Albert Davis Day: Part II
- Updated: October 29, 2013
Former Alcoa star reflects on integration, historic Vol scholarship offer and becoming a high school principal
By Stefan Cooper
Blount Press Row
Albert Lee “Sonny” Davis made history on Sept. 13, 1963.
That night at Everett, the Alcoa High School freshman running back became the first black athlete to play in an integrated high school game in Blount County.
Davis famously ran 60 yards to score the first and only time he carried the ball that night.
“They called my play, and I broke for a touchdown,” he said.
Two years later, it was his brother’s turn.
David Davis, long believed Albert’s first cousin, became the first black athlete to play in the state basketball tournament when the Tornadoes opened against Memphis Frayser in Memphis in March of 1965.
The events of that weekend cemented friendships between Albert Davis and two men that have shown no cracks through the years. It also left behind a scar terribly deep, one the legendary football star struggles with today.
In the days before classification, tiny Alcoa making the field for the state tournament was a really big deal. Interest was high. To ferry students to Memphis, a pep bus was chartered, a trip package that included hotel lodging.
One student in particular, one who’d made history for the school himself only two years before, was told he couldn’t ride that bus. He would not be allowed to stay at the hotel with the other students. Albert Davis would have to get there on his own.
Steve Coleman remembers being blown away by the decision and decided to act.
Davis and eight others, including David, began the integration of Alcoa City Schools when they transferred from all-black Charles M. Hall School to Alcoa the fall of 1963. Coleman, a junior fullback at Alcoa that season, was assigned by Tornado coach Bill Bailey to locker with Davis in the football dressing room.
He picked Albert up before school, sat next to him on the team bus for away games and drove him home after practice. It hadn’t been that big a deal being asked.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I guess,’” Coleman, now president and CEO of Anderson Lumber Company, said. “Somebody told me his name and had seen him play and said he was a good athlete.”
Not allowing Davis to ride the pep bus wasn’t right, he said. When he got home, Coleman got permission from his father to drive Davis to Memphis, the pair accompanied by Tornado teammate Butch Cochran. They found a hotel in another part of town and had a blast.
“I don’t know why my dad let me,” Coleman said. “I wouldn’t let a 16-year-old boy drive to Memphis. We had a real good time and just became good friends.”
The bus trip not taken wouldn’t be the only time Davis found his football celebrity extended only as far as the playing field. Sometimes, even there, race intervened.
He was named captain one season, the implications of which didn’t come full to light until homecoming weeks later. The captain crowned and kissed the queen at halftime of the homecoming game. The queen that season was white.
To fully appreciate what that meant, it’s important to note a ban against interracial marriage in Tennessee, punishable as a felony, remained a part of the state constitution until 1977, a full decade after a U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down such laws nationwide.
As a solution, Alcoa named a co-captain for the game, Davis awarding the roses to the queen, the co-captain handling the coronation and the kiss.
“(Davis) had some difficult times when he first came over there,” Coleman said. “He was just a freshman. He wondered if people would like him. It’s a big change of life to change schools and get thrown in there like that. I don’t know if I could have done it. It took a person who would get along with people and had a good personality.”
It had been so different at Hall, where Davis was already a schoolboy sensation by the eighth grade. He’d never wanted to transfer. His parents insisted. He honored their wishes.
Once one of Hall’s most talked about athletes, he felt isolated, an athletic marvel and little else.
“At Hall, it was enjoyable,” Davis said. “I had fun. I was enjoying myself. At Alcoa, it was pressure. I was not connected to the community anymore.”
Everett became the site of the historic game for reasons few knew. Davis’ debut had originally been scheduled for the week before at Loudon.
Doris Bailey, widow of former Alcoa coach Bill Bailey, remembers being shaken by calls her and her husband received. (Please see “Albert Davis Day,” Part I.) One such call Davis said his coach relayed to him.
“They told coach Bailey don’t bring that (slur deleted) down there or they’ll kill me,” Davis said.
The phone calls his parents received never ceased, Davis said. The City of Alcoa hired its first two black police officers – Walt Sudderth and Leonard Gaines – not long before Davis transferred. For the entirety of his groundbreaking 1963 season, one of them sat at the end of the drive outside the Davis home.
