Silent Struggle

Times Staff Writer

It was so loud, then so silent. The moment is etched in Mike Davis' mind because one voice so effectively punctured the quiet. It was 22 years ago this month in the closed end of Cleveland's Municipal Stadium when Davis, an Oakland Raider safety, made the defining play of his career, an end zone interception of Brown quarterback Brian Sipe late in the fourth quarter to clinch a 14-12 playoff victory, propelling the team into the AFC championship game in San Diego.

"I made that play with 80,000 people screaming and cheering like crazy, but when I zipped in front of Ozzie Newsome and intercepted that ball -- it happened so quickly, that no one knew what had happened," Davis said. "It got so quiet that I could hear [teammate] Gene Upshaw telling Art Shell more than 30 yards up the sideline, 'He caught it! He caught it! We're going to San Diego!' "

Davis, 45, will return to San Diego this weekend to watch Super Bowl XXXVII.

Yet, the highlights of sports' loudest event -- the jet fly-over, the stadium-shaking fireworks, the crowd's roar surrounding the game's biggest plays -- will be a silent experience for Davis, who is longing for a day like that afternoon in Cleveland when he can again hear one unforgettable voice. Davis is deaf.

He believes beyond the shadow of a doubt that his condition is the cumulative result of several head-rattling hits he delivered and received during a nine-year career (1978-85 and 1987) in the NFL.

"I can't cast a dark shadow over the sport," Davis, who lives in Burbank, said this week. "I played the game with a free heart and a free will, and I have trophies to show for it. I could look to blame this on football, but then again, those were chances that I took. I took my hard licks and my lumps and I would do it all over again."

He is asked to reconsider that statement.

"I realize now that the foresight of this wasn't there," he replies, "but I would do it all over again because I loved the game, and I still love the game."

As a result of his hearing loss and a painful lower back, Davis draws full and permanent disability monthly payments from the NFL Players' Assn. He won't acknowledge how much, but an NFLPA official said retired players in most need can receive $135,000 of annual support.

Davis lives comfortably in the hills of Burbank, inside a gated community of million-dollar homes as a neighbor to child stars Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen.

Davis did well financially in the NFL, boosting a guaranteed $8.5-million contract in his final four years with the Raiders with fruitful investments.

Davis, his wife of 20 years, Mary, and their 15-year-old son Allen reside in a home equipped with a spiral staircase leading from a hallway stuffed with Davis' NFL memorabilia into an entertainment room with walls adorned by three of Davis' framed Raider jerseys, including a white one stained by too many brushes against Stickum-saturated defensive back teammate Lester Hayes.

The Davis' other child, Mike Jr., is away at school. He's a defensive back at Arizona State studying to become a pilot.

Amid the tranquillity is a gray-haired man battling unrest. About four months ago, Davis, who had previously lost all hearing in his left ear, told his wife he needed to stop by his ear doctor's office because the hearing aid that allowed for 40% hearing in his right ear was malfunctioning.

"He stepped out of the doctor's office and for the first time since his mother's funeral, I saw tears in his eyes," Mary Davis said. "He had been told his hearing was gone."

Miki Yaras-Davis, the NFLPA's director of benefits who is no relation to Davis, said "a good number of former players" are experiencing hearing loss in one ear. She wouldn't identify the players or provide a firm number of those dealing with the condition. Neither would the NFL. Yaras-Davis insisted Mike Davis is the only former player she knows who is completely deaf.

Michael Mellman, a former NFL doctor, added, "It's usually one ear or the other. Is bilateral hearing loss as a result of head trauma conceivable? Yes. Is it rare? Yes."

Said Yaras-Davis: "There's no doubt this was a result of blows to the head."

The most encouraging news for Davis is that he's a prime candidate for a cochlear implant, a device inserted near the ear that restores hearing as much as 60%. The device is expensive, estimated at $80,000, but priceless. Davis has an appointment this week to learn his implant date. It could come within five to 10 weeks.

"I know the Lord has blessed me in so many ways, but right now I'm going through some painful, frustrating things," Davis said. "You sit back and think, 'Why me? What did I do? What's wrong with me?'

"You see your children and realize you can no longer hear your son's voice change from that of an adolescent to that of a man. You see the bird flying, but you don't hear it sing. You see the wind blowing, but you don't hear it ruffle anything. I love jazz, especially fusion, and I can't hear that anymore."

Davis admits his stubborn nature has interfered with his handling of the adversity, leading to withdrawal and depression. He said he has not accepted his condition as permanent and "because I'm playing a little mind game with myself," he has yet to learn sign language. "I need to, out of respect," he said. "You've got to be able to communicate." For now, he does so in person by reading lips or by asking relatives, friends and visitors to scribble questions or comments on scraps of paper. He also carries a Blackberry device for e-mail conversations and has a special telephone next to his bed that prints out what the person on the other end is saying. When the phone rings, lamps in the home flicker on and off to notify him.

