Closing the Gap: Lombardi, the Packers Dynasty, and the Pursuit of Excellence

Closing the Gap: Lombardi, the Packers Dynasty, and the Pursuit of Excellence

by Willie Davis

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Describing how NFL great Willie Davis helped define the hard-nosed, in-your-face defense of the original football dynasty, the 1960s Green Bay Packers, this revealing autobiography also illustrates his persona off the field—humble yet ambitious, with an infectious smile and a reputation of strict discipline that matched his leadership mentality. The book


Describing how NFL great Willie Davis helped define the hard-nosed, in-your-face defense of the original football dynasty, the 1960s Green Bay Packers, this revealing autobiography also illustrates his persona off the field—humble yet ambitious, with an infectious smile and a reputation of strict discipline that matched his leadership mentality. The book recounts the competitor as one of the game’s strongest, quickest, and most agile defensive linemen in his time, showcasing a team captain who led the Green and Gold to five championships and earned a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Distinguished from many other athletes of his generation, Davis's success continued well after he took off his pads. His reputation as one of the most respected businessmen in America is discussed, including his time serving on the board of directors for Fortune 500 companies, taking part in various foundations, and speaking to audiences of all ages about his experiences. From growing up in a poor, segregated small town in the South to the intense pressure he endured as a college athlete contemplating his future, this evocation pays homage to a man who has worked hard to achieve all that he has, always appreciating the fruits of his labors with care, respect, and devout passion.

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Closing the Gap

Lombardi, the Packers Dynasty, and the Pursuit of Excellence

By Willie Davis, Jim Martyka, Andrea Erickson Davis

Triumph Books

Copyright © 2012 Willie Davis and Andrea Erickson Davis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61749-974-6


The Pursuit Starts Early

I was born determined.

There's a story about me as a little boy, sitting on the curb in Texarkana where I grew up, kicking the dirt, swatting away the flies, and waiting for my stepfather to pick me up in his rusty old pickup truck. I was always a contemplative kid, even at a young age. As I sat there, I would often drift off in my own world, ignoring the sweltering Southern heat and reflecting on what was happening around me, dreaming big dreams of the future.

On this particular day, I paid attention to all the people walking by. I didn't notice their faces, but I sure noticed what they were wearing, how they were dressed for where they were going. Field workers, merchants, teachers, businessmen, you name it. I watched these passing suits and uniforms as they went about doing what they all needed to do to earn a little money, a commodity my family and many other families in that part of the South was always short on. I admired them even at a young age, and I wished I could join the crowd.

One of the passing men, dressed in a sharp charcoal suit and fedora, stopped and looked at me quizzically. I suppose it wasn't common to see such a serious look on the face of a child.

"What are you thinking about, son?" he asked, sincerely curious.

I looked up at him and with a brightness and honesty in my eyes I said, "When I grow up, I want to go to college, get an education so I can get some money and take care of my family."

He seemed quite surprised to hear such a proclamation come from the mouth of a child, but perhaps he was even more caught off guard by the determination in my eyes. It wasn't a hope or a dream, it was a declaration. I was aware enough and observant enough to know that life could be better, for me; for my brother and sister; for my mother, who sacrificed so much for us; for the passing suits; for everybody.

I was too young to know how. But I wasn't too young to put it out there, to commit to a goal of something more and to start forming the path and strength I would need to always pursue that goal.

Good planning builds success.

Over the years, especially in my time as a business leader, I have become notorious for my attention to detail in planning. I've been fortunate enough to have great co-workers and assistants with me for essentially my entire business career, including one person who's been my aide for the better part of four decades. Several business leaders have said one of the keys to success is surrounding yourself with good people, and I believe that to be absolutely true, especially when it comes to forming, explaining, and executing a plan. I've been lucky to have people who understand my vision, sometimes even before I do. And good planning builds success.

That was one of the first lessons I learned as a young man. I'm sure, like most of what I learned in my formative years, that particular lesson came from my mother. From the moment I made the decision I was going to work, go to school, and do what needed to be done to help my family (a challenging task for a small, poor, black boy in the South), I began searching for ways to make it happen. When I was about 10 years old, I found my first opportunity.

Every day, whether I was with my friends, my siblings, or even at times with my stepfather, I would almost inevitably walk past our town grocery store. It was your average 1940s small-town grocer, wooden and weather-worn on the outside with the week's specials painted in bright colors and outlined with a stark white on the windows. Produce, meats, canned goods, sweets and treats — everything was condensed into one space that always looked much bigger to the eyes of a child. It was a store of habit, never really introducing anything new or exciting to the area, unlike the much larger supermarket that rested on the outskirts of town a mile or two away. Like most stores of the time, this grocer was built for function, to attract repeat customers, and to establish itself as the place to go for the community's grocery needs. I would walk by that place every day and often stopped in, being sent there by my mother to pick up an onion, some spices, or whatever else she needed to make dinner.

One particular summer afternoon, I stopped and observed all the people heading into that store, people I'd seen pop in day after day, sometimes more than once. I thought of how many times we stopped in. I thought of all the people who visited that store every day to buy something. I thought of how much money all these people gave to the store owner because he offered something that people needed.

