For former USC star Anthony Davis, college football fame never translated into fortune
This is the week the “ Notre Dame Killer” comes to life.
Anthony Davis, on a late fall Saturday 38 years ago, led USC to a rout over the Fighting Irish with six touchdowns. Two years later, after the Irish took a 24-0 lead late in the first half, he ran for four more touchdowns in what became known as “The Comeback.”
Davis is 58 now, but his achievements are never far from his thoughts.
“Obviously, I’m someone of interest . . . I’m a name,” says Davis, who now works as a part-time security guard and lives in his mother’s Sylmar apartment. “I played at the greatest time in the school’s history — the [John] McKay era and five national-title teams [two in football, three in baseball]. For me to be the focal point of that and be the greatest player in the USC-Notre Dame rivalry . . . I’m proud of that.”
A.D., as he likes to be called, sees himself as a brand, even though the glory days of being Heisman Trophy runner-up are long ago.
And by repeatedly trading on that college fame, one of the greatest tailbacks in NCAA history has been engulfed by debts, controversy and conflict in recent years.
--Davis’ autobiography, released late last year, is out of print and hard to find while the man who financed the project has stopped speaking to him.
--Davis still is more than $9,000 in debt to a jeweler who, at Davis’ request, crafted blinged-out replicas of the five championship rings.
--Davis took a $4,000 car loan from a devoted USC booster and was given more money to pay for “A.D.” lithographs and pillows that were a bust on the memorabilia market. He still owes the booster more than $7,000.
“There’s a natural tendency among Trojans to overestimate who we are,” says Marvin Cobb, Davis’ longtime friend and former teammate. “It comes with the swagger, the legacy, the tradition you try to live up to.
“You can get carried away sometimes.”
In the spotlight
There is no question Davis was an elite athlete. Recruited from San Fernando High School, he led USC in rushing, scoring and kick return yardage for three consecutive seasons and helped the Trojans win two national championships — in 1972 and 1974. A speedy outfielder and switch-hitter, Davis also was a key member of USC’s championship baseball teams in ’72, ’73 and ’74.
With so many titles, Davis says, he could have been a two-sport standout in the pros and is frustrated he wasn’t, the way Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders were more than a decade later.
“I could’ve done all those things,” Davis says. “Wow!”
Although Davis fell short of his goal to graduate — he majored in communications, he says — that didn’t dim his ambition.
He was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the fourth round of the 1975 baseball draft and by the New York Jets in the second round of the NFL draft. The Jets, with quarterback Joe Namath, would have given Davis a grand stage.
But the Jets balked at his contract demands and Davis spurned the Twins — “I didn’t think they could pay me enough,” he says.
Instead, he signed a five-year, $1.7-million deal with the Southern California Sun of the World Football League. The deal reportedly included a $200,000 cash bonus and a Rolls-Royce.
But the WFL soon folded and he jumped to the NFL. But his numbers were grim: one touchdown in 15 games for three teams in 1977 and ’78.
For Davis, what-might-have-beens are part of the practiced script.
The Heisman race his senior year is a case in point. The voting deadline was Dec. 3, though many of the ballots were already in before the No. 5 Irish came to the Coliseum to play the No. 6 Trojans in 1974. In the end, Davis made the cover of Sports Illustrated but in the balloting was a distant second to Ohio State’s Archie Griffin.
“If they had waited a week, everything would’ve been different,” Davis says. “I think about it. Archie Griffin’s a guy who gets high praise. . . . He’s wanted around Ohio State. It resonated for him.”
Former teammate Allen Carter says there is good reason Davis is the way he is.
“He always told me you’ve got to fight for what you get,” Carter says. “He’d tell certain teammates, ‘Things were handed to you, I had to go get mine.’ That made him hard. He’s felt he’s had to fight for every inch.”
Before the 1972 game against the Irish, Davis had said, “They’re big and strong, but if I can get outside — get into the open — I think I can go all the way a few times.”
Says Cobb: “I always appreciated his confidence in his high level of ability. The rest of us were afraid to talk about ourselves like that. He was like the Muhammad Ali of college football.”
Through the years, Davis pushed his brand.
“A.D. was a phenomenon who did ‘SC and a lot of people there well, and the university pulled on him after he left to recruit and smile to alumni,” Carter says. “A lot of that tugged on him, keeping him back at that level. That didn’t help.”
In the 1980s, Davis found success in real estate — an area in which he remains active. There were also occasional acting jobs.
As the economy tightened, though, there were signs of trouble. Public records show that between 1997 and 2006, he had more than $33,000 in state liens and civil judgments.
“It’s not out of desperation . . . never the fast buck,” he says of his failed projects, which included real estate and memorabilia. “It’s what I see as opportunity.”
One of those opportunities was an autobiography.
Don Enevoldsen is the ghostwriter who crafted “If My Nikes Could Talk,” a reference to Davis’ having been the first college football star on the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing the shoes.
“The problem I had was that Anthony kept coming back to the same rehearsed rhetoric of what he had accomplished more than 30 years ago — ‘I did this, I did that’ — it was the combination of an angry black man and someone living in the past. . . . He really has trouble living in the present.”
The opportunities that came Davis’ way were invariably tied to his USC days.
In 1998, for example, two Irvine City Council members asked him to help pitch the idea of bringing an NFL team to the area. Because of Davis’ involvement, Orange County businessman Tom Clark gave $55,000 in seed money to the effort.
The project was a bust and Davis says Clark asked to be reimbursed. Fearing a lawsuit if his autobiography enjoyed the $1 million in sales he envisioned, Davis says he started paying Clark back. Clark confirmed he is receiving $200 monthly payments.
