It Seems Like Only Yesterday

It Seems Like Only Yesterday

It seems like only yesterday. Walking down the block of concrete down to the then glistening artificial turf of Cyclone Stadium moved a man diminutive in size, but gigantic in heart. Armed with merely a 5'8 185 pound frame, he didn't look like much of a football player. But he was a warrior. His definition of war-paint meant eye-black and a breathe-right strip above his nose.

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 contact."

 

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 KO'd.

 

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 yesterday.

***********************

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 from Miami.

 

"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 work with."

 

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 did.

 

In Dan McCarney's first game at Iowa State, Davis was asked to begin the power lifting.

40 carries, 291 yards, three touchdowns and a 36-21 win over Ohio later and the legend had penned his first chapter.

 

"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, Davis had 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 said.

 

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 said.

 

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 New York,' Kroeschell said.

 

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 said.

 

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 said.

 

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 record, Troy 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 changed everything.

 

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 said.

 

After the game, Troy was asked how he would celebrate:

 

"I'm going to rest."

 

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 Troy couldn't 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 us."

 

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 ISU."

 

"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 words.'

 

"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 said.

 

A decade later and those words ring truer than ever.  

 

 

 

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