ENGLEWOOD, COLO. -- Coming out of college as a productive but overlooked running back from the University of Georgia, former Bronco running back Terrell Davis was the 196thplayer taken in the 1995 NFL Draft.
As a late-round selection, Davis faced an uphill battle just to make Denver’s opening-day roster, much less earn himself a spot in the team’s Ring of Fame, during his first training camp in the summer of 1995.
“A lot of people didn't know much about him,” Linebackers Coach Richard Smith, who was the Broncos special teams coach at that time, said of Davis. “He came in here and we started off training camp, and I had him on every single special team.”
But that all changed on Sunday, Aug. 6, 1995, at 11 a.m. local time in the third quarter of the American Bowl in Tokyo.
In coverage for the kickoff, Davis went from under the radar to the top of the depth chart before San Fransico return man Tyronne Drakeford knew what hit him.
The rookie running back was the first Bronco to cross the 49ers 20 yard-line. He hit Drakeford with both ferocity and textbook form, lifting the ball carrier off his feet at the 20-yard line and landing atop the return man at the 17.
Assistant Special Teams Coach Keith Burns, who was playing in that game as a member of the Broncos, still vividly remembers his reaction.
“I was on the sideline,” Burns recalls. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s right up my alley.’ You know I love hits like that. … When the hit happened, it had everyone looking at the Jumbotron in Tokyo and just being amazed. You heard a lot of guys saying, ‘Who was that?’ It was definitely a hit that he’ll always be proud of because I think that might have been the last time he was on special teams. It’s a great impression. If that’s your first hit, it’s a way to go out for it to be your last hit.”
Burns said the aggression Davis showed on that hit was all the more notable because of Davis’s offensive position.
“To see an offensive guy go down there and do it, it shows the game does mean something to him,” Davis said. “He wants to make that impression, and like I said, he took full advantage of that opportunity that was presented to him. He didn’t know where he was on the depth chart but he got that opportunity in Tokyo and took advantage of it.”
Davis also proved he could impact the offensive side of the ball as he led the team with 46 rushing yards on 11 carries with a touchdown in Denver’s 24-10 victory.
Burns, who was entering his second season with the Broncos as a linebacker in 1995, harps on that tackle every offseason to help young players understand how quickly they can make names for themselves on special teams.
“We talk about having it happen here and it holds a little more weight,” Burns said of Davis’s tackle and subsequent rise to prominence. “Especially for the young guys coming in. Of course they look at depth charts and stuff like that but we try to take that out of it and we always show them that clip of TD.”
“Everybody might not have that story but it’s a realistic story,” Burns continued. “It’s a realistic chance and an opportunity that every young guy has when they walk in this building. I knew Davis because special teams is pretty much where I hung my hat. So I try to get to know all of the young guys and give them a tidbit here and there just to keep them into the game. It’s always good for them to know just as much as I know, thinking they’ll be able to help themselves when they get out there.”
Smith liked what he saw on the hit, but knew he might not get to see that again out of the rookie running back.
“I started bragging on him (to the rest of the staff),” Smith laughed. “That was the last time I saw him because the running backs coach decided to use him.”
Soon, Davis was on his way to an outstanding rookie season in which he torched opposing defenses for 1,117 yards rushing and seven touchdowns en route to finishing second in the NFL’s Rookie of the Year voting.
Davis’s story still carries weight in the Denver locker room as the calendar nears the 18th anniversary of that hit.
Special Teams Coordinator Jeff Rodgers said the tale of a Super Bowl MVP like Davis breaking into the league on special teams is a great motivational tool for former college stars entering the league as backups at their natural positions.
“We’ve shown the hit from America’s Game,” Rodgers said. “It helps to have Keith Burns in the building, who obviously played with all those guys. I think some guys come in this league and get discouraged because that’s their role initially, but as soon as they figure out they can be good at it and make an impact doing it and help our team win, usually it’s not a big deal at all. It’s just a little bit of a shock factor because they came in after being All-Americans and first team all-this or that. In college football (special teams) are not looked at the same way as it is in the NFL. When you’re good in the kicking game, it can make a difference.”
Though Smith is no longer a special teams coach, each of his linebackers is well aware that helping out in the game’s third phase, whether in coverage on kickoffs or in protection on PATs, is part of playing the position.
“The players know it's important to me,” Smith said of special teams. “I think Jeff Rodgers does a nice job. He's very demanding. He's very sharp in what he's doing. I was fortunate to be with him in Carolina and also last year here. He does a great job with them. The players know that I support whatever Jeff does.”
Most weeks, just three of the team’s linebackers get to start. Everyone else in the group is expected to make his presence felt as a special teamer.“Our guys are fully aware that if they're not a starter, they need to be starting on all four special teams,” Smith said. “If not, to me, that's a red flag where then you become expendable.”