"In the grand scheme of things, I know I don't have it that bad," Davis said. "But when you look at a life like mine that's been full of vim and vigor, a guy that's always ready to go places on a moment's notice. Now, I'm limited where I can drive. I had taken for granted the beauty of the sounds of nature. I can no longer distinguish forms of verbal communication, when someone's being serious or sarcastic or funny."

And he still has awful moments when he forgets his plight. He picked up a hotel room phone to order room service once, waiting for someone to answer. He woke up one morning thinking he was hearing music and thought it was a miracle. He looked at the clock radio. It was off. He asked Mary if she heard the same tune. She heard nothing. The sad realization: Davis was "hearing" only a jingle in his head.

"You know how badly I wanted to hear how excited Tim Brown was while speaking to the Oakland crowd on the podium after the AFC championship, how badly I wanted to hear what Jerry Rice sounded like about going back to the Super Bowl?" Davis asked. "Closed captioning only gives you so much."

His Raider years were glorious: two Super Bowl victories, 11 interceptions, membership among a dominant secondary with Hall of Famer Mike Haynes and 2003 Hall of Fame finalist Hayes as partners.

But this other end of glory is painful. Davis walks more slowly than a man of his age should. His cheeks are slightly drooped, distinct lines highlight his forehead. The ring finger on his right hand is gnarled. At night, occasionally, his leg movement elicits a distinct cracking noise.

Davis, a Los Angeles Locke High graduate who played at East Los Angeles College and Colorado, said he was drawn to the game like so many others. Working as an usher at the Coliseum, he witnessed Anthony Davis' six-touchdown game for USC against Notre Dame and was hooked. The feeling amplified when Pittsburgh Steeler executive Dan Rooney visited Colorado when Davis was there and displayed his Super Bowl ring. "That fired me up for a lifetime," he said, flashing his own.

When the 6-foot-3, 203-pound Davis made the interception in Cleveland that moved the Raiders to that AFC championship game in San Diego and eventual Super Bowl XV victory over Philadelphia, teammates coined his play, "the $85,000 catch," in a reference to their postseason bonus payments.

In Super Bowl XVIII, Davis and Raider linebacker Rod Martin combined on a key fourth-and-one blockade on Washington Redskin running back John Riggins. "I came up, and pow! We stopped him eight inches short," Davis said, laughing. The next play was Marcus Allen's famous reverse-field touchdown run that clinched the Raiders' victory. Davis loved hitting. "If you had your head hanging out, I was going to take it off," he said.

When he petitioned the NFLPA for a disability claim regarding the hearing loss, player retirement plan trustees investigated. They gathered five replays of Davis' most devastating "whacks," as he calls them. The trustees, three representing the union and three representing management, agreed Davis' condition was due to football contact, approving increased benefits.

The worst hit, the one Davis said he believes had the most effect on his hearing, was a 1985 collision with San Diego running back Gary Anderson.

"He was lunging into the impact of tacklers and his knee hit me on the right side of the head; it was the hardest I had ever been hit and it made me physically sick," Davis said. "Television doesn't do it justice. You don't see double vision, or even blurred vision. It's multiple vision. When it first happens, it's like going from a sunlit room into the midnight hour, man. That happened to me three times in my career. Coming out of it is like watching the heat rising off the street, and people look like they're waving in the wind, like in 'The Matrix.' There was ringing in my ears."

Later that season, the Raiders' Martin spoke to Davis in the locker room. Davis didn't respond. Martin grew upset: "Are you trying to ignore me, or what?" Davis said his condition deteriorated through the years, describing what he heard as if he were listening to an old AM transistor radio with a deteriorating battery. "I went through all the checks and balances, I went to a neurologist at Scripps [Clinic in La Jolla], through every test conceivable to man," Davis said. He said he was told his hearing loss was a "cumulative, degenerative effect" of football collisions. Scar tissue and calcium buildup around the ear bones and ear drums resulted in clogging, and nerves around the ear were damaged.

Should the cochlear implant restore Davis' hearing, he said he will strongly pursue a coaching position in the NFL. He has served as an assistant coach to former Raider teammate Willie Brown at Long Beach State, he devoted two years as an assistant at Eastern Michigan and he worked as an unpaid assistant at his son's high schools.

"I want to do this.... I tell myself, 'You've got to do this,' but the fact is I have no means of expression now," Davis said. "The damnable thing about this is that I can not aggressively go after the job in the NFL that I so badly want. The fact is you can have all the money you want, but the measure of a man is if he's doing what he really wants to do. Right now, I'm not capable of doing what I want to do."

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