Back before Terrell Davis became "TD," before he would chat with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" after earning a Super Bowl MVP or get fitted for a mustard jacket to wear to Canton, Ohio, he made a promise that didn't seem plausible to keep at the time.
Ed. note: This feature originally ran on June 30. Don't miss Terrell Davis and all the 2017 honorees being inducted to the Hall of Fame at Canton Saturday night. You can find all the info you need to know on the induction here.
Davis, a San Diego native, had just finished his college career after transferring to Georgia and was hopeful of getting drafted, though far from certain of it, while trying to pick an agent to represent him. One such meeting would end up resonating far beyond the rest, a conversation that Davis still vividly recalls to this day; one that served as a shocking harbinger of an improbable Hall of Fame career.
Davis' football journey will be fully recognized upon his induction next month, with the man whom he once spent roughly eight hours chatting with at an otherwise nondescript New Jersey diner over 20 years ago now considered a lifelong friend, and entrusted with presenting him when the Class of 2017 is enshrined on Aug. 5.
The last few months have been a blur for Davis, who went from Long Beach State to Georgia (after Long Beach terminated its football program) to being selected 196th overall by the Broncos to going on one of the most prolific four-year tears of anyone in NFL history. Injuries would limit his longevity (he played just seven seasons), but few runners have ever dominated like Davis did in his prime, and no one was better as he led Denver to back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997-98.
The promise that proved prescient
Recently, Davis has been tied up with jacket fittings, bust sculptures and making ticket and travel arrangements, with enshrinement day fast approaching. None of it seemed possible back in December of 1994, when Davis was just hoping to get a shot at a training camp somewhere after injuries marred his final college season, which is why the words of his future agent, Neil Schwartz, caught him so off guard.
Schwartz, who had just landed his initial first-round pick Wayne Gandy a year ago, was a rising young agent who'd become borderline infatuated with Davis. He'd heard from some of the running back's former Long Beach teammates about his ability, and a few general managers mentioned to him they thought Davis had immense potential. Schwartz loved the kid's attitude and mentality.
So the New York native brought Davis north for a recruiting trip, took him on a quick tour of New York City. Then, with Schwartz living in Jersey at the time, they did what people do there: capped the evening off at a local diner. They ended up locked in conversation until nearly sunrise the following day, sharing dreams and aspirations, before Schwartz made a request he'd never considered making before, and would never make again after leaving the Plaza Diner in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
"I remember he and I sat in this diner for like eight hours, and when we came out it was like three or four in the morning," Davis told me amid his HOF planning this week. "And we talked about everything, life, we just had a great connection. And actually what happened was, when we left that diner that night -- or really that morning -- Neil asked me to promise him something. And I was like, 'Sure man, whatever.' And he said, 'Promise me that when you make it to the Hall of Fame you'll allow me to present you.'
"Now, he said this way before I was drafted. I had no teams. I had no nothing. I was a guy from Georgia without a whole lot of people clamoring for me, and that showed me that he had confidence in me. And for him to have the confidence to say that … when somebody has that kind of confidence to say that, it was great for me to hear."
Schwartz had done his homework on Davis and was smitten enough with him to disregard his own mantra at the time -- which was to only represent offensive and defensive linemen. He wanted guys with a grunt's attitude; dealing with prima donnas and drama was out. But the more he watched his film and talked to evaluators he trusted, he was convinced that the no-name runner who had been trapped behind Garrison Hearst at Georgia could become a Pro Bowl back. After making two trips to Athens to meet with Davis and his family, he was consumed with landing him.
"I don't think we left that diner until five in the morning," said Schwartz, who went over every part of Davis' winding college career with him, the injuries and setbacks. "I'll never forget it my entire life. And the thing that's crazy is I never asked any player that. It was just something I felt about him.
