Acquired in one of the most lopsided trades in NFL history, Willie Davis never missed a game in 10 years with the Packers and earned a reputation as one of the league’s greatest pass rushers. He also was named the first African-American captain in Packers history by legendary coach Vince Lombardi.
Davis and defensive tackle Henry Jordan were the pass rushing demons on a defense that played a huge part in the Packers winning five NFL championships under Lombardi, including three straight from 1965 to 1967 when they had the league’s top-ranked passing defense each season. Davis and Jordan played together before sacks were recorded as an official statistic, but both used their rare quickness to form what was one of the best inside-outside pass rushing tandems of their era.
One of the few defensive stats kept when Davis played was fumble recoveries, and he holds the Packers’ career record with 21.
In turn, one of Davis’ biggest plays was a forced fumble with less than a minute-and-a-half to go when the Packers clinched the Western Conference title against the Baltimore Colts on the second-to-last weekend of the 1966 season. With the Colts inside the Packers’ 15-yard line, Davis chased down quarterback Johnny Unitas and knocked the ball free before linebacker Dave Robinson pounced on it to preserve a 14-10 victory. The year before, the Packers had been forced to beat the Colts in a Western Conference playoff game en route to winning the NFL title.
While Davis built his reputation on harassing opposing quarterbacks, he played on the left side and was also a stout defender against the run. At the time, opposing offenses lined up mostly strong right or with a tight end to Davis’ side. Nevertheless, he could hold the point, jitterbug his way around a blocker or recover quickly if he was blocked. With his exceptional speed and agility, he also was relentless chasing down plays.
Davis had a rare gift probably best described by Lombardi’s defensive coach Phil Bengtson. “Willie has the ability to make the big play and he’s still a steady player, which is quite a thing for a defensive man,” said Bengtson. When future Minnesota Vikings head coach Jerry Burns joined the Packers as a defensive assistant in 1966, he went so far as to call Davis “the greatest football player I’ve ever seen.”
One of Davis’ best games was the 1961 NFL championship when the Packers crushed the New York Giants, 37-0, for Lombardi’s first title. The Giants tried three different tackles against him – starter Greg Larson, sub Mickey Walker and starting guard Jack Stroud – without success.
Davis was named alternate defensive captain of the Packers in 1965 when the returning captain, Hank Gremminger, lost his starting job at safety. Davis became permanent defensive captain in 1966 and served through 1969. Thus, he had the distinction of serving as captain for a team that won three straight NFL titles and, as a result, participated in the pre-game coin flips before Super Bowls I and II.
Davis was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981.
“As a pass rusher, he was so quick off the ball,” said linebacker Dave Robinson, who played behind Davis on the left side. “He was a good run player, too. He was so strong in the chest, he could hit the tackle and control them. Throw them or drive them. He was weak in the legs, but his upper body was tremendously strong.”
The Packers acquired Davis from Cleveland on July 12, 1960, just before Lombardi’s second season, in exchange for offensive end A.D. Williams. Originally drafted in the 15th round in 1956, Davis spent two years in the Army before joining the Browns in 1958. At Grambling, he played guard and linebacker during the one-platoon era of college football. Davis started at defensive end for most of his rookie year with the Browns, and then alternated between offensive tackle and defensive end in 1959. Lombardi told Davis from the beginning that he would play defense in Green Bay.
Meanwhile, Williams played one year in Cleveland and caught one pass. That also was the extent of his production in Green Bay. Williams played in 12 games in 1959 and caught one pass. After one season in Cleveland, Williams was taken by Minnesota in the 1961 expansion draft and played his third and final NFL season there.
Davis played in 138 games for the Packers, his last on Willie Davis Day, Dec. 21, 1969. Davis had previously announced the 1969 season would be his last. Following his retirement, Davis was an NBC analyst on NFL games from 1970 to 1975. In 1989, he was one of four candidates considered for the position of NFL commissioner before Paul Tagliabue was named to the post. From 1994 to 2005, Davis served on the Packers’ board of directors before becoming a director emeritus. He was only the second African-American member of the Packers’ board.
Born July 24, 1934, in Lisbon, La. Given name William Delford Davis.
- Defensive End: 1960-69
- Height: 6-3; Weight: 243
- College: Grambling, 1952-55
- Inducted Pro Football Hall of Fame: 1981
- NFL All-Decade Team: 1960s
- Associated Press All-Pro Team (chosen since 1940): 1962, ’64, ’65, ’66, ’67
- Pro Bowl Selection (game played since 1950): 1963, ’64, ’65, ’66, ’67
- Packers 50*th Anniversary Team:* 1969
- Packers All-Modern Era Team: 1976
- Press-Gazette All-Century Team: 1999