When asked if he donned the
breathe-right strip for intimidation, he replied, “No, it helps me breathe
better.” Functionality over flash. Substance over style.
He wasn’t fast. He wasn’t big. He
wasn’t powerful. Quite simply, he was a running back.
And ten years later, the legend
and legacy of Troy Davis lives on.
How time flies. A decade has
already passed since the Great Troy last rumbled out of the Iowa State spotlight.
“Troy was the ultimate warrior,” said Eric Heft, Iowa State’s long-time color analyst. “When
most backs know they are going to get hit, they attempt to avoid the tackler,
usually unsuccessfully. But Troy was aggressive, and when he knew contact
was coming, he would lower his shoulder and initiate
The former all-state wrestler
needed every ounce of toughness to survive thousands of miles from his Miami home. After a
freshman year that saw him muster only 35 carries and 180 yards for a team that
didn’t win a game, it looked like Davis was on a sinking ship. But, the fighter
in him didn’t give up.
“When he hit you, you STAYED HIT.
He was basically Mike Tyson in shoulder pads,” said John Walters, voice of the
Cyclones and sports director at WOI-TV.
Just like one of his famous runs,
Davis kept on
fighting after his frustrating freshman year. And he didn’t step out of the ring
until every record in the Iowa State history books was
Davis set a precedent that will
probably never be matched. He rushed for over 2,000 yards in a season not once,
but twice; becoming the fifth and sixth ever running back to do so in NCAA
history. And the first ever to rush for 2,000 yards in back-to-back years. It
may not have been evident at the time, but Davis paved the path for current Cyclone teams
to reach improbable levels of success.
It seems like only
Little did Dan McCarney know what
he had inherited when he took the Iowa State head coaching position in 1995.
Along with decrepit facilities, fledgling tradition, a hapless fan base, and a
winless football team, McCarney oversaw the quiet, mighty mouse running back
“Off the field he was an extremely
soft spoken person,” said Tom Kroeschell, Iowa State’s director of media relations.
“Troy had great
work ethic, he was going to do whatever you asked him to do. It made him easy to
If you would have told Troy he would have to carry the entire Iowa State football program on his back, he
probably would have nodded without saying a word.
Essentially, that’s what he
In Dan McCarney’s first game at
Iowa State, Davis was asked to begin the power
40 carries, 291 yards, three
touchdowns and a 36-21 win over Ohio later and the legend had penned his first
“I can't remember a running
performance that was quite that good. I've seen a lot of them, but I don't
remember any one running back that was better than that. I just thought he was
sensational,” McCarney said after the game in 1995.
Fortunately for Coach Mac,
several encore performances in store.
Three weeks later on September 23,
Davis became the
first Cyclone to ever break the 300 yard barrier, gaining 302 yards on just 35
carries. And he even sat out the final quarter.
“You see all the things he did and
most of the time there was no hole there, and he still made a play,” Kroeschell
Game after 100 yard game,
Troy put up numbers never seen at Iowa State: 180, 203, 202, 121, 183. He piled
up yardage and the fans piled in to see him.
“Everybody was like ‘they may have
way more losses than wins, but I want to see what Troy does’,” Kroeschell
With one game left in the 1995
season, a road contest at Missouri, Troy needed 170 yards to
reach 2,000 yard immortality. 180 yards later and he had become the first
sophomore to ever accomplish the feat. Yet, questions remained about his Heisman
candidacy, after the Cyclones finished 1995 with only three wins.
“I think we made it over the hump
when Craig James, who then was on ESPN College Gameday, said ‘Troy, if you get 2,000 yards, I will pay your way to
Craig James wouldn’t have to reach
into his pockets. Davis finished among the top
five Heisman vote getters and in return, received an all-expense paid trip to
New York and
the Downtown Athletic Club. He was able to bring along his parents and
god-parents who hadn’t seen him play all year. It was a dream come true. The
hard work had paid off.