"I just realized that there was greatness written all over this kid. You think about it, I've represented a lot of first-rounders (Darrelle Revis among them) and I've never told one that I think you're going to the Hall of Fame. And it's like when I met (Grammy-winning artist) Lauryn Hill, you can just feel greatness. When I started managing Lauryn, it was the same kind of feeling. ... Of course, he looked at me like I was crazy."
The memories shared between player and agent stacked up nearly as quickly as the Denver star's pro accolades: Davis eventually making a three-second cameo in one of Hill's music videos (back when she was with The Fugees); the men sharing a crazy evening together at the Grammys ("My wife couldn't make it out to California for them so Terrell was my date," Schwartz quips); Schwartz helping Davis get a highly lucrative endorsement deal with pharmaceutical giant Novartis, of all companies, after one of their drugs helped Davis overcome a migraine mid-Super Bowl to lead Denver to its first Lombardi Trophy in just his third season.
And that bond will now be punctuated by Schwartz presenting his friend in Canton.
A partnership that almost didn't happen
Over the years, as Schwartz worked behind the scenes to help champion Davis' Hall of Fame credentials in an induction process that can be both cruel and political, he thought perhaps Davis might still select someone else to present him if or when that day actually came. He would have understood perfectly if he had.
But Davis says he never wavered, and though he considered some other friends and mentors, Schwartz was the man for the job.
"He's been great for me my entire pro career," said Davis, who topped 2,000 yards rushing in 1998. "And we've had a great friendship and I felt it was only appropriate that he be the one to present me."
"The fact that he's still giving me the privilege is just incredible to me," Schwartz said. "I am totally humbled and honored. He could have said, 'Hey, Neil, I know I said that 23 years ago, but I have to give the honor to somebody else.' And everybody would have understood."
Of course, when they finished their epic chat in that Bergen County, NJ diner, Schwartz didn't think their journey would take such a circuitous path. Oddly enough, despite their immediate connection, Davis actually initially signed with another agent upon the urging of his girlfriend at the time and some family members.
"When we left that diner I thought, no way this guy is not going to sign with me," said Schwartz, who went on to national diner fame when "Hard Knocks" captured his late-night negotiations with the Jets to end a Revis contract holdout. "We hit it off, and when he didn't sign with me I felt heartbroken, because I felt we had a great synergy and the connection was there. It was all real -- he was the kind of kid I wanted to represent, and he's great person. So I was hurt, but I only wished him the best of luck."
"What I remember most about when I picked an agent is even though it wasn't Neil, he never bashed him or anything," Davis said. "And my girlfriend and I would call Neil all the time and Neil would answer our questions and he was like, 'Don't do this. Have your agent do that. Don't sign that.' And it was all good advice. But it was never like, 'Forget them.' He never talked bad about my agent, and I was thinking the whole time, like, this is the guy for me."
Joining the NFL and making a change
As fate would have it, the player and agent would run into each other several times at the old Blue-Gray college all-star game, which used to be held in December. Davis ended up being roommates there with another future Hall of Fame back, Curtis Martin, and Schwartz only became more and more impressed.
Calls from Davis became more frequent. When the Broncos selected Davis in the sixth round, he was uneasy and concerned, going in just the second-to-last round possible. Schwartz counseled him that it was actually a blessing in disguise, with new coach Mike Shanahan bringing with him a blocking scheme from San Francisco that was perfectly suited to Davis. The depth chart was weak and Davis could duplicate the exploits of Roger Craig, Schwartz insisted.
"So, then a few weeks later he calls me and says, basically, that I want you to do my contract -- what should the numbers be?" Schwartz said. "So I break it down for him and tell him what to ask for and I'm obviously not charging him and I'm not representing him, but that's the contract he ends up signing. I think he knew in his heart of hearts that there were a lot of outside influences on him in the agent-selection process."
Finally that summer, with Davis securing a role on special teams, and with no big deals anywhere in sight and his future uncertain, and with the commission of his rookie deal still entitled to his other agent, the running back called Schwartz once more.
