On the night of Jan. 1, 1982, the Clemson Tigers, coached by Danny Ford, defeated the Nebraska Cornhuskers 22-15 in the Orange Bowl to win the football program's only national championship. In the third quarter of that game, sophomore safety Billy Davis returned a Nebraska punt 47 yards to the Cornhuskers' 22, setting up a field goal that would give the underdog Tigers a 22-7 lead they would not relinquish.
Davis, a former high school All-American in football and All-Metropolitan DC in baseball, went undrafted but signed with the Broncos in 1983, only to be cut just before the start of the regular season. In December 1984, in his second stint with the St. Louis Cardinals, Davis played his only NFL game, on the road at RFK against the Redskins. Davis, now 52, has worked for the Secret Service since 1989, and he is currently the special agent in charge of the Vice Presidential Protective Division. He lives, once again, in Virginia with Kim, his wife of 21 years, and their two daughters.
On the eve of another Clemson appearance in the Orange Bowl, Davis spoke with us about the arc of his career. Here he is in his own words, from an interview with Rob Trucks.
People say that I had the biggest special-teams play in the biggest game in Clemson football history. When I go back to Clemson that's who I'm known as. I'm not known as Billy Davis, the Secret Service agent, or Billy Davis, the baseball player. I'm known as Billy Davis, the guy who returned the punt in the Orange Bowl. And I am totally fine with that.
I think like most kids, most little boys, red-blooded American boys, I wanted to be a professional football player or to play major-league baseball. And I think that's pretty much how I was raised. My parents were both athletes in high school. They graduated from high school in 1953 and got married right after that. And so they didn't have the opportunity to go to college, and I think that was always a dream for them: for me to get to go to school. But I just always had that drive and ambition. That's really all I ever wanted to do.
The thing that drove me most, I think, and I told my mom this years ago, I said, "All I ever wanted was for people to be proud of me." I don't care if it was my high school coaches, my neighbors down the street. I never wanted to let anybody down. You never want to disappoint your parents, especially.
I do distinctly remember seeing, in my mom and dad's bedroom, the Life magazine that my mom had of the story of the Kennedy assassination. It's an iconic Life magazine spread. I couldn't have been more than seven or eight years old, and seeing that whole thing unfold, and seeing Clint Hill jump on the back of that limo, with Jackie Kennedy crawling on the back of the limousine with the president fatally wounded, and somehow, deep in the recesses of my mind as a 7- or 8-year-old kid, thinking, "Wow, that's really something."
He's really the iconic symbol of the United States Secret Service, with what he tried to do, and it's no different than meeting one of your iconic symbols in professional football from years gone by. To me that would be like being able to sit down and talk to, being a Redskins fan growing up, Charley Taylor or Sonny Jurgensen. I mean, it's the same thing.
Baseball, in retrospect, was my best sport, but you get caught up in the whole football thing, even then in the late '70s. My final five schools, in order, were Clemson and Notre Dame tied at the top, University of North Carolina, Penn State, and Alabama. And I was basically led to believe that I was going to go four years in college, and then go on and have a glorious NFL career. But one of the reasons I chose Clemson was to go play baseball. Now, I get down there and Coach Ford wouldn't let me play baseball until my junior year.
I essentially walked on to the Clemson baseball team. Had not played baseball in three years. I walk onto the team without playing for three years, and the first game of the year I'm starting in left field against the Citadel. I got hurt, banged up, didn't have quite the season I wanted, but ironically started in more games in baseball that one year than I ever did at Clemson in football.
We were playing North Carolina in the ACC Tournament championship game in Chapel Hill. Carolina had Scott Bankhead on the mound; they had B.J. Surhoff catching for them; and Walt Weiss was their shortstop. Anyway, I took BP, knocked a few out. I'm walking back to the dugout and Coach [Bill] Wilhelm stopped me and said, "Billy, would you like to play professional baseball?" And I looked at him and I said, "Sure, Coach." That's the only thing he said to me. And as I went back to Clemson—this is four years later, in 1987—he stopped me in the hallway and said, "Billy Davis, what the hell are you doing back here?" And I said, "Well, Coach, I'm back here finishing school and coaching football." He says, "You should be playing baseball on TV right now. You could've played major-league baseball 10 or 12 years." He said, "You were the best prospect I had in the last decade." Of course, he never told me that when I was there. He was one of those old-school guys. So I always tell people, "Whatever walk of life you're in, whether you're in the Secret Service or a coach or you work for IBM, if you see somebody who has a lot of talent, and you know they have talent, let them know that. Don't let them guess for themselves." Because I was a good student and never caused any problems, so a lot of people let me make my own decisions when in reality I was screaming for somebody to kind of pull me aside and go, "Hey, I know you love football. I know it's where it's at in Clemson and you're falling in love with the NFL dream, but you might want to take a step back and realize that baseball is your best sport." And in reality it was. That's really the only regret I have. That's really my biggest and only regret is that I just didn't pursue that to its fruition.
