Knile Davis: Strength To Carry On
The photographer asked for the Heisman pose.
Knile Davis squinted into the mid-morning sun and shook his head.
“Anything but that,” said the All-Southeastern Conference running back.
A brief, awkward silence followed in the north endzone of Reynolds Razorback Stadium, broken by a quiet, “Uh, OK,” from the photographer. He hadn’t expected the preseason All-American to turn down an opportunity to strike college football’s most iconic pose.
“I haven’t won it. If I win it, then I’ll give you a pose,” Davis said.
Five days later Davis broke his left ankle.
The injury, sustained in Arkansas’ first scrimmage of fall camp, ended his junior season before it began.
Now, Davis is watching from the sidelines as the Razorbacks climb in the polls and compete for a second consecutive BCS bowl berth. He has to persevere through frustration and disappointment.
That is nothing new.
Off the field, he took a job at a local Texas Whataburger at age 14 to help ease the burden for his family after his mother lost her job. At 18, he had to overcome the death of his stepfather.
On the gridiron, the broken ankle was the fifth major injury he has suffered in five years. Davis has also broken both his collarbone and left ankle twice.
He recognized the injury in August as soon as a lineman fell on his leg when he was tackled on an inside-zone run play.
“I knew it was broke because I know the sound of a break,” Davis said. “I knew what I was fixing to head into.”
The 6-foot, 226-pounder was named a preseason All-American by multiple publications over the summer after bursting onto the national scene with a 1,322-yard, 13-touchdown sophomore season in 2010, a campaign that earned him first-team All-SEC honors.
He was poised to improve on the big year in 2011, putting up impressive numbers in the weight room during the offseason. His 4.29 40-yard dash ranked third on the team, while his 415-pound bench press was the best of any Razorbacks non-lineman.
He closed his Facebook and Twitter accounts during the summer to avoid distractions.
“I did everything I could to prepare myself for the season,” Davis said. “It just didn’t work in my favor. It doesn’t work like we planned it all the time.”
The injury meant another grueling recovery from another setback.
He had only just arrived in the spotlight.
Growing Up Early
The stressed-out manager at Whataburger didn’t have much time to talk to insistent teenage Knile Davis over the din of the busy restaurant in Missouri City, Texas.
Davis, 14, wanted work. His mother, Regina Gardner, had lost a job and he decided to look for his own employment.
“Don’t worry about me,” he told his mom. “I’m going to take care of myself.”
He stopped by Whataburger after school, but the restaurant was too packed and understaffed for the manager to slow down and talk to Davis. He hurriedly told him he’d need to fill out paperwork and produce his Social Security number in order to get a job.
Less than two hours and a trip to Walmart later, Davis was back with the mandatory slippers to cover his shoes, working the broiler in the kitchen.
He needed a driver’s license and a car to get to work, though.
He was granted a hardship license, then bought a 1996 Ford Probe from a neighbor for $500.
The car didn’t run. The power steering was broken and it needed a new compressor and alternator.
“I got those cheap from a junkyard and got it running,” Davis said.
Davis used the money from Whataburger to pay for gas for the Probe, football equipment and haircuts, things his mom couldn’t afford. She couldn’t take Knile, her other son Kobe and her daughter Raegan back-to-school shopping, so Knile bought his own clothes.
The same thoughts ran through Gardner’s head, again and again.
“Why couldn’t this have happened to me when they were younger? They probably wouldn’t have remembered this.”
“They were aware of everything and it hurt my heart,” Gardner said.
Davis’ job was a blessing for her, though. It took some of the stress off her when she was between jobs.
“It tore me up, but he had to do that,” she said.
Gardner’s other children never asked for much growing up. ‘Oh, no. That’s OK, mom,’ they would answer when she asked if they wanted something extra.
“Knile always wanted to have stuff,” Gardner said. “Most of his childhood he had everything he needed and most of things he wanted.”
He was no longer the little kid. He became a good saver.
