Ghost of the Tight Man: What Happened to Sam Davis

Sam Davis once was the glue that held the super Steelers together. But a promising career after football was cut short by an unexplained fall that robbed him of the life he knew.


photos courtesy of the pittsburgh steelers

Editor’s Note: Legally blind and suffering from dementia, Davis was found dead Sept. 10 near his home at an adult day care center in McKeesport. Police report that his death is not suspicious. The following article was published a year before his death.

The broad smile that was his signature is seen only in the shadows of Sam Davis’ private world now.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers were at the apex of their 1970s glory, when they were the mightiest assemblage of football talent in the history of the game, they were held together by Davis, the one they called Tight Man, the nickname given him for his role in keeping the team close. Tight Man befriended rookies, teased fellow veterans and flashed that smile.

But history, or some crueler force, left him behind.

In the circular, plastic confines of Three Rivers Stadium, Davis once was celebrated, starting 10 seasons alongside left tackle Jon Kolb for the only franchise in National Football League history to win back-to-back Super Bowls twice. He blocked for Terry Bradshaw in 1972 when the Blonde Bomber launched the throw for what came to be known as the Immaculate Reception, the miracle play that beat the Oakland Raiders in the Steelers’ first playoff game. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1976, escorting Rocky Bleier on a run in the snow in Cincinnati.

In Super Bowl XIII against the Dallas Cowboys, in what some observers consider the greatest collection of players to compete in a single NFL contest, Davis manhandled the Manster, Randy White, who was the big game’s co-most valuable player a year earlier.

Serious fans know that the offensive captain of those great Steelers teams was not Bradshaw, not running back Franco Harris, nor even center Mike Webster, all of them Hall of Famers.

It was Davis, the one who reminded young linemen to study their playbooks and offered to help when the schemes seemed too complicated.

“Sam was a great football player and an even better man,” says Craig Wolfley, who replaced Davis on the Steelers line. “He epitomized what it means to be a Steeler.”

A 6-foot-1, 255-pound trapping machine, Davis was one of many discoveries of legendary scout Bill Nunn, who turned finding talent at obscure black colleges into the marrow of a dynasty. Davis not only could move, he had a trait Coach Chuck Noll valued almost as much: smarts. Davis parlayed that into an offseason job in sales at Heinz, which prompted him to don No. 57 on Sundays. He became a proven performer on the field and off, seizing the starting job at left guard in Noll’s second season and ascending at the iconic company known best for its ketchup.

Few Steelers from those days appeared more set than Davis for what Noll referred to as “their life’s work,” meaning careers after football. Davis was a relentless entrepreneur, constantly conjuring up and pursuing new ideas. He started a construction business and other ventures. He dazzled clients and prospects with his trademark smile, good humor and love of people. He looked the part of one on his way to greater success, driving his shiny black Mercedes, clad in pinstripe three-piece suits and brandishing one of those four gleaming Super Bowl rings.

But somewhere in Davis’ world, in a place many of those closest to him never noticed, a storm was building. It was powerful enough to snatch it all away, to take from the man not his existence but the very man himself, to leave only a faint outline — with the rest ripped from his memory like pages torn from a book.

Three of his Super Steelers linemates — Mike Webster, Ray Mansfield and Jim Clack — are dead. So, too, are three of the four members of the Steel Curtain — L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White — who lined up opposite him in practice. Davis survived them all but was gone before them.

The man his teammates knew vanished 27 years ago, on a weekend in September.

Set against a hazy Beaver County sky, the deteriorating farmhouse in Marion Township reflects the life of the Steeler who once dwelled there. Its wood façade is cracked and rotting. A glass block corner flashes the grandeur Davis sought to infuse into the structure when he made renovations in the 1980s.

Here is where it all came crashing down, where the dreams and a life basking in past triumphs — the right of any Steeler from the 1970s — died.