Of course, I was too young to realize such concepts as product costs and net profit (although I think I had a pretty keen understanding of supply and demand). All I saw was a swarm of individuals willing to dish out their hard-earned money to one particular retailer. To me it was an ideal situation, and it helped me realize what I wanted to do to make the money I needed to accomplish my goals.

"I want to have my own business," I told my mother later that evening.

I began hanging around the store more and more, observing and hoping to pick up some secret hints on how to get people to give you their money. The grocer was a sweet, elderly white European man with dark, receding hair and an extremely friendly disposition. He knew everybody in town, as most small town grocers do, and he was always cordial and respectful. You would never catch him trying to push a product; he simply let the customer come in for whatever he or she needed.

He took an immediate liking to me, my curiosity, and my willingness to help. He never once questioned why I was hanging around the store or ever tried to shoo me way. Instead, he put me to work, stocking shelves, moving inventory, taking in boxes, cleaning, hanging signs, whatever needed to be done. He would always tell me how impressed he was with how efficient I was, and he would reward me with some fruit, some vegetables, a treat, or even something bigger to take home to my family to cook.

Pretty soon, he was telling me to come by every day, and on top of the food, he was also giving me about $3, big money for a 10-year-old back then. My mother, who was at first skeptical about why I wanted to hang around the store and why this man was giving me fruit, soon became extremely appreciative of the opportunity and the lessons I could learn helping out. I worked at that little grocery store, my first job, from the time I was 10 to about 17. I developed a very close bond with the elderly grocer, who would often put his arm around me and tell me what a fine man I would turn out to be one day.

In that time, I learned many of my first lessons about not just business but also life. I learned about loyalty, commitment, and compassion while developing a strong work ethic, a sense of community, and an understanding of how to connect with people as customers and human beings. Further, I more strongly and resolutely deepened my desire to one day run my own business, to build a better future for myself and my family by following in the footsteps of my friend and mentor.

In those hot summer days in my small Southern home town or after school in those cool winters, I would run down to the grocer, proud of my job and focused on the money I could earn, the lessons I could learn, and what I thought would be an inevitable future as a local business leader.

In fact, the only thing to ever distract me along the way, the only thing that could catch my eye and slow my run, were those tall billboards promoting the latest soft drink and featuring some of the era's greatest athletes, the titans of the gridiron, professionals in the game of football.


My Mother Can Whip Your Mother

Appreciate those early influences and what they've done for you.

I initially grew up in a small house on a large plot of land in Friendship, Arkansas, with my parents promising to tend to an owner's cotton and corn crops for a third of the profits. Anyone who thought slavery was dead in the 1930s and 1940s hadn't heard of sharecropping. While my parents had both good and bad years, built some semblance of a decent home, and tended their own fruitful garden that could essentially feed the three of us all on its own, they never saw anything but the bare minimum they needed to survive. My mother told me the most they ever received, in their best year, was about 10 percent — and that was considered generous.

They wracked up enormous debt to their landowner, who they referred to as "the baron." He had several families working on his plot, and he used armed men to help him patrol and monitor his belongings, both the land and the people who tended to it. He was clever in his manipulation, making sure the families that worked for him were always one step behind on the contracts. More deviously, he would provide just enough to the families to keep them on the land and working for him, reminding them, sometimes with more than subtle threats of the debt they were building. He acted as if he was showing mercy even as he created situations that forced naïve workers like my parents into this debt.

While the baron was manipulative and cruel, the men who worked for him were hostile and dangerous. My mother once told me there were often threats made against the families, including them, but she never elaborated on the details, choosing to spare me from the nightmares she had to experience.

But I have one that remains to this day. It was an experience that terrified me and one I realize now could have meant a much different life, or even possibly death, if it had gone wrong.

I have broken, fragmented memories of that little wooden house, the bright white fields of cotton, the white men who always watched us a little too closely, and the late-night talks, tears, and arguing from my parents who were obviously afraid of something. Even at three years old, I was old enough to understand that something wasn't right with my parents, and it scared me almost as much as whatever scared them.

One night, they were up extra late and I heard them talking. Even as I strained to listen, fearful of getting caught, I couldn't understand what they were discussing. All I knew was that the next day my father was gone, having told the baron and his men that he had business off the land that needed tending. The men who came to the door didn't appear to be too happy about that, but they let it go, assuming he wouldn't abandon his wife and child.

The truth of the matter was that it was riskier for my dad to try to escape than it was for us. As a laborer, he was more valuable, and an attempt to escape was not an option due to the contract my parents had. The consequences for such an attempt could essentially be whatever the baron deemed appropriate, even death.

The plan was that my mother and I would follow my father a few days later. Perhaps sensing something wasn't right, the men were back the next day, questioning where my father was with my mother offering the same innocent, vague response.

"He's takin' care of business outta town and will be back later this week," she said. But this time, the baron and his men weren't so sure. They had a sense my father had escaped and that we were planning to leave, as well. They staked a couple of men outside the door to make sure we weren't going anywhere. From what I can remember my mother saying, they also had their dogs with them, tied up but at the ready.

