Milt Davis, an All-Pro defensive back for the Baltimore Colts who played on two National Football League championship teams and twice led the league in interceptions, has died. He was 79.
Davis, who also played at UCLA and went on to a long teaching career in Los Angeles, died of cancer Monday at his home in Elmira, Ore., said his daughter Allison Davis-White Eyes.
A member of the Colts for only four seasons, 1957 through 1960, Davis was an integral part of one of the NFL’s most dominant teams of that decade and a starter in what is often called the greatest game ever played, the 1958 NFL championship game against the New York Giants, which the Colts won, 23-17, in overtime.
“Aside from being a great football player, he was a man that knew about life issues and knew how to deal with it,” Davis’ teammate Lenny Moore, a Hall of Fame running back with the Colts, told The Times on Tuesday. “He was a beacon. . . . He was incredibly respected, both with the white players and the black players.”
But Davis chafed at the demeaning conditions that he, Moore and other black players were subjected to at segregated hotels and restaurants in the late ‘50s. Davis gave up on football after the 1960 season, returning to California to become a teacher.
In 2006, Davis recalled some of his experiences with the Colts and the white teammates who supported him, such as fullback Alan Ameche.
Ameche “was one of the few guys, when it wasn’t popular, to stand up for us being black and being denied access to theaters and restaurants. He would say, ‘I don’t eat here either,’ ” Davis told the Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard. “And I would always scream to get the manager, because I’m in the land of the free and the home of the brave, and I wanted to put them on the spot. It was important. I’m a college graduate, veteran, taxpayer.”
Milton Eugene Davis was born May 31, 1929, at Fort Gibson, an Indian reservation near Muskogee, Okla., to parents who were of African American and Native American ancestry.
When he was a toddler, the family moved to Los Angeles. His father, a manual laborer, left the family, and Davis eventually went to live at the Vista Del Mar orphanage.
After graduating from Jefferson High School, he attended Los Angeles City College while working to pay for his tuition. He also ran track and was good enough at the quarter-mile to earn a partial scholarship to UCLA.
Davis caught the eye of football coach Red Sanders and found a home in the defensive backfield. He earned letters in the 1952 and ’53 seasons and played in the Rose Bowl after the ’53 season (a 28-20 loss to Michigan State).
In 1954, he was drafted by the Detroit Lions, but more important, also by the Army. After two years of military service, Davis joined the Lions but didn’t stick with them. But not because he couldn’t play, Davis said in 2006. “We don’t have a black teammate for you to go on road trips, therefore you can’t stay on our team,” was the explanation the team gave him.
“That’s one of those slaps in the face,” Davis said. “It hurt considerably, but I’d been hurt so many times, that was minor.”
He went back to UCLA for graduate school and got a job as a counselor at Vista Del Mar. Then he got a tryout with the Colts, who signed him as a free agent at age 28. In his rookie season in 1957, he had a league-leading 10 interceptions, 219 return yards and two touchdowns, and was named to the Associated Press’ All-Pro team.
Two years later, Davis again led the league with seven interceptions, and the Colts beat the Giants again in the title game, 31-16. When he retired after the 1960 season, he had 27 interceptions in 45 games, a remarkable ratio of three interceptions for every five games.
After his playing days ended, Davis was a teacher at John Marshall High School and a teacher and counselor at L.A. City College. He also worked as a scout, evaluating college players for NFL teams. In 1989, he and his wife, Yvonne, retired and moved to Oregon.
In addition to his wife and daughter Allison, Davis also is survived by another daughter, Hilary; and a son, Brian.
Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.