Senior College Football Columnist

Stubbornness, determination serve Davis well in latest comeback


Before spring practice, after his latest rehab stint, Davis ran a blazing 4.22 40. (Getty Images)  
Before spring practice, after his latest rehab stint, Davis ran a blazing 4.22 40. (Getty Images)  

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- The first thing you think about Knile Davis is: brittle -- peanut brittle -- when it comes to the Arkansas tailback's skeletal structure. Apply pressure, it snaps.

"Obviously," said Arkansas head athletic trainer Matt Summers said, "he's had these bone issues."

Those issues have included five significant broken bones in a three-year, 10-month period. With Davis, you can't tell the breaks without a scorecard. The right ankle has been broken twice. The left ankle once. Both the left and right collarbones have snapped. All since October 2007. The last mind-numbing, will-sapping crack came in August 2011 during preseason drills. Left ankle. On the brink of a breakout season, another bone broke. Out for the season.

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"I heard it," said Davis, whose comeback story has been a run to daylight during these dark times at Arkansas. "I knew it was broke. I just didn't know how bad it was."

It was bad. Torn ligaments meant a lengthy rehab.

Following a 10-win, Sugar Bowl season in 2010, Arkansas was ready to challenge for the SEC West and perhaps more in 2011. Turns out that without Davis, Arkansas might have exceeded those expectations. Going into the last week of the regular season Arkansas was third in the BCS behind LSU and Alabama. The 11 wins in 2012 were the most for the Hogs since Lou Holtz' Orange Bowl squad in 1977.

Arkansas' running game that was supposed to be shattered along with Davis' ankle, dipped only slightly. The Hogs rushed for 149 less yards than in 2010 when Davis ran for 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns.

"I was low, I was frustrated, I was mad," he said. "But I couldn't do anything about it."

While the Hogs announced their return to the national scene, there was another, personal comeback reserved for Davis alone. Two-hour rehab sessions, six days a week. The trampoline was the worst, jumping on it improved the ankle's strength but the pain, well, God it hurt.

Davis became America's Guest on Arkansas road trips. On game days, Summers had him using hotel treadmills and pools to strengthen the ankle while his teammates prepped for war.

"I had just gotten over getting butterflies in my stomach every time he would call," said Davis' mother Regina Gardner-Morgan. "When he called me last summer, I had just gotten over answering the phone. He's like, 'Mom, I broke my ankle.'"

"Knile," she said, "you don't have to do this."

Meaning, another return. Another rehab. Not again. Not after another bad break, literally and figuratively. Not after the heartbreak of watching his beloved stepfather Warren Morgan die of lung cancer in August 2009 at age 44. Not while holding the hand of the man who, at the time he passed, preferred to have Barry White playing in the background. One of the selections: Never, Never Gonna Give You Up.

But Knile Davis decided he did have to do this -- again. Gladly. He had to prove wrong all the recruiters who dropped off him when he was injured in high school. He had to do it for the doctors who messed up after that first broken ankle in September 2008. Turns out the metal plate and screws they put in were too small. They had to go in again. Like always, Davis accepted his fate.

He had to do it to prove he is indeed the SEC's next great runner. He had to do it for Arkansas, for the now-disgraced man who showed faith in him, Bobby Petrino.

"I do miss coach," he said.

He had to do it for a family that believes, someday, Knile Davis and his incredible talents will provide. It wouldn't be the first time. Mom named him after the mighty river of the same name, if not the same spelling. Adding a "K" to "Nile" allowed her son to have the same initials as his biological father.

And, yes, mother hoped son would, like the river, be deep, mighty and strong. At age 14, home in Missouri City, Texas, a self-motivated Davis got a job at Whataburger to help out the family after mom lost her job for a brief time. The modest pay allowed him to be somewhat self-sufficient, buying a car, gas, clothes and food.

The stakes, and future, are different this time. Even while recovering from the latest broken ankle, Davis went through the NFL's draft evaluation process in January. Despite all the previous damage, he was rated a second or third-round pick. That meant there was a decision to be made.

If bones were going to keep breaking, he might as well get paid for it.

"You know what Warren would have said about that," Gardner-Morgan reminded her son, "He would not go for that."

"Warren was a forceful person in his life," she said later. "Now that he has died it's kind of like an unsaid thing that [Knile] knows what his visions are and he's going to carry them through."

Davis recalls that loyalty, that commitment every time he opens his wallet. He still uses a credit card that is in his stepdad's name. It was eventually decided that Davis would provide, but not yet. He stayed in school.

Arkansas is better for it. John L. Smith was hired as interim coach to try to hold together what might be Arkansas' best team in 35 years. It helped that one of the best qualities of the 6-foot, 226-pound package named after that river has been stubbornness.

"He was difficult to raise because that, too," said Gardner-Morgan.

It is a trait that may serve her son well. By staying, Davis could be the key to beating Alabama and LSU, as both visit Arkansas this season. By staying, we may hear words never spoken in these parts: The road to the SEC West goes through Fayetteville. By staying, Davis could become the greatest alliterative Knile ever to win the Heisman. Iowa's Nile Kinnick won the 1939 award.

It has taken a diverse village to get Davis back to this point. It is made up of that loving bosom of a family. Warren Morgan has done his part, installing the respect and a work ethic even though he had no formal training in workout techniques. Young Knile was made to jump over four-foot tall fences because they were there. Morgan would tie a 70-pound punching bag around the youngster's waist and have him attack a hill.

It is a village populated by intimidating brutes challenging Davis to return once more from injury. Arkansas strength coach Jason Veltkamp was a plucky 250-pound center who still gets inspiration from playing in Carroll College's option offense in the 1990s.

"I ran out and chased linebackers and cut them down every single play for four years," Veltkamp said proudly.

That explains why he respects the hell out of Davis. A 2011 end-of-spring meeting that was supposed to last 10 minutes ended up going for an hour. Who knew what the future held? But coming off that 1,300-yard season, Davis posed a philosophical question to Veltkamp that day: How do I lead?

The answer took a while because it wasn't simple.

"I'd never been asked that question straight out before," Veltkamp said. "When he does open his mouth, people listen."

The strength coach explained that sometimes leading doesn't mean yelling. It means encouraging a teammate on the sideline. It means positive body language when the team is trailing. For Davis it was all those things after breaking his ankle again. It also meant being back in the weight room working his upper body five days after the injury.

"I didn't want to get skinny," Davis said. "You get skinny laying down."

Oh, and circumstances have proven that he is a lot more unlucky than brittle. Summers called the frequent breaks "freak accidents." One of those collarbones fractured only because Davis "just landed right," according to the trainer. The latest injury last August occurred when a 300-pound lineman fell and rolled over the ankle.

Still, the training staff did want to check out those bones that continued to break. They took Davis across campus last year and had a density scan done. Turns out, his bone strength was actually above normal.

Before spring practice, Davis then ran a 4.22 40, at least on one stopwatch. Coaches rounded it up to 4.33 because there were multiple timers that day and, well, he just couldn't be that fast a few months after the break.

"It's almost too fast," he said.

He is back, almost. Davis was wearing a big smile last month following the spring game. The staff that held the program together in the immediate aftermath of Bobby Petrino's firing threw their star tailback, well, a bone. He had been allowed to run one play. Davis started in motion, ran a route, wasn't thrown to and wasn't hit.

That also meant nothing broke. For now, time can't pass fast enough.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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