“A lot of times, we’d just be talking and he’d say, ‘Well, we need money for that,’” Gardner said. “Knile would say, ‘Well, I have the money.’ I’d ask, ‘How’d you get the money for that?’ ‘Well, I saved it.’”
Chasing the Dream
Warren Morgan looked for them in the stands of every small-town Louisiana gym at every high school basketball game he played in 1984.
His family was never there.
Morgan was a starting forward for the high school varsity basketball team in the southern Louisiana town of Crowley. The self-proclaimed “Rice Capital of America” is barely a speck on the map, with a population of less than 12,000 people.
Morgan’s parents separated when he was growing up. Neither showed up to watch him on the hardwood.
“He didn’t have a lot of support from home,” said Gardner, who married him in 2006. “I think he had that chance to turn it around for another kid and he tried to do that.”
Gardner had been separated from Kevin Davis, Knile’s biological father, since Knile was 6 years old. She met Morgan at a benefit volleyball game later that year.
Morgan and Davis quickly formed a bond. Both were tough, rugged and competitive.
“Knile idolized Warren in so many ways and when Warren said something it was like law,” Gardner said. “He wanted so bad to live up to whatever Warren expected.”
The two were inseparable. When Davis reached high school, they lifted weights in the family’s garage and ran bleachers at nearby Rice Stadium in Houston, less than half an hour from their home in Missouri City.
To Davis, Morgan became “Dad.”
“The main thing my dad always told me was just, ‘Never quit. Chase the dream,’” Davis said.
Morgan helped motivate Davis to recover from a broken collarbone his junior season of high school and a broken right ankle his senior year. Despite the injuries, Davis was considered one of the top players in the nation, ranked the No. 17 running back in the country by Rivals.com.
“He always defeated the challenges he had,” said Ronald Johnson, one of Davis’ high school football and track coaches. “For the size and speed he was as a high school athlete, you could tell he was something special.”
While schools like Texas A&M and LSU backed off in their recruitment of Davis, Arkansas stayed on the Fort Bend Marshall High School product, earning his verbal commitment in September 2008.
After Davis broke his left ankle in the second game of his senior season, the Razorbacks’ coaching staff encouraged him to graduate a semester early, so he could enroll at the UA and go through rehab with the trainers and strength and conditioning staff in the spring.
Davis attended his regular classes during the day and took additional courses at night to attain the credits required to graduate early.
“That was a lot for a kid his age,” Gardner said.
The family waited anxiously for Davis’ final grades to be posted, erupting with excitement when they learned he fulfilled the necessary requirements to graduate early.
Once on campus in Fayetteville in the spring of 2009, Davis quickly rehabbed his ankle and went through spring practice. That’s when he got the news Morgan had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.
His mind on the health of his stepfather, Davis competed for reps in a crowded backfield during spring practice until he re-broke the ankle, an injury sustained largely because the screws inserted after the first injury were too small.
It was then – after three major injuries in an 18-month span – that Davis considered quitting football. He started thinking about how his long-term health might be affected by his injuries.
“It was just crazy,” Davis said. “A lot of stuff hit me at one time. I hurt my ankle again and I was like, ‘Man, I’ve just got tough luck with this game.’”
Morgan and Gardner intervened.
“We would tell him, ‘Man, do you realize all that you have done? All that you’ve been through with football all along? You just need to relax, give yourself a chance to heal and see what happens. Don’t give up like that,’” Gardner said.
Morgan’s deteriorating health was a motivating factor in Davis’ decision to stick it out and go through another recovery.
“With his stepfather being sick, I think it made a difference because he knew how much they put in, how much they had invested in it,” Gardner said.
Morgan’s motto to each of his children before they left for college was simple.
“Don’t go up there and get whipped,” he told them.
Davis started working to recover. Morgan couldn’t.
“We were all kind of in denial about the fact that he was dying,” Gardner said. “We all just wanted God to do a miracle. We wanted him to heal. We thought that chemo would work. We prayed that, we thought that and we believed that. We believed that up until the very end when they told us, ‘There’s not a lot we can do. It’s time for him to go home and use the hospice at the home.’”