At 21, you know, you're liable to make a really bad decision. And that was a really bad decision on my part. In retrospect, if I had to do it all over again, the only thing I would do differently is play baseball in the spring of 1984. That's what I would've done.
I must have had between 300 and 400 people, maybe 500 people in the course of the last 32 years, come up and go: "Oh, Billy Davis. You know if you'd stayed to the outside you'd have scored a touchdown." Which is true. But when you're running it's just a matter of trusting your vision. When you're running down the field, being chased by a bunch of Nebraska Cornhuskers, you don't have time to make decisions. You go on instinct. And colors. You have a feel. You feel colors, and you feel people.
With punt returns, and it holds true today, you've got to make the first guy miss you. You have to break one tackle, and I did. I broke one tackle, and the wall set up perfectly. I mean, I broke the tackle, scooted out of the mess, and then went down the right sideline and it was set up.
It goes back to coaching, too. I returned a punt against North Carolina earlier in the year at Chapel Hill for 42 yards. I stayed to the outside and got forced, got tackled out of bounds, and my secondary coach, Curley Hallman, was coaching me to go inside. So in the back of your mind … And this time it was almost the exact same kind of return where we set up a wall and I'm going down the right sideline. And instead of going to the right I cut left and, unbeknownst to me, Irving Fryar was tracking me from behind. And when I cut left I cut right back into him and he made the tackle and that was it.
Coaching and instinct. That's all punt returns are. It wasn't anything spectacular.
I wasn't a great returner. Coach Ford called me a punt catcher. I was back there because I was very reliable. College football's very different now. It was a game of field position and ball control back then. Games were 20-16, 22-15. And if you could catch the ball and be reliable with it ...
It's interesting to hear my parents talk about it because they were on the lower level of the Orange Bowl. They saw the punt go up, and then the crowd stood up and everybody was roaring, but they really had trouble seeing what was going on. So they knew I had done something well, but they didn't really know what it was.
We go back to the hotel. It was the DuPont Plaza Hotel there in downtown Miami, which I don't think exists anymore. And the buses dropped us right off in front of the hotel, and the entire lobby of the hotel was just … we couldn't even walk through the hotel. It was nothing but Clemson fans, just delirious. And I'll never forget that scene. I'm just trying to get to the elevators to get up to our room to throw our carry-on bags and then go back downstairs.
They had, basically, a ballroom set up for us to celebrate. And we did. I don't think we went to bed the whole night. We just partied like you would when you win a national championship.
Coach Ford and Mrs. Ford walked into that same room at maybe 2:30, 3 a.m. with replenishments for our celebratory beverages. Walked in the room, sat them down on the table, didn't say a word. And we all just were like, "Yeah!"
We were outside by the pool when the sun came up, and I'll never forget the Miami Herald. They delivered the paper that morning and it's got "Clemson Wins Orange Bowl! National Champions!" You know, back then you either saw it on TV or waited for the newspaper to come out, and that's when it was like, "Wow! We actually did this. We pulled this off." I remember that like it was yesterday.
When you first get to a place like Clemson, you know, as a freshman when you're all-world and you show up there, it's a rude awakening. Some guys agree and some guys disagree, but I always thought it was much bigger jump going from high school to a place like Clemson or Texas or USC, as opposed to going from Clemson or Texas or USC to the National Football League, because of the caliber of athlete that you have there. When I was there we had 95 kids on scholarship. It's 85 now, but it was 95 then with unlimited walk-ons. You're talking about 140, 150 people running around on the football field.