Only a few people, if any, know precisely what happened. Whether Davis is among them is part of the mystery. Even if the effects of the fall did not erase his recollection of the event, fear’s grip might be too strong for him to talk about it, and, if not that, there’s the hold of dementia and Parkinson’s. Tamara Davis, his wife, says those diseases have ravaged her husband’s mind. She wonders whether he’s also affected by chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. That’s the silent killer that claimed Webster, a condition that results from blows to the head while playing football but can’t yet be reliably detected until after death.
After returning from a weekend at her parents’ home outside Pittsburgh, Tamara Davis found her husband motionless on the basement floor at 10 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 8, 1991. Some who saw Davis then thought death would take him. Investigators eventually declared they’d found no proof of foul play.

“The circumstances were not suspicious,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. That’s the conclusion Tamara Davis heard, too, and it’s the one she says she believes and prefers. Her husband simply fell.

“I’d rather that be the case,” she says, “than other things I’ve heard.”

Teammates and others who saw Davis afterward insist there’s more to the story.

“That was no accident,” Kolb says. He describes seeing burn or rub marks on Davis’ neck, arms, hands and feet. Others who saw him offer similar descriptions. A 1998 column by late Post-Gazette sports editor Bruce Keidan described Davis as having been “beaten and tortured nearly to death.” Jim Wexell repeated that depiction in his 2012 book “Tales from Behind the Steel Curtain.”

Tamara Davis knows that account, too — anyone close to Davis in those days has heard it — but she says she does not believe it.

Roy Raida, a Marion Township municipal worker who later moved into the farmhouse where Davis was discovered, says the local police chief at the time told him members of a motorcycle gang beat Davis, then tied him to the back of a truck and dragged him before hurling him down the basement stairs. Davis himself provided a different account to investigators, Raida says.

“He told the police that he fell over a hill back there,” Roy Raida says. “[Police] didn’t believe it. But that’s what he told them. He didn’t want the people who did that to him to come back.”

The former township police chief to whom Raida referred is dead.

“We have nothing on the case in our records,” current Marion Township Police Chief Frank Evanson says. “That could be because of all the time that has passed, or it could be because we didn’t handle the investigation. I really don’t know.”

When information was requested for this article, state police initially sought more time to search their files, then said they also have no records.

Whether it was an accident or something nefarious related to his business ventures and the debt he would accumulate, there’s no one alive today who is willing to say.

Tamara Davis expresses concern about her husband being asked about that night, or anything else, for that matter. He resides in an assisted living facility in McKeesport, according to court records. His wife declined a request to interview him. “He’s not the person he was,” she says.

“If you described it honestly, it wouldn’t be flattering,” she says.

Her husband’s ex-teammates see him rarely, although he made an appearance at training camp in 2009, following the Steelers’ Super Bowl victory earlier that year.

Tamara Davis says he remembers bits of his old life. For some time, she says, he seemed to think and talk of little else but his days as a Steeler.

A fog remains in his once-keen mind. The injury rendered Sam Davis a ghost of himself.

“I’ve seen him at card shows” in recent years, says Gerry “Moon” Mullins, the starter at right guard on the opposite side of the line from Davis. “And for a minute, you kind of forget. He still has that same bubbly smile. But he doesn’t know who you are. He’s just not there anymore.”

 

Sam Davis was born July 5, 1944, a month after the D-Day invasion, when America was fighting to save the world from Nazi tyranny while at home blacks still rode in the backs of buses and drank from separate water fountains.

Like future Steelers teammate Hall of Famer Mel Blount, Davis spent part of his childhood on a farm in the deep south of Georgia. Years later, after fur coats and pinstripe suits became part of his wardrobe, Davis occasionally returned to the life of Southern farmboy, showing up in overalls at his spread in Beaver County, where he would saw down trees and mend fences.

“He used to say all the time that he was just a country boy,” Tamara Davis says.

He rarely spoke of his childhood, she says. He came of age in a time and place radically different from the one where he one day would make his name.

On a 100-yard patch of grass, Davis found a way to another place, as did so many of his future Steelers teammates, like him, playing the game in relative obscurity but discovering in it release — and a future. In high school, before a Steelers teammate hung the Tight Man nickname on him, Davis was known simply as Rock. That moniker, he explained on an information form he completed for the NFL, was given by a coach “because of my solid hitting power.”