"When I made the team in Denver I fired my agent during training camp," Davis said, "and I called Neil up and said I wanted him to come on board, and he cried like a baby."
Schwartz disputes that account, ever-so-slightly.
"Then he calls me up during camp and says, 'I'm ready to get married,'" Schwartz said. "That's kind of my line with these guys -- don't get married just to have divorces. … And, yeah, I did cry. I teared up. I don't know about crying like a baby, but I definitely got choked up and I teared up, and he could tell that over the phone.
"You've got to understand, from the moment I met him this kid he was as humble as ever. He's just a good, humble person, and you know what, I fell in love with the kid. He's always been an interesting person in the sense of you could just talk to him about life and he always wanted to know how he could get better and how to be successful. TD was always thirsty for knowledge on the field and off the field."
Keeping a promise
Schwartz never really brought up the promise they made at that diner as Davis achieved greatness. But it would naturally come up occasionally.
When Davis, who had eight rushing touchdowns in four playoff games en route to the Super Bowl in 1997, finally made it into the semifinal stage of the process a few years back, Schwartz was by his side.
"When we got into the room (where finalists wait to find out if they were inducted), he said to me, 'You know you're still doing my induction speech,'" Schwartz said. "And I was like, 'Wow.' I wasn't going to bring it up to him, but he brought it up to me and I had goosebumps, chills, that he was going to give me that honor."
Still, that was three years ago, so this past February, when Davis and Schwartz were among the other semifinalists again, the agent expected nothing and said nothing.
"He was there, he was right there in the room with me," Davis said. "Of course, he remembered (the promise), and I remembered it. It was great."
"When he got the knock at the door, when he knew that he got in, he looked at me and goes, 'You're on, we made it,'" Schwartz said. "It was typical TD. The word he used was 'we.' TD always gives credit to other people. And I said, 'You made it.' And he said, 'No, we made it, and you are doing the speech.'"
According to Joe Horrigan, executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, players choosing their agent to present them is "not as uncommon as you might think." Horrigan said it first happened with Mike Haynes in 1997 and most recently with Cortez Kennedy in 2012 (when he asked the widow of his former agent, Robert Fraley, to present him). The other two times it's occurred came in 2011, when running back Marshall Faulk (Rocky Arceneaux) and corner Deion Sanders (the late Eugene Parker) both had their agents present them. Exclusive company, for sure.
Getting ready for Canton
The process has changed some now, so instead of reading long speeches the presenters are interviewed by NFL Films, who produce edited clips to be played at the ceremony. Schwartz's visit from them is set for July 14, while Davis has already sent his tailored mustard jacket back to the Hall of Fame and is trying to stay on top of the whirlwind going on around him.
It's the culmination of lots of work, shattering the odds, for Davis and Schwartz.
For the agent, it ranks among his greatest professional achievements of his career, along with Davis winning Super Bowl MVP and with Hill and The Fugees thanking him in their Grammy-winning speeches. "Words can't describe it, I'm speechless," Schwartz said. "I teared up again. The same tears of joy I had when he told me he was going to sign with me, are the same tears of joy I had when he asked me to induct him."
For Davis, who amassed 6,413 yards in his first four seasons alone (an average of 1,603 per season) with a whopping 56 touchdowns in that span, it cements his place among the legends of the game. The man who rushed for a staggering 1,140 yards in just eight career postseason games -- averaging an unthinkable 5.6 yards per carry with 12 rushing touchdowns -- is about to join the immortals, keeping a promise along the way.
"There are definitely times when I am still in disbelief," Davis said. "It's like I cannot believe this is happening, man. You start having these moments and you reach these peaks that get better and better with time as you get closer and closer to that weekend.
"And then the jacket shows up and it's like, 'Oh my goodness, I cannot believe this.' All this stuff is happening, and every time it happens I just can't believe that it's real. It really is surreal. It's like you know it's happening, but you're like, 'Damn, it's really happening now. It's on now.'"