“My mother would tell me, ‘There are places you can’t go,’” Davis said. “I couldn’t live my life the way I once did.”
When the Tornadoes took the field that night against Everett, “Coach Bailey instructed the team to surround me and we went out on the field,” Davis said.
Davis remembers his father, Jefferson, tucking his pistol into his overcoat before leaving for the game.
That’s a lot for a 15-year-old to take in, Coleman said. The approach Davis took, he said, was surprising.
Davis seldom said much. There was, however, an incident in the hallway once, where one of the transfers from Hall and a white student were having words – loudly.
“I saw Albert pick up a guy and shove him against a locker and say, ‘We’re not going to have any of that,’” Coleman said. “He could keep order. That’s probably why he became a good principal.”
Channeling his frustrations to the gridiron, Davis began demolishing the record books at a terrific pace.
In 1965, he won his second state scoring title. He’d won his first as an eighth-grader at Hall. He scored 34 touchdowns that 1965 season. His senior season he really tore it up.
Along with a third state scoring title, “Superman,” as newspapers dubbed him, rushed for 1,893 yards in 10 games, averaging 7.3 yards per carry. To grasp the significance of those numbers, consider the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association didn’t institute a playoff to determine its champion until 1969, three years after Davis had graduated. The regular season was pretty much it, barring a bowl game.
More importantly, it wasn’t like opponents didn’t know who was going to get the ball when they played Alcoa.
Through the first four games of his senior season in 1966, Davis rushed for 769 yards and 14 touchdowns. The Tornadoes had 16 touchdowns all told to that point. David Davis had the other two.
Soon, Davis was not only one of the most talked about athletes in Blount County. He was being heralded as one of the best high school prospects in the nation. Praise poured in on all sides:
“Albert is one in a million,” former Maryville coach Ted Wilson was quoted as saying.
“He’s far ahead of anybody I’ve seen in high school,” former Everett coach Bobby Berrong said.
“Against us, that big guy was the finest fullback I’ve ever seen,” said former Kingsport coach Tom Brixey.
“I’m at a loss for words,” former Alcoa coach Jack Raby said. “I guess I’ve used up all the adjectives.”
Davis would finish his high school career as the only player ever selected All-Southern more than once. He was the first black player to ever earn the distinction from Tennessee. His junior season, he was named to two All-America teams. His senior year, he was named to three.
By the close of his senior season, Davis had scholarship offers from an estimated 150 colleges. Notably, only one of them was from a school that played football in the Southeastern Conference. Once again, history gave Davis the call.
Doug Dickey remembers being summoned to the president’s office soon after taking the University of Tennessee head coaching job in 1964. UT president Andrew Holt said the time had come to integrate the university’s athletic programs, he said.
“There were still several schools in the conference reluctant to make that move,” former Tennessee assistant athletics director Bud Ford said. “I think it was an appropriate time to do that.”
Former Tennessee basketball coach Ray Mears, hired in 1963, was given the same marching orders. Mears famously made future NBA great Spencer Haywood the first black athlete signed for Tennessee basketball.
Neither Haywood nor Davis ever made it to campus.
Dickey and running backs coach Jimmy Dunn didn’t have to look far to find the player they wanted. Davis was a find, period.
“The university had been integrated for a while,” Dickey said recently from his Jacksonville, Fla., home. “In talking to Dr. Holt, he felt it was time to move forward.
“Albert, without a doubt, was the most outstanding football player in Tennessee for a number of years.”
It wasn’t an easy sell. Davis had his fill of making history by that point. Tennessee was the only Southeastern Conference school whose policy makers would allow signing a black athlete. Davis had his sights set elsewhere, but, on “Albert Davis Day” at the high school in April of 1967, Dickey stepped to the microphone and led the crowd in a rousing chorus of “We want Albert!”
The Vols were ready to break the color barrier.
“The state of Tennessee had already gone through the integration process at the high school level for four years,” Dickey said.
On April 14, 1967, Tennessee got its man:
“U-T Signs Alcoa’s Albert Davis: All-America Prep Fullback Is Vols First Negro Athlete,” blared one headline.
