Aug. 31, 2007
By Tim Bourret
It was a normal Thursday afternoon in early May when Jeff Davis came back from a lunch meeting with a donor prospect and he discovered an unusual box on his desk. Clemson’s current Assistant Athletic Director for the Major Gifts Program and first-team All-American on the 1981 National Championship team was not expecting a package from anyone, but when he saw the return address on the outside of the box, he became excited.
“What in the world is this?” recalled Davis. “There was an expectation when I saw the return address was the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame. What do I have here?”
Davis had known it was the time of the year when the College Football Hall of Fame announces its new class. He had been a finalist each of the last two years, but he had not been selected.
“They had not sent me a box telling me I had not gotten in before, so I had a hunch this might be some good news.”
It was. Inside the box was a formal letter telling him he was one of 14 members of the College Football Hall of Fame class of 2007.
“It was an awesome feeling, a unique feeling,” recalled Davis, who is the second member of the 1981 National Championship team to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Terry Kinard, who was also a member of Clemson’s 1978 signee class, was inducted in 2001.
“I wasn’t very focused the rest of that day,” said Davis. “My mind was going in a million different directions. It has really made me reflect on my time at Clemson. It made me reflect on my family, growing up, my wife Joni, and our six children. It made me reflect on my coaches, high school and college.
“It really has made me reflect on my whole life. It makes you remember where you came from and who helped you along the way. It is important to remember the journey, not just focus on the result.”
Davis grew up in a family that was dominated by females. That might not be all bad, but the baby boy of the family can get spoiled. It is certainly not the upbringing that often lends itself to being a tough middle linebacker. But fortunately for Davis, he had a mother and grandmother that kept him on the right track.
“I didn’t meet my father until I was 33,” said Davis. “We have a very good relationship now, but when I was growing up, it was my mother, my grandmother, and my sisters. My grandmother and mother always talked about me being a man, even when I was a young kid. They knew I lacked a male influence, so they tried to instill that attitude in me.
“Being selected for the College Football Hall of Fame and other accolades I have won is a true testament to their caring and direction I received when I was growing up.”
While mom and grandmother did a great job with Davis in his formative years, Davis will be the first to tell you that his coach at Dudley High School in Greensboro, NC, Jonathan McKee, had a strong impact on his character and thus his leadership qualities.
Davis’ ability as a leader has as much to do with this national honor as his tackle totals. It also has to do with his success in all aspects of his life.
“Coach McKee died last year, and when I received that box I wanted to call him and share it with him, but I couldn’t,” admitted Davis. “It paralyzed me for a moment. But he knew it (from Heaven). He always expected greatness from me. He had enjoyed many of my other accomplishments.
“He treated me like a son. When I think of my leadership qualities, they all go back to him. I needed a male presence in my life and he provided that when I was young. He empowered me with leadership. He brought structure to my life through athletics.
“He was someone who you naturally respected. He was strong with his faith, and that level of faith made a difference when it came to leadership and it provided a direction in my life. My relationship with Coach McKee made me feel that God had put that quality in my basic character.”
Receiving the box from the Hall of Fame also made Davis reflect on his experience at Clemson and his teammates. “I grew up in Greensboro, NC, the heart of Tobacco Road. But when I visited Clemson (for the 1977 Notre Dame game in Death Valley), I became enthralled with Clemson. I thought this is the place God thought I should be. I am glad I was in agreement with Him.
“There were so many people at Clemson who had an impact on me. It doesn’t seem fair to be singled out. That is why I look at this as a team accomplishment. When we celebrate this during the Florida State game, I want as many of my teammates with me as possible, because they are going in the Hall of Fame with me in my mind.”
While Davis gives credit to his coaches and teammates, his accomplishments were extraordinary on the field and off. When you meet Davis, you can see that he is a man of resolve and consistency, and that carried over to his everyday life. In his four-year career, he played 40 games, including each of the last 35 as a starter. He had 30 career double-figure tackle games in those last three years, and he led the Tigers in tackles 25 times.
He was named a first-team All-American by UPI, Football Coaches, Football Writers, Football News, and Walter Camp Foundation in 1981, making him the first linebacker in school history to be named a consensus first-team All-American. He finished the season with 175 tackles, then a school record, and still the third-best, single-season total in Tiger history. In his four years, he had 469 career tackles, also still third in school history.
Davis finished his career with a 14-tackle performance to lead all tacklers in Clemson’s 22-15 win over Nebraska in the 1982 Orange Bowl, a victory that gave Clemson its first national title in any sport. He was also named ACC Player-of-the-Year in 1981, just the third defensive player in conference history to win the award.
He was the top tackler on a defense that was second in the nation in scoring defense (8.2 points per game). Clemson also was seventh in the nation in total defense and eighth in rushing defense. The Tigers forced 41 turnovers that year, still a school record. Davis had his hand in many of those and still holds the Clemson career records for caused fumbles (10) and recovered fumbles (8).
The stats and accolades are impressive, but when Clemson players and coaches reflect on Davis they remember his leadership, character, and integrity. While he showed those traits over his first three years at Clemson, they did not come to the forefront until the summer before his senior season.
“The summer before my senior year, Coach (Danny) Ford told me to meet him at the Holiday Inn one afternoon,” recalled Davis. “He wanted to have a private meeting to talk to me about being the leader of the 1981 team. He thought I had the ability to do that and he let me know he expected that from me.