My mother was more scared than I ever saw her in my entire life, and that in turn frightened me more than anything. I cried myself to sleep that night, terrified, worried about my mother, wanting my father, and wondering what was happening.

* * *

"Willie, Willie, wake up," my mother whispered. Her voice was cracking, and as I slowly wiped the sleep out of my eyes, I could see her eyes were huge. She was sweating and breathing heavily. "Willie, come on, wake up. We're leaving."


"Shh!" she said with a stern look. Now was not the time for questions.

My mother put some clothes on me and grabbed me, securing me in her arms around her waist. We didn't have very many belongings in our place, but I noticed the ones we did have, she was ignoring. There was no time. There was no space. She didn't have enough arms to grab all she wanted. She had mere seconds and could only afford to grab the thing most important to her — me.

My mother had an instinct that tonight would be the one and only chance we would have to escape. As my mother lay in bed with her eyes open, she had begun to hear a deep snoring outside. In fact, she heard two deep snores. The guards had fallen asleep.

It was now or never.

Everything happened so fast from the moment my mother threw me around her waist. We quickly and quietly slipped out the back, my mother simply shooting me a look, begging me to stay quiet no matter what. I knew better. Any noise could startle the guards or their dogs. Then we were running, my mother's breath quickening and the tiniest of moans coming from her as she ran in a state of sheer panic and terror.

I was crying now, bumping up and down against her hip as she ran, feeling the branches and leaves whip against my face as we ran through the woods that surrounded our property. I could feel her heart beating at a rapid pace that scared me even more.

"Momma, what's going on?" I cried.

But again, she just shushed me, saving her breath and exerting everything she could in her running. Eventually, we could hear voices faintly in the distance, back the way we came. They didn't sound happy.

My mother, a former athlete herself, began pushing even harder, running at a full sprint even as I weighed her small frame down. If they found us, who knows what they would have done?

The plan was for my father to find someone willing and ready to pick us up in a truck on a specific road. However, we were supposed to have been there earlier than we were. My mother prayed the truck was still there.

It was.

We were taken back to my grandparents' place in Lisbon. Ironically, they also lived on a farm in a sharecropper situation. However, they had been fortunate enough to find owners who were fair, and we were welcomed. The nightmare was over.

* * *

When I was in my early teens, there was an incident in the news about something tragic that happened on a sharecropping parcel, and it bothered my mother. I asked her what was wrong and she broke down, crying and telling me the whole story. It was then that I started to put together the pieces of the memory from the night we escaped.

I remember asking her once if she was ever scared after we escaped that the men would come looking for us, and she simply said, "No."

But then again, that was my mother, the woman who dared to grab her child and dash through the woods beyond fear of punishment or worse to a better life, a better opportunity. My mother, Nodie Davis, was and always will be the strongest and most influential person in my life.

She was a small, petite, beautiful woman with the class, grace, and elegance of a lady and the glare, voice, and attitude of a spitfire. She was also extremely competitive, never wanting to lose at anything, a personality trait I inherited. A track star in high school, her real passion was basketball. Despite her height, she was a fast and shifty 5'7" guard and apparently a standout in the sport. She often told us kids that if colleges at the time had offered hoops scholarships to women, she probably could have gotten a full ride. Unfortunately, she never had a chance to go.

Instead she turned her focus to her kids, raising us with that same energy, passion, and competitive spirit. It didn't matter what we were doing, we were told to give it our best. It was what was expected, always. She pushed us to always try harder, to want the best out of our lives, and to always be strong — a lesson she was forced to learn herself when we were all still young.

My father was a tall, slender man, an athlete himself whose passion was the game of baseball. He was a guy who always wanted to provide the support his family needed, but he never really had the means, the education, or the know-how to do it. My father always seemed stressed out, very rarely smiling or happy. He was a frustrated man — frustrated at the cards life had dealt him and at the mistakes he had made.

I was never very close to my father, at least not when I was a child. I eventually reconnected with him much later in life and developed a relationship with him of sorts, though I never considered it a father-son relationship. He was gone so much when I was a child, performing a series of odd jobs, be it on the local farms, the oil fields, or wherever a young black man could find good, honest work. He was typically gone by the time I got up in the morning and came back after I went to sleep.

He had no real hobbies, interests, or friends from what I could see. He was not affectionate, which isn't to say he didn't love his children. He simply didn't show it. The same went with any affection toward my mother. They simply seemed to co-exist, always worried about their living situation, how they were going to possibly stay afloat, and what prospects, if any, the future held.


Excerpted from Closing the Gap by Willie Davis, Jim Martyka, Andrea Erickson Davis. Copyright © 2012 Willie Davis and Andrea Erickson Davis. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Willie Davis is a businessman and a former NFL football star who played with the Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers. He was ranked by the Sporting News as one of the top 100 greatest football players. He lives in Los Angeles. Jim Martyka is a professional freelance writer, a ghostwriter, and an editor. He lives in Los Angeles. Andrea Erickson Davis is a professional freelance writer, editor, artist, and community activist based in Southern California. Bart Starr is a Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback who led the Green Bay Packers to five championships in the 1960s under head coach Vince Lombardi. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama.

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