“Tennessee Signs First Negro Grid Star,” proclaimed another.
From the heights of superstardom, Davis would soon endure a painful fall from grace.
At “Albert Davis Day,” Dickey informed the crowd Davis had been academically certified by the NCAA and the Southeastern Conference. Davis had taken his college entrance exam at Maryville College earlier that spring. Soon after, the national testing service received an anonymous phone call.
The caller claimed someone had taken the test for Davis, a claim the Tornado great vigorously protests.
Investigators were dispatched. Davis was asked to submit a signature for comparison. When he refused – out of principle, he said – Tennessee immediately pulled the scholarship offer. Lester McClain, a Nashville prep star recruited to be Davis’ roommate at Tennessee, went on to become the first black athlete to wear a Vols’ jersey.
“I’ve never sat down and asked Albert about it,” Coleman said. “I figured it’s none of my business. I figured if he wanted to tell me about it he would.”
To comment at this point wouldn’t be right, Dickey said.
“I really don’t think it would be appropriate,” he said. “The public record is the public record, and I think I’ll leave it at that.”
Intent on proving himself, Davis said he told the Tennessee coaching staff he’d pay his own way. He’d walk on. When the Vols denied the request, Davis left town for Nashville.
“It was devastating,” he said.
He needed to be by himself for a while, Davis said. He got an apartment and took a job pumping gas. It was there where Albert Davis the football star began the transition to Albert Davis, high school principal.
Historically-black Tennessee State had been one of the school’s recruiting Davis, and the coach there sought him out. Davis retook the entrance exam, scoring two points higher than the disputed test, and became a Tiger. It would be anything but smooth sailing.
A tumultuous four years followed. Davis briefly left State for a time, intent on transferring to the University of Houston, another school that once sought him out as a prep star.
“I got to the airport and no one showed up,” Davis said.
The offer no longer there, he returned to Nashville to finish his career with the Tigers.
In 1971, the one-time Alcoa football hero was taken in the 11th round of the NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Football, though, had long ceased to be fun. The reason ate at Davis. Finally, like so many tackles he’d broken in his career, he addressed the problem head on.
Making history at Alcoa, at Tennessee, had never been his aim. From as far back as he can remember all he’d wanted to be was a ball player, much like a child with an affinity for math, science or literature knows early they want to become a doctor or lawyer, Davis said.
“I have never seen a Rhodes Scholar get a million dollar contract,” he said, “not yet. Anybody can learn, but not everybody can play professional sports.”
He’d practiced tirelessly toward that aim. To improve his speed and hand/eye coordination, he’d often roll a tennis ball across the roof of his Howe Street home, racing to the other side to catch it before it hit the ground.
“I began to catch it every time,” Davis said.
He’d never applied himself in the classroom, though, not at Hall, not at Alcoa, where he repeated the ninth grade after transferring.
“I was not a good student,” Davis said. “It wasn’t that I couldn’t learn.”
Advice his father had given him years earlier finally brought into focus what had been troubling him. It was the reason not getting into Tennessee hurt so much.
“My father said, ‘If you’re going to be a big-timer, you’re going to have to learn to do more than one thing,’” Davis said.
For the first time in his life, he hit the books like he’d rifled so many linebackers through the years. He earned two master’s degrees and a PhD. The one-time legend that’d had his No. 32 jersey retired before he graduated from Alcoa retired recently as a high school principal from the Camden, New Jersey school system.
The difficult, history-making years at Alcoa were not without their moments of humor. There was the game one season at Sevier County, where Davis was matched against famed Bear linebacker Tom Atchley.
“I came out of the (locker room) door, he’s standing right there,” Davis said, “in uniform. Every place I went, he went.”
On the trip to Memphis with Coleman and Cochran, the trio exited the car for a quick-change “fire drill” at a small-town stoplight.
“We got in the backseat and let Albert drive,” Coleman said, “and we just rode down the street waving at everybody.”
History never asks permission of its champions. The cost is often a great deal more than anyone would willingly pay. Whatever you remember about Davis, Coleman said, remember this.
“He’s a good fellow,” he said. “He’s one of my best friends.”