As Wyatt Davis emerged as an All-America right guard last year in his first full season as an Ohio State starter, his grandfather was too ill to travel to see him play.
But Davis knew that his grandfather, Pro Football Hall of Famer Willie Davis, watched his games.
“His wife, Carol, would always send me a video of him after the game saying congratulations for some of our wins this year, and even at the end of the season of him saying how proud he was of me,” Davis said from his home in California during a conference call with reporters last week. “It was awesome. It almost made me tear up hearing that because he’s my idol.”
Willie Davis died April 15 at age 85.
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“It was honestly very tough when he passed, but unfortunately my granddad was kind of struggling with health for the past couple of years,” Wyatt Davis said.
Willie Davis was born in Lisbon, Alabama, and played for the legendary Eddie Robinson at Grambling. The Cleveland Browns drafted him in the 15th round in 1956 and then unwisely traded him to Green Bay after two seasons.
Davis didn’t miss a game in 10 years with the Packers as a five-time Pro Bowl defensive end when Green Bay was a dynasty under Vince Lombardi. Davis later became a member of the Packers’ board of directors and was a finalist for the NFL commissioner job in 1989.
“A lot of people don't know my granddad was more successful and made more earnings outside of football than he did when he was playing, and just that type of work ethic is inspiring,” Davis said. “He didn't let people put him in a box of just being an athlete. He broke outside of that box and was extremely successful. Growing up, he was always around, especially with me and my brother, he treated us so good. That's why it was so hard when he passed.”
Davis said he has seen film of his grandfather as a player.
“All I've got to say is thank God I didn't have to play against somebody like that to this point yet,” he said.
Davis was a five-star recruit entering Ohio State, so his grandfather’s genetics carried down. He said his grandfather and father also instilled in him a burning competitiveness with an emphasis on battling complacency and playing with toughness.
He remembers hearing “war stories” of how the elder Davis lost all his front teeth while sacking a quarterback because he wasn’t wearing a mouthpiece and yet kept playing.
“That's what you have to have playing football,” Davis said. “You've got to be tough, you’ve got to be physical and you’ve got to be nasty. That's what my granddad has told me playing the game.”
Despite his pedigree and blue-chip status, Wyatt Davis struggled early in his career at Ohio State. It wasn’t until he was thrust into a starting spot for the 2018 postseason when Demitrius Knox was injured that he fulfilled his promise.
Davis would likely have gone early in the NFL draft this year if he’d chosen to leave Ohio State. But he believes he has unfinished business. Last year’s heartbreaking College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Clemson remains an open wound, and Davis relishes the chance to be more of a leader.
Ohio State head strength coach Mickey Marotti recently described a speech Davis gave his teammates as the most inspiring he’d ever heard during a winter conditioning period.
“I mean, I had tears,” Marotti said. “I know a lot of other guys were teared up, and it meant so much.”
Marotti said that Davis spoke of replacing Knox in 2018 with the mindset not that it was his opportunity to shine personally but as a solemn responsibility not to let down his teammates. Now as a fourth-year junior, Davis is eager to impart what he has learned.
Davis said he wanted to “open his heart” and implore his teammates to do everything in their power so they didn’t feel the way they did after the Clemson loss.
“I was saying that the look in the seniors’ eyes, and they were crying, was something that I will never forget the rest of my life,” Davis said. “For some of those guys, it was their last time even playing a football game. That's how we went out.
“So I was just telling them right now, where we're at, this is the critical part of our season.”
That sense of responsibility is even more important now that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the Buckeyes to return home to continue their offseason preparation.
“We’re in a place where you’re on your own,” Davis said. “You have no one holding your hand. The coaches are still texting you, but no one’s really going to know what you’re doing beside you. So hopefully what I have said still resonates and people are using that as a reason to be accountable.
“I truly believe that we have a lot of guys on our team that have been accountable and have been going above and beyond working out right now.”
It’s a message that Davis got from his grandfather.
“I'm very appreciative, just like the rest of my family, of each second I was able to spend with him because, man, he was amazing,” he said.