At Clemson, just like at Alabama or Auburn or Florida State, you're playing with a bunch of guys on the field, guys like Jeff Davis and guys like T.K. [Terry Kinard] and Johnny Rembert and Jeff Bryant, and you're playing with these guys and they're going to the League, and you know that you're right in the mix with them. And you're playing against guys on Saturdays. So I had no doubt in my mind that I could compete. I thought I was as good as anybody else out on the field. That's the kind of competitive mindset that you have. And I'd been getting positive responses from other coaching staffs that had recruited me, and even NFL scouts that show up to practice—they're there every day—like, "Yeah, just keep slugging away and you're going to get a shot, kid. Your time's going to come."
I was one of those guys: "Hey, you're going to get drafted, you're going to get drafted, you're going to get drafted." Well, draft day comes and I don't get drafted. OK, so that's a kick in the you know what to begin with, because the guys who are around are saying: "Hey, we love you. You're a great two-deep safety. You cover a lot of ground." Blah blah blah. "If you're available anywhere after the fourth round we're going to take you." Well, they had 12 rounds back then, and I sat—it was one of the longest days of my life—from 8 in the morning until after 1 o'clock the next day, and the phone didn't ring until the draft was over. So I sign with Denver. I get cut. I go to St. Louis. I come home, sprain my ankle playing basketball. The Cardinals call. I go out there to training camp. I flunk the physical because my ankle's bad. They can't sign me. Come back home. Now I'm devastated. You know, my life, as I know it, at 22, is coming to an end. Re-enroll at Clemson and then the Cardinals call me in December of '84, right at the end of the year, so I go out there and finish the season.
It's a Sunday morning. I'll never forget it. I'm lying in bed, sound asleep, and the phone rings at 6 a.m. And the phone never rings in college at 6 a.m. And it's my mom. And I'm like, "Uh-oh." She says, "Billy?" And I'm like, "Hey, Mom." 6 a.m. Something's wrong. And she goes, "The Cardinals called last night. Larry Wilson wants you to call him at 9 o'clock this morning. They want to sign you." And I'm like out of bed, running around. Call Larry Wilson, who's an icon in the NFL, Hall of Famer, one of my heroes when I was growing up. So I go to my professors on Monday, clean out my stuff and fly out Tuesday to St. Louis. Go in and meet with Coach [Jim] Hanifan, the head coach, and Larry Wilson, sign the contract, and then they say: "Hey, practice tomorrow. Be here at 8 a.m. Go down, get your uniform, get all your stuff."
Go down to the locker room at Busch Stadium, walk in, get the requisite helmet, you know, all the equipment. Time to pick out a jersey. He goes, "What number do you want?" Now this is everybody's dream as a kid. You're in an NFL locker room. This is literally how it works. "What number do you want, kid?"
"Well, I wore 24 in college. I wore 41 when you guys had me here the last time."
He goes, "Kid, you're looking in the wrong section."
I looked at him. I go, "What are you talking about?"
He says, "They've got you listed here as a linebacker."
I'm like, "I haven't played linebacker since fourth grade." He says, "Let me call Larry."
He walks over, picks up the phone. "Hey, Davis says he's a defensive back. Yep. OK. Got it.
"You're a linebacker, kid."
I was like, "OK, I'll take number 55," because that's what Chris Hanburger wore for the Redskins. That's how I found out I was a linebacker.
It was in RFK. I walk out on the field, and there's Joe Theismann and Mark Moseley and John Riggins, guys I grew up idolizing, and now I'm competing against them.
I dressed and didn't get in the game against the Giants the week before. Didn't play. You don't know until they call you and say, "Hey, you've got to get in and play L4 on the kickoff team." That's all I ever did was just play on the kickoff team.
Stay in your lane and make the tackle inside the 20-yard line. Not real difficult. That's the goal. That was the goal when we were in St. Louis, over and over again. "Stay in your lane, fight off the block, make the tackle inside the 20-yard line." There's nothing complicated about the kickoff team. It's just selling your body out. That's all it is.
Once you put on the uniform, you think you're going to play. I mean, that's just the attitude you go in with. I think that's all part of my experience at Clemson as a defensive back, for three years being the nickel DB and backing up Terry [Kinard] for three years. You know, you've always got to be standing on the sidelines with your chinstrap buckled, ready to go in at a moment's notice.