At Northwestern High School in Jacksonville, Fla., he was a defensive terror, recording in his sophomore season 10 unassisted tackles in the backfield. But pro defensive linemen were taller, like Mean Joe Greene, who stood 6 feet 4 inches tall, or Greenwood, the sinewy, 6-foot-6-inch sack master. So Davis moved to offense.

Despite his devastating hitting and defensive prowess, he struggled to get noticed when black athletes still labored against discrimination. As late as 1970 — the season Davis broke into the starting lineup with the Steelers — University of Alabama coaching legend Paul “Bear” Bryant fielded an all-white team against a Southern California squad with an all-black backfield, including the quarterback in an era when men of color largely were excluded from that position.

Only after SC running back Sam “Bam” Cunningham gashed Bama’s defense in the Birmingham heat did the football-crazed state give the Bear leave to make haste on his desire to integrate. That was too late for Davis and many of his contemporaries. He landed at tiny Allen University in Columbia, S.C., a historically black school with an enrollment of 900 students.

Davis starred at Allen beyond the notice of much of the remaining world, football or otherwise. But he did not escape the watchful eye of the man who largely revolutionized the Steelers and pro football with them.

William Goldwyn “Bill” Nunn, managing editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, the city’s deeply influential black newspaper, had captured the attention of the moribund pro football franchise with his annual Black College All-America teams, featuring an array of talented but unheralded players. In 1967, Nunn accepted a job with the Steelers as a part-time scout.

That same year, he found Davis, among the first of many discoveries that helped transform the Steelers.

Two careers were off and running.

In America’s troubled summer of 1967, Davis reported as a rookie to training camp in Latrobe. It was the first full camp the team spent at St. Vincent College. The Steelers have been training there since.

Race riots were rippling across the country, first in New Jersey, then in Minneapolis and finally there was the 12th Street Riot in Detroit that left 43 people dead, 342 hurt and 1,400 buildings burned to the ground. Tensions simmered across western Pennsylvania, too.

At the time, no one thought of Pittsburgh as a city of champions. The town had three World Series titles from the Pirates — just one in the four decades before ’67 — and nothing else. The Penguins had yet to play their first season in the National Hockey League. The Steelers had never qualified for the playoffs and were in the middle of eight consecutive losing seasons.

Known for his footwork and explosive power firing out of his three-point stance, Davis — Nunn’s free-agent find — sat for three seasons behind 6-foot-3-inch, 240-pound Larry Gagner, a 1966 second-round draft pick who quickly became entrenched as the starter at left guard, was named a team captain and widely regarded as the Steelers’ most consistent lineman.

Like Davis, Gagner stuck around even after rookie coach Chuck Noll took over for Bill Austin in 1969. Before his first training camp practice, a young Noll explained to his players that he’d reviewed film all summer and found their effort sufficient but their abilities lacking. Most simply weren’t good enough to play for him and eventually would lose their jobs. Gagner lasted but savored the high life, which nearly got him killed and brought his burgeoning NFL career to an abrupt halt: He dislocated his hip in a crash driving his Porsche 911, drunk, near his offseason Florida home. He was never the same player and, by 1973, just as the Steelers were hitting their stride, Gagner was out of pro football.

In his absence, Davis emerged as the new starter at left guard in 1970, the year Three Rivers Stadium opened. He remained a fixture at that position for the rest of the decade, through eight straight playoff appearances, seven division titles and those magnificent four Super Bowl wins, including the performance of a lifetime in the Steelers’ second big-game triumph over Dallas in January 1979.

Like his team, Davis reached his zenith that Sunday night in Miami, where Pittsburgh topped the Cowboys 35-31. Davis locked down the great Randy White, an effort linemates would recall for years. Another Super Bowl followed the next season, and then age did what the rest of the league could not, beating down the mighty Steelers and Davis with them.

He performed so well past age 30 that teammates called Davis “Riggy,” short for “Rigor Mortis.” Even as Davis’ career began to fade, his influence loomed.