“From that day on, I visualized being the leader and I started being vocal during summer workouts. That meeting started the process. I had just felt I could only lead so much as an underclassman over my first three years. There was a rite of passage that afternoon.”
Davis’ qualities as a leader were sensed by his teammates and the head coach, and they were a big factor in Clemson’s drive to the national title.
“Jeff certainly ranks up there among the best leaders I ever coached,” said Ford. “We had so many outstanding young men. I hate to single one out, but I can’t think of a better leader than Jeff Davis.
“He was what you want in a leader…someone who leads by example and someone who leads with his voice. He always backed up what he said.
“This (Hall of Fame induction) couldn’t happen to a better person. I am just as proud of what he has done off the field since he finished playing as I am of what he did when he was a player at Clemson. He is most deserving of this honor, and he will be a great representative of Clemson.”
“Jeff was the heart and soul of our defense,” said Bill Smith, starting defensive end on the 1981 National Championship team and now a member of the Clemson Board of Trustees. “He led by example, and he always came to practice and to games with a work ethic that was contagious to his teammates.
“Jeff not only effected his teammates by getting the most out of them on the field, but he has been equally effective in showing us how to live our lives off the field since he finished playing. He is a man of strong Christian values with unwavering integrity. I am proud to call Jeff my teammate and friend.”
After the perfect 12-0 season, a year in which Davis led the ACC in tackles, many thought he would be a high draft pick and go on to a long professional career. The NFL career came, but not without some consternation on draft day.
It is difficult for NFL teams to factor intangibles, like leadership, into an evaluation of a player’s potential at the next level. A small middle linebacker by NFL standards, even in 1982, Davis was not drafted until the fifth round, the 128th player chosen, by Tampa Bay. It was a long April weekend for Davis, who watched teammate Jeff Bryant taken with the #6 pick of the entire draft by Seattle, and roommate Perry Tuttle taken in the first round by Buffalo.
But true to his form, he did not let this temporary setback keep him from becoming a top linebacker in the NFL for six years (1982-87). He led Tampa Bay in tackles three of his last five years, including a career-high 164 tackles in 1984. It did not take the Buccaneer coaches long to realize his leadership qualities, as he served as team captain during his last four seasons under two different coaches.
One of the Tampa Bay players who helped him during his rookie season with the transition to pro football was Richard Wood, who was coming to the end of his playing career in 1982. Ironically, Wood is one of Davis’ classmates in the 2007 Hall of Fame class.
At the conclusion of the 1987 season, Davis sensed it was time to turn the page on his playing career and enter a new stage in his life. He thought about going into coaching, but he knew that would involve a difficult decision.
“I wanted to be a coach (when I finished playing),” stated Davis. “I wanted to be a coach at Clemson. But I couldn’t see how I could be a dad and coach at the same time, because the hours were just too long and there was so much travel due to recruiting. I had to pick between being a dad and being a coach.
“I chose being a dad. I thought about coaching so I could have an impact on young student-athletes, but I picked having an impact on my own kids. Who you are at home is the true measuring stick of your value. Not growing up with a dad made me more sensitive to that role.”
Today with wife Joni (they both graduated from Clemson on the same day in 1984), they have six children, including 11-year-old twin boys and four daughters. This honor is also something Davis shares with his family.
“This has been something special to share with my wife Joni and our children,” said Davis. “Joni has had such a positive effect on my life for so long. I share it with her more than anyone else. People see the glory, but they don’t know the story. She knows the story.
“I want to have a great impact on my children and give them an opportunity to bring their lives to another level. I want them to be able to navigate life’s obstacles at a high level. I don’t want them to have to go outside our house to find a mentor.”
Davis is having a positive effect on more than just his children. He has continued to have a profound effect on Clemson University and future student-athletes through his work in fundraising and the Call Me Mister Program, which he helped found six years ago.
The Call Me Mister program may turn out to be his true legacy. It is a program in South Carolina that recruits African-American males to become secondary school educators. From its humble beginnings, there are now 20 graduates of the program who are teaching in schools throughout South Carolina. There are 100 more currently in the program, and 12 different institutions in the state are involved in the growing program.
“I am very proud of that program,” said Davis, who is no longer the director but is still involved. “We lack African-American teachers in this state, and those young men can provide role-models for our youth. It has been enjoyable to watch the program grow. What you give is more important than what you receive. I don’t want to be known as just a football player. I want my kids to believe that I made a difference.”
A special day came in 2001 when Davis received a $100,000 gift for the program from Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network.
Davis has been successful as a fundraiser at Clemson. He has a sound message that is easy for him to recite. He just tells his personal story.
“My mother and grandmother couldn’t afford to send me to any university. I couldn’t have come to Clemson without IPTAY. Those IPTAY members who paid for my scholarship in the 1970s are hopefully continuing to realize the dividends from their investment.
“When I tell my personal story, hopefully people see they can have the same impact on a young person’s life today. The investment an IPTAY member makes in Clemson can be very rewarding. You are helping a young person realize their potential in life just like I did 25 years ago.
“It is a great motivation for me. I work hard to raise money at Clemson so young people will have the same opportunity that I had. It is the way I give back.”
Davis was undersized as a linebacker in his playing days. But he never let that hold him back. He is being rewarded for his success on and off the field. It is a success story that continues today.
Some times, great gifts come in small packages.
Tim Bourret is Clemson’s Sports Information Director and is in his 30th year at Clemson.
March 14, 2019