It wasn't even until the third quarter, so I just went in and replaced somebody. And I didn't make a tackle or anything. There was nothing significant about it other than just being on the field. Just being on the field amongst those guys, in that environment, with my dad coming down on the field before the game and just realizing what your parents do and what it takes for them to get you there. And after the disappointment of not being drafted and getting cut and then getting cut again, and then having the realization of: "Hey, even though it's not exactly how you dreamed it to be, you are here and somebody has decided that you are good enough. You know, you have some kind of quality, whatever that may be, that you're good enough to deserve to be here."
We lost, and the feeling was palpable. We lost 29-27. I'm standing on the sidelines. Offense is out on the field. We get close, and time is ticking down, and Neil Lomax is trying to kill the ball and everybody's screaming: "You can't kill it. It's fourth down." So the field goal team runs out, they line up, ball is snapped, the kick is up. It's a 50-yard field goal with six seconds left, and it goes wide left by maybe five feet past the left upright, and that's how the game ends. And if he hits it we win 30-29. So we finish in a three-way tie with Dallas and New York, and we go home. There's nothing to be excited about. You lose. Because I'm on the team. That's my team.
We fly back that night, back to St. Louis. You know, the ceremonial cleaning out of lockers. Everybody puts their stuff, literally, in a garbage bag. So I grab the little suitcase I have, because I've lived in the Holiday Inn Riverfront for two weeks, and I put my stuff in my little suitcase, and I take my paycheck and my garbage bag full of equipment—sweatshirts and socks and stuff that I've squirreled away from the equipment room—and I get on a TWA flight and fly back to National Airport, and I'm back home at my parents' house just after playing the previous night in RFK. And it was still kind of a dream world. I was like, "Did that really even actually happen?"
I was happy to be there, considering the circumstances. You go from eating tuna fish out of a can and sitting in a statistics class with a bunch of your buddies thinking your world has basically come to an end as a 22-year-old, because now you're back at Clemson. You know, they say they're going to call you back, and then you don't hear anything from anybody for September, October, November. Now everybody's going, "Well, I guess it's over for you." And then all of a sudden the phone call comes and—bang—within 72 hours you walk into the locker room at Busch Stadium with a bunch of guys you've watched play all fall, and now you're on the team. It's weird. It's like going into hyperspace drive or something.
I thought I had a great shot of coming back the next year and making the club. Unfortunately for me, though, for some unknown reason, in the NFL owner's talks in the spring of 1985, they reduced active rosters from 49 players to 45 players. And I was essentially the 49th guy on the team when I got brought in. You know where you stand in the pecking order. I was interchangeable, probably, with 500 guys sitting at home. But when that happened, in the spring of '85, I was like, "I've got my work cut out for me now." And then you have a full draft. They brought me in as a safety, but then they changed me to a Sam linebacker. Then they drafted Freddie Joe Nunn out of Ole Miss in the first round as a Sam linebacker. So I was smart enough to figure out—so I moved back to strong safety and played the entire preseason in '85 at strong safety and was cut right at the beginning of the regular season.
I didn't watch it. Did not even watch it. I didn't go to any Clemson home football games. Did not watch anything on the NFL because I just felt that I should be out there. Even when I got cut in '85 I had trouble watching the NFL for probably four or five years afterwards, because I knew I was as good as, probably not all those guys out there, but at least a handful of them. I felt I should've been out there.
As I matured and came into this career that I have now, that's when I started to realize, "Hey, I was really lucky to do the things that I got to do," and not be bitter about it, but grow up a little bit and realize that I did a lot of things that a lot of people dream about doing. And I think that's all part of the maturation process of an athlete and a former athlete. Sometimes I don't think some guys ever get over that.
When I got cut the third time, the second time by the Cardinals at the end of the preseason, right before the season started in '85, I went back and coached for two years at my old high school. In the meantime I'd reached a verbal agreement with the Birmingham Stallions. In '86 the USFL had moved their schedule from the spring to the fall, and that's when they got awarded the $3 in the antitrust suit with the NFL. So training camp was supposed to start. Well, training camp never started. The league folded. And that's when I realized I was done. I went back to Clemson to finish, and that was during the strike year, the fall of '87, and they came to me and said: "Hey, they're dying for guys like you with experience to play in the strike games. The teams are begging for you. If you want to play, you can play." That's when I decided it was over. Because I could've gone back and played in the strike games. I wouldn't have done it because I wouldn't have been a scab, but that's when I realized my playing career was over and it was time for me to move on.
