Revisiting the Legend of Brian Davis
Starkey, Joe, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
The master plan at Pitt, looking ahead to the 1985 season, was to build college football's ultimate backfield.
Brian Davis, the Parade Magazine National High School co-Player of the Year, would line up behind a man-eating shark of a fullback named Craig "Ironhead" Heyward.
Panthers coach Foge Fazio even toyed with the idea of incorporating some wishbone plays, using Davis, Heyward and another talented back named Charles Gladman.
"That would have been interesting," Fazio says.
It wasn't meant to be.
Heyward established himself as a collegiate star only after missing the '85 season because of a disciplinary suspension. He went on to a productive NFL career before his untimely death, at age 39, from a recurring brain tumor.
Gladman also made it to the NFL, as did another Pitt running back recruit from that era, A.B. Brown, who transferred to West Virginia because the Panthers' backfield was so crowded.
Fazio was fired after the '85 season but became a respected NFL coordinator.
As for Davis ... well, what did become of Brian Davis?
I began to ponder that question after posing one of my own a month ago on my Saturday morning radio show on ESPN 1250-AM:
"Who is the greatest high school football player you've ever seen?"
The subject arose because people were talking about Jeannette quarterback Terrelle Pryor as perhaps the best local scholastic player of the past 40 years.
I expected listeners to mention Pryor, Tony Dorsett, Bill Fralic, LaVar Arrington, Dan Marino and others. Some did. But the majority said "Brian Davis" -- and they weren't all from Davis' hometown of Washington, Pa., where he was a high school legend.
That stoked my curiosity, having heard only passing references to Davis over the years. A conversation with his old coach, Guy Montecalvo, got the ball rolling.
Montecalvo spoke of how every college coach in the country wanted Davis. He remembered LSU's Bill Arnsparger strolling into Wash High in his alligator-skin cowboy boots and Nebraska's Tom Osborne - a PhD in educational psychology - commandeering Montecalvo's health class one day and teaching it.
Montecalvo, now the football coach and athletic director at Canon- McMillan, said Davis rushed for 4,400-plus yards and averaged 9.7 yards per carry in less than three full seasons. He also was a 5- foot-10 starting center on a state championship basketball team and a two-time state champ in the long jump.
This prompted a call to Bob Junko, Pitt's director of football relations and a decorated veteran of college football's recruiting wars.
Junko, a Washington native, was a key figure in bringing Davis to Pitt. He is not a man given to hyperbole, so I figured if there was a Davis myth to debunk, he'd debunk it.
When he worked at Tulsa and Texas Christian in the 1970s, Junko had recruited the likes of Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson and Dorsett.
Surely, Brian Davis was no match for such prodigious talents.
"Davis was right up there with them in athletic ability -- maybe a little more in some areas," Junko said. "Ain't too many I've been around who were quite up to par with the athletic ability he had."
Pitt broadcaster Bill Hillgrove had seen Davis tantalize Panthers fans with 298 yards on 60 carries as a freshman in 1985, before a shot to the hip against Rutgers ended his season after six games. People still talk about his 26-yard touchdown run against Boston College, before a crowd of 40,922 at Pitt Stadium.
"Most backs have to slow down to put moves on people," said Hillgrove, who called the game. "Dorsett was the only guy I'd ever seen who didn't. Well, Davis did a 360, and I don't think he slowed down to do it. I mean, it defied description. You could hear the gasp over the entire stadium."
Meantime, Montecalvo turned up an old black-and-white 16 mm film of Davis' best high school runs. …