In 2005, Davis was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and received a commemorative blazer and ring. He later turned the items over to a memorabilia collector. Asked why he gave up the ring, Davis says it “looked like it’d come out of a bubble gum machine.”
“I felt if we were going to be honored that way, we deserved something better than that,” Davis says. “I didn’t want that crazy ring. If you wore it too long, it’d turn your hand green . . . a 25-cent ring after letting us get our brains killed.”
Vera LeBlanc, who last year split from Davis after a decade-long relationship, remembers when he told her what he had done.
“I just looked at him,” she says. “Anthony was always selling something. But that? I just thought he has no respect.”
He sold his baseball rings too.
“That was years ago,” he says. “That didn’t matter to me. So many guys win national championships. Everyone does that.”
The USC connection
In 2008, Davis was sitting outside the Coliseum on a game day selling signed pictures for $10 each. When a child came up with an autograph book, Davis wanted $10. The child walked away. A reporter who saw the encounter asked Davis where the money was going. Davis, who eventually gave that child an autograph, said the money “goes to the Anthony Davis Foundation.”
“We never asked Anthony to sell autographs,” says John Peterson, an attorney formerly associated with the foundation.
Although LeBlanc says Davis made several Southland appearances to sell his signature, Peterson says autograph money was given to the foundation only once.
The foundation’s former president, USC trustee Richard DeBeikes, provided copies of tax returns that showed the foundation’s primary revenue source was more than $40,000 from fundraising dinners in 2006 and 2007. He says the bulk of that money was given to scholarship programs at USC and the university’s Black Alumni Assn.
But after an article was published about the Coliseum incident, DeBeikes says Davis became “distant” and the foundation was “mothballed.” Davis says he was hurt that DeBeikes and others at the university didn’t defend him.
Glendale jeweler Joe Navarro, a longtime USC booster, was a first vice president for Davis’ foundation. When Davis approached him six years ago to create high-end “A.D.” replica championship rings, Navarro had no reservations. Davis’ plan was to sell the rings to collectors and to USC fans.
But by 2009, Davis still owed Navarro more than $14,000 for the work. Navarro says when he heard about the autobiography, he confronted Davis. “Don’t you think it’s time to pay me?” he remembers asking.
Davis got the debt down to $9,249, Navarro says.
Asked about it, Davis says: “He’s an old man. He don’t want this out there.”
George Niotta is another Trojans booster who revels in Davis’ brilliance against Notre Dame. He met Davis 10 years ago at a USC tailgate party. By 2005, the two had joined forces in a new venture: selling signed lithographs and decorative pillows adorned with Davis’ likeness.
Niotta has bank documents that show Davis still owes him $7,309.78. That includes a $4,000 loan in 2005 that was used to purchase a restored convertible Lincoln — “just like the one Kennedy got shot in,” Davis says proudly.
The car has since been sold. Niotta says he was not repaid but would never consider suing Davis. In fact, the main interview with Davis for this article took place at Niotta’s kitchen table.
“He got all the money back,” Davis says of the lithographs and pillows. “I gave it to his wife when he was in the hospital.”
Niotta says he doesn’t recall such a repayment but appears unbothered.
“I don’t manipulate anybody,” Davis says in defense. “A lot of that stuff didn’t even sell. It was a great idea that didn’t work.”
The book deal
Leonard Wayne, a health and wellness guru from Orange County, was intrigued by Davis’ life story, especially the USC feats. But it is a relationship that has gone awry.
Wayne says he encouraged Davis to write a book and funded it with $21,000 of his own money. But Wayne now accuses Davis of taking 1,100 copies of the autobiography out of an Orange County warehouse and hawking them on the Internet and out of his car. Davis and the warehouse owner deny it.
Wayne also says he paid Davis a $15,000 cash advance.
“He never paid me,” Davis says. “I haven’t made a dime off the book.
“I don’t know how people can say I con them when I’m here at the bottom of the totem pole. If anyone’s been conned, it’s been me.”
He now fears Wayne may be trying to get USC to distance itself from another troubled member of Tailback U.
“He’s trying to clear me out from there, to create doubt. In the climate of what’s going on there now,” Davis says, referring to USC football’s being on NCAA probation, “anything like this can kill me over there. I’ve learned it doesn’t matter who you are. You’ve got to watch yourself every step you make because it’s a cutthroat world now.”
But J.K. McKay, a former teammate and USC’s new associate athletic director, says the university has put no restrictions on Davis beyond the new NCAA sanction rules that ban all former Trojans players from the sidelines.
Alerted to Davis’ struggles, McKay says he called him to “see what we can do,” and has set up meetings with “alumni who are interested in putting him to work.”
“A.D. knows we want to help,” says McKay, a son of John McKay. “A lot of people like A.D. and certainly don’t want him to end up destitute. I’d like his story to have a happy ending.”
So would Davis.
“I’ve gotten into some bad situations dealing with people,” he says. “I stepped in the mud. Not doing my due diligence. It’s a flaw I have, I guess. I give mankind the benefit of the doubt.”
In Niotta’s kitchen, he looks unhappy, asking repeatedly why his current life has to be discussed. But that gruffness eases when Niotta plays a film of college football’s greatest games that includes Davis’ 1974 performance against Notre Dame. In the film, Davis tells of how a woman approached him after the game, waved a crucifix in his face and said, “You must be the devil.”
He didn’t watch the film this time, but grins when he hears the phrase repeated.
“I’m going to try and put myself around serious people now.” Davis says as he walks out. “I’m not going to make a move without due diligence.”
Times researcher Robin Mayper contributed to this report.