packers because you were the best team when he was about 14, 15 years old, so it’s great to read all this stories. What does it mean to be part of the Packers organization and still seeing how much success they have today and how the fans are today?
Willie Davis: It’s interesting, because when I was at Cleveland, pretty much everything you heard about Green Bay was a negative. Paul Brown even said, “if you don’t like it hear, we can send you to the Siberia of football, Green Bay.” That had been probably said, and in many ways adhered to, and players just didn’t want to go to Green Bay.
Lo and behold, I go there, in 1960, and the next ten years had been the greatest ten years in my life. It’s just amazing. Green Bay, if it was Siberia, it went to whatever the top of that heap would be at the end. I say that, my experience at Green Bay, the fans there are the greatest football fans in this country.
Q: I think that you, along with everyone else on those teams from 1960-1967, are a big part of that, because you came along at the right time, TV was becoming popular, so there are Packers fans all over the country, and most of those fans became Packers fans, or their parents became Packers fans, at that time you were playing. That has to make you feel good.
Willie Davis: I would somewhat agree with that for sure. I can tell you to this day I go into Green Bay for games, and it is not unusual to hear fans say we love you old guys, because you were always there for us. We love you, and you cannot help but feel a little special about that.