As the 20th century drew to a close lists of the century’s greatest figures in various fields of endeavor appeared regularly in newspapers and magazines. Revealing that memories were short, the lists tended to be dominated by figures of recent vintage, especially in the sports world. This is probably a consequence of the ephemeral nature of the contributions of athletes, unlike those of scientists or physicians or writers. I should think, though, that athletes should be judged by how they performed against their competition. By that standard, no running back in the history of college football outshines Glenn Davis of West Point fame. Yet, Glenn Davis was left off a few of the top-ten lists I saw for running backs.
When I was young, the two running backs most talked about in our family were Glenn Davis and Ernie Nevers, the latter because he played football with the McGrath boys at Central High in Superior, Wisconsin, and went on to become all-everything at Stanford, and the former because my big brother was a fan of Army football. My brother fed me Davis stories, statistics, and photos since I was four or five years old. Glenn Davis was the halfback I wanted to be. A decade earlier he was the halfback every aspiring football player wanted to be.
Davis was a Southern California boy who excelled in every sport his high school—Bonita in La Verne—offered. On the track the only thing other sprinters saw of him were his heels. In football he made cuts and accelerated like a cheetah. At the conclusion of his senior season in football during the fall of 1942, the still-16-year-old Davis was named CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) Player of the Year. Winter saw him star on the basketball team. During the spring of 1943 he made All-CIF in baseball and was named Southern California’s top track and field athlete.
When Davis arrived at West Point during the late summer of 1943, legendary football coach Red Blaik was certain the Southern California golden boy must have a big head. In practice Blaik immediately had Davis carry the ball against West Point’s first string—just to teach the kid a lesson. Davis bounced, squirmed, changed direction, and exploded for 80 yards and a touchdown. Blaik could now think of nothing to do but chew out Davis for imagined faults with the run. With the team watching, Blaik told Davis that he had missed the hole, cut the wrong way off blocks, changed direction at the wrong time, and extended a limp limb instead of a rigid stiff-arm at would-be tacklers. “What do you have to say for yourself, Davis?” a yelling Blaik concluded. Davis looked at the ground and pawed the turf. “Well, coach,” the 17-year-old plebe finally answered, “how was it for distance?”
For Army that first season Davis led the team to a 7-2-1 record and gained 1,028 yards on 144 carries, a 7.1 yard average, and scored 8 touchdowns. The legend was for real. The next season saw the arrival of fullback Felix “Doc” Blanchard, who would team with Davis to give Army the greatest backfield duo in the history of college football. At 6’1″ and 210 lbs.—about three inches taller and 35 lbs. heavier than Davis—Blanchard was the bruiser who could run through interior linemen. For a heavyweight he was exceptionally fast. He became known as “Mr. Inside,” and Davis as “Mr. Outside.” Together they were the “Touchdown Twins” and were both All-Americans three years in a row. During the years they played together West Point went undefeated, a perfect record marred only by a tie with Notre Dame in ’46.
In nine games during the 1944 season Davis set NCAA records by averaging 11.5 yards per carry and scoring 20 touchdowns. He won the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Trophy as the player of the year, and finished second in the Heisman balloting. Davis again averaged 11.5 yards per carry in 1945, scored 18 touchdowns in nine games, and finished second in the Heisman voting to his teammate, Doc Blanchard. Injuries to Blanchard in 1946, and to quarterback Arnold Tucker, allowed defenses to stack against Davis, but Mr. Outside still averaged 5.8 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. He had a record-setting game against Navy, accounting for 265 yards of total offense, including a 40-yard TD run, a 30-yard TD pass reception, and a 27-yard TD pass. Against Michigan, Davis ran for 105 yards and a touchdown, completed 7 of 8 passes for 160 yards and a TD, and intercepted two passes. He won the Heisman Trophy and was named Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press.
In his collegiate career Davis gained 6,494 yards on 637 carries for an average of 10.2 yards per carry. He scored 59 touchdowns and passed for 12 more. Several of these marks set NCAA records. His average yards per carry is still a record. At the academy Davis was also a guard on the basketball team, the star of the baseball team, and a record-setting sprinter on the track team; 62 years after his graduation he still holds the academy’s indoor 60 and outdoor 220 records. He also still holds the record point total for the Master of the Sword, a series of events testing speed, strength, spring, and agility. In 1987 West Point released a VHS tape of Army’s football games, including the ’45 and ’46 seasons. Watch it and you will see that Mr. Outside is Mr. Incomparable—of any era.