Willie Davis is probably best known for his NFL playing career, perhaps rightfully so. After all, it did span 12 years and six league championships, including 1966 and 1967, when Green Bay won the first two Super Bowls.
Davis, who is unofficially the all-time Packers’ sack leader, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981.
But as good as he was on the field, Davis has led just as successful a life in his post-football days. He’s been a television commentator. He was president of All-Pro Broadcasting, which operates several radio stations. He was a successful executive in the beer industry. And he has served on the boards of nearly a dozen companies.
Davis grew up in Lisbon, La., where his mother hesitated to even let him play football. When he did get on the field, he parlayed the opportunity into a degree from Grambling State (where he played for the legendary Eddie Robinson) and a trip to the National Football League (where he played for the legendary Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi). He starred in the NFL, but he also nearly always had his eye on what he would do next.
With the help of co-authors Jim Martyka and Andrea Erickson Davis, Willie Davis wrote recently published a book, Closing the Gap, that covers the journey that is his life. He also recently joined Zoneblitz.com to share some of those thoughts.
Zoneblitz: What made you want to write Closing the Gap?
Davis: I’m not sure I had much of a desire to do anything like writing a book. I had been approached several times after my retirement and every time I felt because of serving on some corporate boards and other things I didn’t feel like I had the time.
When some of those boards went away and with old age and everything I decided maybe I should. People would say things that would pique my interest. Maybe I do have a message for young people, young kids and young adults and maybe middle-aged adults.
I think the most interesting thing about it was even the title – Closing the Gap – just resonated in so many ways toward putting together my life from the very beginning, early childhood through the way I find myself today. Each step along the way from college through the pros to the beer company to radio, each one of those had an interesting aspect to influencing my life in some way. It was the fulfillment in my mind and in my heart of fulfilling something I wanted to do – something I wanted to do to please my mother.
So everything I have pretty much tried to achieve was closing the gap on those things that had been interesting and meaningful in my life.
Zoneblitz: You have had a successful football career but also several successful ventures since leaving the playing field. How and when did you start preparing for those post-football challenges?
Davis: I looked everything I even talked about having occurred in my life and I think there is one underlying comment and that is I had extreme passion f or everything that I pursued. When I was in high school the first time I made All State my first year in football and I held that trophy up, it was the first thing in my life that I experienced that said I could do something comparable to other guys. I couldn’t wait to go tell my mom, who was very much against my playing.
I took all of that and it became almost meaningful to me because I wanted to do it for me, I wanted to do it for my mother, I wanted to do it in a way that you could feel the sense of achieving something. That was what life meant to me.
When I went to Grambling, I went into my counselor’s office to talk about what I was going to major in. I was saying I wanted to pursue a career in business. They actually didn’t offer a major in business, but the counselor, she was much more concerned about telling me there are no opportunities for blacks in business. This is in Louisiana and at that point she probably was right. It wasn’t like she was totally misleading me. The truth of it was there were very few blacks that were going into business.
I chose another career and went through, graduated, got into the pros, got drafted by Cleveland and traded to Green Bay. Then all at once it was like this whole notion of the business thing came back full bloom in my life. All at once it was like let’s pursue this business career. At that point I decided I needed to do something that would probably help the satiation.
That’s when I elected to go to the University of Chicago, got a Master’s in business and probably, from that experience, everything went forward in my life. Not only did I feel almost capable of doing anything that made sense, I was in the process at the same time of doing things I never expected to do in my whole life.
Zoneblitz: How did you end up getting into radio and the beer industry?
Davis: I pursued the degree at the University of Chicago with the whole notion that all would end well. I graduate and the next thing I knew I was offered a franchise in the beer business, the first time an African American had ever had a wholesale-ship with a major brewery.
They told me I was the first. I didn’t think about it long. I figured if I was first I better get busy. That was the outgrowth of my going into the beverage business with a franchise. You know what was interesting, I was in Watts, California, which at that time was not the most positive place you could think of. It was really interesting. Schlitz Brewing Co. had 13 wholesalers in southern California. And they had gone through a reorganizing program and every wholesaler had re-upped except one that they offered to sell to me. So my greatest claim to fame was I went from worst to first when I sold the business 18 years later I was the number one wholesaler for Schlitz on the west coast and I had gone from being the last wholesaler on the list when I took over.
Davis: I’m happy to hear you say that. There’s no doubt in my mind that in Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi you had two of the finest coaches ever and I can say to you that whether it was at a practice and you made a mistake and you heard Paul Brown say things like ‘we can show you, we can teach you, but we can’t do it for you.’ He’d drop that on you a few times and if you didn’t get the message he would say ‘maybe this is not the right place for you.’