“Sam was just a great teammate,” Wolfley says. “The mental acuity he had to be able to run our traps was amazing. He showed me what it meant to be a Steeler, helping a young guy like me learn the game.”

After Super Bowl XIV, Davis never played again, spending two seasons on injured reserve with knee injuries before retiring in January 1982. He’d played in 168 games.

With a job at Heinz as manager of sales planning and food service sales, work that took him on calls across the country, Davis appeared ready for his life’s work.

Three months after retiring, he tapped into his entrepreneurial spirit and launched Sam Davis Construction, which took off as he picked up contracts to supply cement on major road and building projects.

He capitalized on benefits accorded minority-owned businesses. Federal, state and city dictates seek to direct public money to companies owned by minorities or women through various incentives, including grants and loans. Sometimes, large portions of that money are obtained unscrupulously by white-owned businesses using minority- or women-owned companies as fronts.

Investigators in 1986 claimed such a case involved Davis’ construction company, which they described as a front for a South Side cement contractor. His photograph appeared on the front page of the Post-Gazette on June 10, 1986; the headline read, “Puppet concrete firms subvert minority system.”

That year, Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority disqualified Sam Davis Construction as minority-owned for $842,000 in contracts to supply cement for the city’s CNG Tower-Benedum Center for the Performing Arts project.

Meanwhile, Davis’ finances were crumbling, according to court documents.

By the end of 1989, he owed almost $250,000 in federal taxes. Before suffering his brain injury, Davis and his wife were forced to liquidate all their assets to cover debts, according to records in divorce proceedings Tamara initiated in 2005. The couple also started pursuing a bankruptcy declaration. Tamara Davis, his second wife whom he married in 1985, stated in divorce records that her husband made “a series of poor business and investment decisions which had a disastrous impact on” the couple’s finances. Neither the divorce nor the bankruptcy was finalized.

A friend who asked not to be named says that in the weeks leading up to Davis’ tumble down the basement stairs, Davis approached him, desperate for money. Davis got it once, but the friend was forced to turn him away when he came back for more. The friend says he relayed this account to investigators but heard nothing more about it.

The fall’s effects were immediate. Friends wondered how Davis survived. The “mental acuity” Wolfley cited never returned. Memories of his life as a Steeler, however, remained vivid. Tamara Davis recalls her husband sitting in their home imagining that he was in the team locker room, talking to Kolb. Troubled, she called her husband’s longtime linemate.

“When Jon came in, Sam just smiled and started talking to him like they were in the locker room again,” Tamara says.

Forced to sell many of their belongings and with an incapacitated husband and three children to raise, Tamara Davis landed in a modest Mount Washington home. She relied on his NFL pension of $2,707 a month plus another $1,384 in Social Security benefits to cover the cost of his care at an assisted-living facility, according to court records.
Flashes of the man Davis once was appeared occasionally. Forty-two years after he strode onto the practice fields at St. Vincent College as Nunn’s gem of a free-agent find, Davis returned to Latrobe in August 2009 following the Steelers’ sixth Super Bowl victory. He savored recollections of Sunday afternoons and the coach who guided the dynasty.

“The best part about those days was Chuck Noll,” Davis said then. “He changed it. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have gotten to where we are. He loved the game. He loved his players. He was an excellent coach, the best coach.”

Public appearances by Davis largely had been limited to card shows, where ex-teammates see the Tight Man as they never expected to find him.

“It’s very sad,” Mullins says. “Sam was such an outgoing guy.”

Though she says she knows little about his playing career, Tamara Davis prefers people see Davis as he was, a leader on professional football’s greatest team.

“People should remember him as he was before,” she says.

It’s the image to which Tamara Davis clings, the affection apparent as she reflects on the man she knew on the other side of the line dividing their life, the time before it all went wrong.

“No one can imagine what it’s been like,” she says. “We had our lives ripped from us. It’s still hard to believe. But you just have to go on. That’s all we can do.”

Categories: From the Magazine, Hot Reads, Steelers