- Born: July 24th, 1934 – Lisbon, Louisiana
- Position: Defensive End
- Years Active: Cleveland Browns (1958-1959), Green Bay Packers (1960-1969)
- College: Grambling State
- Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame Induction: 1975
- Professional Football Hall of Fame Induction: 1981
Before Willie Davis considered playing football professionally, he was highly interested in pursuing a career in business. After being accepted to Grambling State, Willie jumped at the opportunity to pursue this career path and developed a passion for it. However, that dream was short lived when the school guidance counselor meets with him and tells him that there were no opportunities for African Americans in the business world. Being in Louisiana at the time, he knew that she was telling the truth. Willie left feeling defeated and highly discouraged. After joining the NFL and being drafted to the Cleveland Browns, he began to feel that football would be the defining factor of his life and his dreams of becoming something more began to fade away. It wasn’t until coming to Green Bay, and meeting Vince Lombardi that he received encouragement to be something more.
After being traded to the “Siberia of Football” in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Willie Davis considered retiring, feeling as if he had been punished by Paul Brown. The Green Bay organization was very welcoming and upon arriving at training camp Coach Lombardi assured Willie Davis that he was an incredible player and would fill the role of a great defensive end. Vince Lombardi and Willie Davis immediately had a strong and genuine connection. Willie admired Lombardi’s coaching style and tenacity he brought each and every day. The words Lombardi spoke really resonated with Willie and Lombardi had a way of making Willie feel special and an equal part of the team. However, along with many other African American players, he couldn’t escape discrimination off the field.
The atmosphere in Green Bay was quite different than what he was used too. The community was almost entirely white, and many people have seldom seen a black person before, which enticed curiosity making many players and their family’s uncomfortable with the unwanted attention. Just like the other players, Willie had a difficult time finding a place that would rent to him and his teammates. This infuriated Coach Lombardi and he approached President Dominic Olejniczak and demanded that African Americans have to be in suitable apartments in the city. Lombardi stated that “if the black players are going to help this team win, the city needs to understand that these players need good places to live”.1
Being from Louisiana, Willie was used to this kind of treatment and knew how to handle the situation which earned the respect of his African American teammates. Willie later returned to Vince Lombardi to thank him, and Coach Lombardi assigned Davis a leadership position of communicating issues back and forth among the African American players. Willie Davis valued the trust that coach Lombardi had in him and embraced the role of a leader both on and off the field.
Over the years Willie Davis gained the respect of the Green Bay community and Vince Lombardi. Although he was incredibly successful on the field, his dream on pursuing something post-football was still in the back of his mind. The confidence he had in his ability to succeed made him realize he could be something more. The motivation that he developed in football and in the faith that Green Bay had inspired him to apply for University of Chicago and attempt to get a Master’s degree in Business Administration. When he told Coach Lombardi of his goal, he gave Willie some words of advice by saying “how you play this game is a reflection of the way you’ll live the rest of your life”.2 When Willie started pursuing his MBA, he didn’t realize just how difficult it was going to be. Between football and school, the pressure built, he began to struggle and feeling he was pushing himself to his limit and contemplated quitting college all together. He proceeds to call Coach Lombardi and discusses his plans of quitting college. Vince Lombardi reassured him that he was destined for something important, and that was what it he had to do to get there. That’s all it took for Willie to change his mind and soon he became absolutely committed and knew that this is what he is obligated to do.
Willie Davis went to build a wildly successful business career serving on a board of numerous companies that has spanned over 45 years, which brought him praise and financial rewards. When Willie Davis reflects on his success, he credits everything to Vince Lombardi and the community of Green Bay, Wisconsin. The discipline instilled into Willie’s mind during his football carrier has carried him through college and many other aspects of his life. He learned how to value himself as a leader and as a person. He had developed the confidence that allowed him to be resilient in the face of adversity. If the city of Green Bay and Vince Lombardi never had gave him the opportunity to prove himself, he would have never believed he could have made it in the business world. Not only is Willie Davis known for being an excellent football player, he is also widely known as an affluent businessman and the man who beat all odds by following his dreams.
- \Press-Gazette, Richard Ryman -. “Black Players on Green Bay Packers’ 1960s Championship Teams Lauded, but Faced Discrimination.” Press Gazette Media. August 06, 2018. Accessed December 05, 2018. https://www.greenbaypressgazette.com/story/news/2018/08/02/black-packers-players-1960-s-faced-discrimination-green-bay-lombardi-housing-racism/774591002/.
- Davis, Willie, Jim Martyka, and Andrea Erickson. Davis. Closing the Gap: Lombardi, the Packers Dynasty, and the Pursuit of Excellence. Chicago, IL: Triumph Books, 2012. 117.