I went through that a few times. Then I go to Green Bay. Coach Lombardi was the most influential person I ever had in my life. He literally taught me to appreciate almost every aspect of playing the game, how you prepare, how committed you needed to be and he just had a way about him that could convince you. In fact he even said ‘Don’t kid yourself, the way you guys prepare and play this game is a reflection of the way you’ll live the rest of your life.’ You’re not going to get out of here and find another situation and do it much different than you’ve done here.
In listening to it at that time it was meaningful. But experiencing it as I went out into the business world, more specifically, it became very real. How I prepared, how I would deal with things, was a reflection of part of my planning and living. Many of the fundamentals are the same.
Zoneblitz: As your career was winding down was Lombardi influential in making the transition from football to business?
Davis: Oh, absolutely.
It was interesting. When I started to pursue the Master’s degree, in some ways I didn’t realize what I was getting into. So I played in the Pro Bowl in Los Angeles and then flew back to Chicago and then went to class that day. I even had a test. I just knew this thing was probably testing the outer limits of what I could do and I went home, I called Coach Lombardi and told him what had happened.
I’m talking all this stuff. I remember to this day he says to me ‘Willie, does this thing matter to you?’
I said, ‘yes coach.’
He says, ‘the Willie Davis I know has never quit on anything he thought was important.’
I said, ‘hey, coach, I’ll call you later.’
I hung up and knew that I was absolutely committed and obligated in my feeling that I have got to do this. I have got to do this for all the reasons it meant to me and what it meant to people who knew me. So I did that and to this day, as I sit here, I say how important it was that I agreed to do that.
Zoneblitz: How has the game changed since you played?
Davis: There are elements of the game that truly have changed. There is no question it’s more of a passing situation in the NFL today than it was when I was there, especially at Green Bay. We used to brag about being a team that was very balanced with an equal amount of run and pass. Today they use the running game to kind of keep a team honest.
In truth, the teams that usually succeed today use the pass. It’s made it a faster game in some ways. I would say I don’t think the game is any worse for it.
Zoneblitz: Do you miss playing?
Davis: I played 12 years. I do. You almost have to miss it. But for me the 12 years in the NFL was fulfilling. It accomplished everything probably that I ever wanted to achieve in the game I walked away feeling I had accomplished probably all that mattered.
Zoneblitz: You talk in the book about how when you first got traded to Green Bay you were headed to the “Siberia of football” and that you even considered retiring. Now you’re a fixture in the community. What was it about the city that gripped you?
Davis: Green Bay was one of the greatest places at the end of the day that I feel I like I could have played. I can’t imagine a place that offered more opportunity or satisfaction than what occurred in Green Bay. It was almost totally related to Coach Lombardi and his ability to bring diversity and everything to Green Bay that made you became a part of something that made you feel very special.
Zoneblitz: Are there teammates or opponents of yours who should be in the Hall of Fame with you?
Davis: There are a number of guys I played with who are in the Hall, Herb Adderley, Willie Wood, Ray Nitschke, Forrest Gregg, Jim Ringo, and probably the most gratifying and satisfying thing occurred this year when Dave Robinson, after being out of the league for a long time, was recommended and should be in the Hall.
We played right next to each other and there is no one more deserving than Dave Robinson. The other thing that was gratifying, Jerry Kramer, who was my roommate the last four years, is the one guy that nobody can quite understand why he is not in the Hall of Fame. I know I can’t. I know there is no one who is more deserving than Jerry Kramer. I hope that like Dave, the selection committee will come around and give Jerry his rightful spot in the Hall.
The Packers rightfully have a number of players in the Hall. I just think it’s a matter of time before another few more from my time frame also manage to get there.
Most of the guys I really think of, like John Mackey, Mike Ditka and folks like that, most of them are at Canton.
Davis: I go every year.
Zoneblitz: What’s it like seeing your own bust and getting together with the guys again?
Davis: There’s probably nothing more gratifying in some ways because here’s the evidence. This validates everything I wanted to accomplish.
Zoneblitz: How involved are you still with the city of Green Bay?
Davis: I go back to Green Bay almost every year to games, the alumni game in particular I try to get back for. I said it before and I’ll say it again. Green Bay has the greatest fans you could imagine. When I go back there it’s almost like a love affair. You almost feel as if the fans appreciate you from back then and the players from back then as much as they appreciate the players today. And sometimes they even say that. With Green Bay it’s a love affair.
Zoneblitz: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Davis: Go Pack Go!
Editor’s note: Big thank yous to Willie Davis for his time and to co-author Jim Martyka, a college buddy of mine, for helping us get in touch. The book can be purchased at Amazon.com or at Triumph Books.