When Morgan went home and hospice was set up, Davis and his siblings came back. Morgan couldn’t walk anymore, but the kids wheeled him around the neighborhood on a heart-to-heart walk.
After they left, his condition declined. He was less responsive.
Getting him to eat was a chore and his weight dropped to around 100 pounds.
Davis and his siblings were present the early August 2009 afternoon Morgan died, holding his hand, laughing and listening to some of his favorite Barry White songs, including Never, Never Gonna Give You Up.
Any doubts Davis had about his football future were erased.
“The death of my father kept me going to keep at it,” Davis said.
He remembered the long nights spent with Morgan. The runs to the top of Rice Stadium. The weightlifting sessions in the garage.
Don’t quit. Chase the dream.
Comeback, Part V
Davis’ August phone call to Gardner was calm and measured.
“Mom. I broke my ankle,” he said evenly.
More than two years had passed since he broke his left ankle the second time, 16 months since he broke his collarbone in a spring practice between his freshman and sophomore seasons.
“His reaction to this injury was totally different than that first time,” Gardner said. “He whined and complained about it then. He was down about it. I didn’t think about it at that moment in August, but in hindsight I was thinking, ‘He’s a real man now.’ He handled it so well.”
Shortly after surgery, Davis asked Matt Summers, Arkansas’ head trainer, when he could work on his upper body.
“Whenever you want to,” Summers said.
Davis was quickly back in the weightroom.
“I was just tired of sitting down, laying down in bed.”
He started working out in a pool in September. He runs on a treadmill that puts reduced weight on his ankle.
Gardner got a call from him in mid-September.
“I just ran the other day,” he said.
“What?” she exclaimed. She told him she was worried he was pushing too hard.
“The doctors told me I could put pressure on it because I don’t have to wear the boot all the time,” he said. “The only time I put the boot on is when I feel a little fatigued.”
“Knile, I wish you would just slow down.”
“Nah, I’ve got to do these things.”
That same week, he told her he was back to 90 percent in terms of upper-body weightlifting.
Prior to the injury, he was listed as a possible first-round 2012 NFL Draft choice by ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper. Now, “durability is becoming an issue” for Davis, Kiper wrote in mid-September.
“I have strong bones, the doctor said I just run hard,” Davis said. “I’ll be in crazy positions when I break my bones. On this particular injury … anybody’s ankle would have broken in that situation.”
To rebuild his draft stock, Davis will have to come back next season and prove he’s still an elite running back while staying healthy.
“It’s not my first rodeo,” he said. “I knew I was going to be laying down, losing some muscle mass, things like that. I also know you can come back from this and be faster and stronger than you’ve ever been. I look at it that way.
“There’s always a next time.”
Waiting for that next time while watching from the sidelines this season has been agonizing, though.
He was still relegated to propping his left leg on a tricycle and scooting around when the Hogs’ opened the season Sept. 3 against Missouri State.
He wanted to watch the game from the sideline at Razorback Stadium, but the tricycle wheels didn’t roll well on the turf.
Fellow junior running back Dennis Johnson was struggling to get over a hamstring injury at the time and was also inactive for the game. He walked by Davis inside the Broyles Athletic Center before the game and stopped to try to persuade his teammate to join him on the sideline.
“C’mon Knile,” Johnson said. “You going to go out there with me?”
He convinced Davis to change into his game jersey.
Davis rolled his tricycle down the ramp leading to the bottom floor of the building and the exits to the field. He stopped short of the exit, though, watching the pregame festivities through the window that stretches from sideline to sideline along the bottom of the facility.
At the same time, the rest of the team was getting pumped up by the main exit, readying to run onto the field and through the large Arkansas “A” in front of a crowd of more than 70,000 Hog fans.
Moments later, the team charged onto the field, fireworks exploding overhead, band playing the fight song and the crowd at a crescendo. Davis stayed behind, watching silently through the glass with an expressionless gaze.