A walk through Heritage Hall, past the glistening Heisman trophies of O.J. Simpson, Marcus Allen, Charles White and Mike Garrett, offers inspiration to any USC football player who dreams of becoming the best.

But the path to reaching the top can be filled with unexpected challenges and unlikely obstacles.

Only last January, the seemingly invincible Ennis Davis, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound All-Pacific 10 Conference defensive lineman, faced his moment of adversity.

He underwent surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee after USC's defeat to Texas Tech in the Sun Bowl.

The days after surgery were a scary time for Davis.

"Early on, when I couldn't walk, I was like, 'Oh my God,' " he said.

Soon, he began to understand the miracles of modern medicine. He saw another athlete with the same last name--basketball player Baron Davis of UCLA--dunking after coming back from an ACL injury.

Ennis Davis charged ahead in his rehabilitation program, confident that hard work in the weight room would help him regain everything he had lost. And he has. Less than a month before USC players report for fall practice, Davis is convinced he will be stronger and quicker than ever.

"I can't wait to get back out there," he said. "I want to put pads on. I want to hit somebody again. As good as I think my leg is, you don't know until you start getting hit."

Since his days at Reseda High, when he led the Regents to the City 3-A championship in 1995, Davis has been the one doing the hitting.

"He was always around the ball," Coach Joel Schaeffer of Reseda said. "One time he got an interception and it looked like a bunch of little kids chasing a runaway horse in a pasture."

Last season was a breakthrough year for Davis, a 21-year-old junior. He had a team-best 13 tackles for losses, including three sacks.

"I thought my strong point was holding up well to double teams," he said.

Coming to USC was almost preordained. Davis grew up near the Coliseum and would explore the USC campus as a boy, attending Raider tailgate parties with his parents.

"We had season tickets to Raider games," Davis said. "I'd come out to [Cromwell Field], watch the bands play flag football and walk around the campus."

With overcrowded schools in his neighborhood, Davis would rise at 5 a.m. to take a bus to the Valley. From third through 12th grade, mornings and evenings were spent on buses. It taught him responsibility.

"I know to be on time for everything," he said. "I'm never late for meetings."

Perhaps Davis' daily bus rides influenced one of his strangest routines--wearing a watch to practice at Reseda. Never before in Schaeffer's 35 years of coaching did he have a player practice while wearing a watch.

"I wore my watch to every practice, and here at USC I wear it in the weight room and [the players] go, 'Oh, take off your watch,' " Davis said. "It wasn't like I was looking at it the whole time in practice. Growing up, I never had a watch. My friends had watches. I never had keys, I never had jewelry because I'd always lose things. I never took it off because I was scared I'd lose it."

Davis is excited about the coming season. When he works out in the USC weight room, he sees more dedication than in past years.

"I never miss a workout and the thing I'm seeing this year, and something I haven't seen since I've been here, is that the weight room is full every day," he said.

Davis hasn't forgotten when he showed up as an overweight, 320-pound freshman wondering if he deserved to wear the USC uniform with the likes of defensive tackle Darrell Russell.

"I knew no one," he said. "You come here thinking, 'You're playing with the best in the world.' Everyone is big, everyone is fast. Those that went on to the NFL were the ones who worked the hardest."

Months of training to strengthen his knee has left Davis feeling energized for the Trojans' season opener Sept. 4 at Hawaii.

"I feel I can play right now," he said.

Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422 or

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