“It was such a great experience
for him and Iowa
State football,” Kroeschell
Davis finished fifth in the voting, but
was in the company of sixty years worth of Heisman winners. At that point he
made up his mind. He was determined after Eddie George won the trophy, that he
would be the one holding the Heisman next year.
“In ’95, our goal when we were in
New York, was to tell people about Troy. We didn’t have a Big
12 TV contract, we didn’t have a good record, so people didn’t see him very
much, especially in places like New York and
Los Angeles. We
did everything we could to get the word out,” Kroeschell
In order for Troy to achieve his goal
of winning the Heisman, he still needed to perform on the field.
After starting 1996 with a 1-2
wasn’t near the pace needed to get back to the 2,000 yard level. Through three
games, he only had 539 yards and was on pace to fall short of his destination.
With the rigorous Big 12 schedule in the distance and teams concentrating solely
on stopping him, things appeared grim. But one afternoon in late September
September 28, 1996. With 45,000
fans and the ‘TD-O-Meter’ watching, Troy delivered the best performance ever by a
Cyclone running back. 41 carries, 378 yards. Only two other players in NCAA
history had gained more yardage in a football game. The remarkable thing was
Troy needed every yard as Iowa State
came back from down a touchdown to defeat Missouri. In the fourth quarter alone,
Troy ran 16
times for 175 yards and 2 TDs to salt away the win.
“I was in the stands that day with
my family, and I had never seen anything like it. It was unbelievable,” Walters
After the game, Troy was asked how he
“I’m going to
A statement so simple and so
practical, it left everybody speechless.
Cyclone Nation would be treated to
many more memorable performances from the mighty mite. In his final game in a
Cyclone uniform, he ran for 225 yards to once again do the unthinkable: break
the 2,000 yard barrier. But this time he one-upped himself, he decided 2,000
wasn’t good enough, instead he ran for an awe-inspiring 2,185 yards.
The only two men who have ran for
more yardage in a year won the Heisman trophy and are in the NFL Hall-of-Fame.
Barry Sanders and Marcus Allen.
It appeared like Troy had actually reached
his impossible goal of winning the Heisman.
“We really made a legitimate run
at it. People knew about him, but we weren’t on TV much at all. It made it
difficult,” Kroeschell said.
But, there was one defender
overcome--the east-coast media.
“Florida, with Danny Wuerffel, had such success
as a team. If they would have lost a couple games, or he had a four interception
game, we might have been able to pull it off,” Kroeschell said. “They give you a
vote packet that divides the nation in six sections, and we carried every
section of the country, except the east coast. And on the east coast, he crushed
Second place never felt so
disappointing. Davis earned 1,174 votes to Wuerffel's 1,363.
It was the closest Heisman vote in 11 years.
Davis became the first and second back
to rush for 2,000 yards and not win the Heisman.
Ironically, both Davis and
Wuerffel were drafted by the Saints in that April’s draft. This time Davis was picked first.
Ten years later and Troy Davis’
legacy still holds strong. Although he didn’t win many games, Davis’ influence on the
Cyclone football program is immeasurable.
“He was such a windfall for the
program. He gave people a reason to care beyond wins and losses,” Kroeschell
said. “He got the word out about Iowa State football and Dan McCarney. The
players we recruited when Troy was here, those guys ended up as seniors
on the Insight.com bowl team in 2000. He was a huge factor in building the
program. Here we are now, five bowl games in six years.”
“Other terrific running backs
would follow, and ISU became a more attractive choice for offensive linemen
too,” Walters said. “Mac will always be grateful to Troy for what he meant to
“Troy helped put Cyclone football back on the
map after many years,” Heft said.
For a man who didn’t say much at
all, Davis was
the personification of the proverb, ‘Actions speak louder than
“What Troy did, had never been
done. And that speaks for itself,” Kroeschell said.
Greatness isn’t often appreciated
until many moons down the road, but Davis, as always, is the exception to the rule.
“Sometimes you don't realize what
you have until it's gone, but Pete (Taylor) and I knew what we were watching was
something special---a once in a lifetime type of back,” Heft
A decade later and those words
ring truer than ever.