It was very depressing. You can go into a tank real easy. And I believe I did for a while. But I had a lot of family support and friends around me. Kind of a happy-go-lucky kid anyway. Kind of resilient. You know, I had a great life all the way through Clemson, and then all of a sudden the road gets a little rocky when you don't get drafted and you realize that: "Hey, this is now your test time. This is going to show what kind of person you're going to be. Are you going to fold? Are you going to fold like a tent or are you going to get off the ground and fight?" That's what I really learned, I think, from a guy like Danny Ford, who played for Bear Bryant. Coach Ford had a tendency to bring out a mean streak in anybody, and I think that was part of the Bear Bryant philosophy. You've heard of the Junction Boys. That's pretty much how our practices were. They were flat-out brutal. I mean, we would look forward to the games because the games were easy compared to the practices. You can't have those kind of practices nowadays because you just don't have enough players, but back then it was brutal.
When you're 18 years old, and your head coach looks at you and says, "Get ready to go out," and you're playing Georgia in Athens in 1980, between the hedges, and that's your first college football game and the first time you're going back to return a punt, if you don't learn how to focus and learn how to control your emotions. … And that's what people don't understand about athletics in general, especially college football in this day and age. Even back then, 1980, the pressure you're put under at a young age like that, in front of a bunch of people, it really taught me a lot of life lessons. And a lot of people don't get that. They don't get put in those situations. That's carried over for me. The preparation I had as an athlete certainly helps me do the things I do now, as far as anxiety, pressure, whatever you want to call it.
I was a totally different person when I put a football helmet on. I was always very competitive, but football has a tendency to transform people to do things, and you become, literally, a different animal when you're between those hash marks, between those sidelines. In the Secret Service the switch never goes off. I represent the Secret Service when I'm a dad, when I'm out working out in a gym, or whether I'm in a shopping mall. I'm never really off-duty. And in my position as a special agent in charge of the vice president's detail, I'm around the leaders of our country, and so I never really have that switch to turn on and off. In the Secret Service, as a federal agent, you're always on duty and so I never really stop. Now there's a heightened sense of awareness, obviously, when I go to work and I put on the gun and the badge and the bulletproof vest. It's a little bit different. You know, I don't have a normal job like most dads. And I tell my kids that, too. Sometimes I carry some of that when I come home. My wife can attest to it. Some days are good days and some days are not so good days, and there's a lot of stress involved in that. But I go back to my days as an athlete and being able to control the stress.
I think that's the real attraction for me: You'll never ever find the pure adrenaline rush you get from playing football from playing any other sport. I mean, I still get it now when I get down to Clemson or, you know, they came up and played Maryland and Virginia this year, and I was down on the sidelines and in the locker room with the kids. That's as close as I can get to putting that adrenaline rush in a bottle. So do I get it on this job? No. It's different. It's a different set of focuses. It's much more methodical. You do have to be on all the time. When you're on, you're on. There's absolutely no room for error. The American public pays us to do that job, and anything less is just unacceptable. The threats are out there and that's why we're spot-on all the time.
I thought about being a Secret Service agent. It wasn't a dream of mine. The dream was being a professional athlete. That was what I always wanted to do, and anything else was kind of a fail-safe, that, "OK, if this doesn't work out, this might be something interesting." So this career has been really fascinating, to see history as it's evolved, from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration to the Obama administration, and to be around all the great people I've been around. But in all honesty I could leave the job in the next year, and look back on it fondly, but not really miss it like I do still, to this day, when I walk into the stadium and hear that band playing and smell the grass and hear the pads pop. You long to just go out there and do it one more time.
Rob Trucks interviews people for Deadspin. He was last seen on this site interviewing plaintiffs of the NFL concussion lawsuit. Before that, he spoke with former athletes about the end of their careers. His oral histories with 49-year-old Americans can be found at McSweeney's, and his latest book is on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album. Follow him on Twitter, @eyeglassesofky.
Photo via Getty. Video via YouTube.