Seated in his Orange County real estate office, he lets his fingers alight on a yellowed piece of newsprint. "Here's an L.A. Times story about 1974, with pictures of Agnew, Nixon and Davidson," he says with a sigh. "A bad year." He lifts his photo to the light, regarding himself as if in a mirror. "Good god," he mutters softly.
Good god. The Me Decade was supposed to have been his, and 1974 was to have been the most glorious year yet for him. He began writing his autobiography that February. He was photographed for the April 15 cover of SI, flanked by Kwalick and Calvin Hill of the Hawaiians. He confided to friends that he was thinking of running for the U.S. Senate in '76. He had everything, and People magazine came to photograph it: The millionaire at home in exclusive Emerald Bay, with four handsome children and a wife named Barbie, a former cheerleader at UCLA.
Trouble was, the man's life was a shimmering mirage. Where to begin? Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run on April 8, and Davidson was bumped from the front of SI; a copy of that unpublished cover hangs in his office, near the check to Robert Marvin Hull. (Says Davidson's secretary, beholding these mementos, "He had 15 minutes to evacuate his home during the Laguna Beach fires last fall. What do you think he went back for?")
The glamorous Hawaiians turned out to be a hollow coconut, struggling to survive like every other team playing the hollow-sounding game of "WiFfLe ball," as sportswriters called it. "I remember when Dan Rogers was hired to be the first general manager of the Hawaiian franchise, and he was given a lifetime contract," says Grandi. "It wasn't too long after that, the owner called and said, 'I'm sorry, Danny, but I'm afraid you're dead.' "So Dan came back and worked for the league, and during those final days he was talking on the phone at his desk. The desk and chair were rental furniture, and the league had (alien behind on its payments. Sure enough, the rental company comes by and takes away the desk and chair. But Dan kept right on talking on the phone."
By the end of 1974 there had been the indignity of World Bowl I-and-Only, Gary and Barbie had begun divorce proceedings, Davidson had wrecked his Jaguar, and he had been knifed in the parking lot of a Newport Beach restaurant, Woody's Wharf, while arguing with some drunk. Our Redford double got 70 stitches in his face from the last two incidents. Nineteen seventy-four literally scarred him for life.
"I turned 40," he says, continuing to recite this litany. "I ended up upside down about $4 million, and that did not make for a good year." Nixon was exiled to San Clemente in August. And you begin thinking that maybe that old L.A. Times story got it right, that Davidson's photo belongs on the same page with Nixon and long lines at the gas station and those WHIP INFLATION NOW buttons, just another relic of an America gone bust in the mid-1970s.
If you think it is a stretch to connect Watergate and pro football, consider this: A sign in the war room of CRLLP—the Committee to Re-elect the President—at the time of the Watergate break-in read WINNING IN POLITICS ISNT EVERYTHING, IT'S THE ONLY THING. Nixon knew Frank Gifford. He surely knew Vince Lombardi.
Since 1974 Davidson has been as elusive as Bobby Fischer, the chess prodigy who went into his own self-imposed exile that summer. "I think Gary went to live in Haiti," said a friend when asked recently about Davidson. Whispers another friend: "I heard he tried to commit suicide."
Even as his autobiography was shuffling off the presses two decades ago, Davidson hail begun taking drives into Baja, cruising from village to dusty village in search of a place to start over. By 1976 he was spending much of his time on a sisal plantation in Haiti. Ten thousand people on 40,000 acres. Among his investment partners in Dauphin Plantations was Baby Doc Duvalier, who did not believe in a liberal profit-sharing plan. The plantation was eventually sold to a group of Haitians, and Davidson was back in Orange County—not far from San Clemente. "All the people on the plantation," says Davidson as a footnote, "probably ended up starving to death."
His story was supposed to end here, horribly, but a funny thing happened on his way to obscurity. Unlike his basketballs, Gary Davidson bounced back. He found God and a new wife, and revived his real estate career by developing retirement communities. At 60 he remains the same picture-of-health fitness freak who used to encourage his employees to climb five flights of stairs instead of using the elevator. He now says grown-up things about professional sports, like "Today's player salaries are a bit distorted" and "The owners have let things get out of control" and "The fans are paying too much." He has become a bona fide millionaire. Like that Screaming Eagles check, it turns out Gary Davidson was made of rubber.