The bus was a mistake. Troy Davis could feel it with each mile; a cold dread uncoiled inside him as town after faceless Illinois town spun by in the dark. Aurora, Dixon, Moline. None of it had sat right—not the long, storm-tossed plane ride from Miami, not the five butt-crushing hours on the gummy floor of a Chicago bus terminal, and certainly not this 10-hour meander across the heartland. All around him passengers gave off that low hum of anticipation, looking forward, wanting to go somewhere. Not Davis. No, all he could think of was where he had come from. It was as if he could feel his heart flattening beneath the wheels of the bus as they rolled into Iowa. Davenport, Walcott Junction, Cedar Rapids. When he stepped off the bus in Ames in the morning, the greatest running back the town had ever seen took one look and knew: I hate it here.
Typical, yes? Isn't it the freshman's fate to regret, if only for a while, even going to college? Trouble is, for Davis in the late summer and autumn of 1994, the loathing never ceased. His first day at Iowa State he called his parents in South Miami Heights and announced, "I'm ready to come home." He didn't unpack for two weeks, and every day he called home three, four, 10 times, crying thick tears and saying he couldn't take it; he had nobody close in Ames, he had nothing. One of the assistant coaches, Arnie Romero, would go to his room and rub his shoulders as he sobbed, and try to find soothing words. "Come on, Sugar," he would say. "It's all right. Your daddy's here."
Nothing helped. Nobody on the football staff had seen anything like it. "Never in my whole goddam life," Romero says. "The homesickness was awful, just pitiful. Crying—and I mean crying like a baby. I'd stay there till two in the morning."
August was a nightmare, then came September: The Cyclones began their spiral toward a winless season, the head coach was on borrowed time, and Davis felt alone and betrayed. He would call home and tell his mother and father he was going to kill himself. Since they had no money to bring him back to Florida, there was nothing to do but console him. Asked how, at the time, he expected Troy's freshman year to end, his younger brother Darren says, "Suicide."
"I was pretty close to it," Troy says. "I felt that bad." He gives a little laugh at this, and from the perspective of two years later, it does seem slightly comical. Davis is, after all, the running back who brought distinction to Iowa State last year, becoming the first sophomore in history—and only the fifth NCAA player ever—to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. (The others were Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders in 1988, USC's Marcus Allen in '81, Colorado's Rashaan Salaam in '94 and Nebraska's Mike Rozier in '83.) He carries himself as you would expect someone who finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting in 1995 and may finish first in '96: gracefully, his muscles bunching with every step.
His high school coach describes the 5'8", 185-pound Davis as a pit bull: small and savage. His eyes are watchful, and his massive head and shoulders taper down to tiny feet. If that upper body isn't menacing enough, Davis has adorned himself with the emblems of gangsta chic: two gold-plated front teeth and a mass of tattoos. He had a pit bull and the number 1001 emblazoned on his left pectoral after he crossed that yardage barrier last year. A crest on his left arm commands THANK GOD, and his initials are carved into his right biceps.
Indeed, Davis looks the very essence of toughness, and it is all a sham. Anyone who knows him will tell you how fragile he is, less pit bull than retriever—eager to please and easy to hurt. Once during practice at Miami's Southridge High, coach Don Soldinger ripped into Davis, then a junior, for some mistake and couldn't believe what came next. Davis, who would lead Southridge to an undefeated season and the state title the next year and who is renowned for his taste for bruising contact, burst into tears. "He said, 'Coach, I don't want to disappoint you,' " says Soldinger, now an assistant at Miami. "If you ask this kid to do something and he feels you're in his corner, he'd die for you. He takes everything literally, and the criticism really hurt him."
Romero found this out at the first team meeting of Davis's freshman year at Iowa State. The coach, who had cultivated Davis when all the big-time Florida schools backed off and stood by him when he struggled to nail a passing score on the ACT, gave him a profanity-filled blistering for having turned down tutoring help. Romero called Davis a baby and said he would send him home. Davis called Soldinger, stuttering with pain. Davis never forgave Romero. "He was saying he really doesn't need me now," Davis says. "He called all the time when he was recruiting me, but once I got up there, he turned his back on me."
At times Davis felt as if the whole place had. Cyclones head coach Jim Walden had taken one look at Davis's performance in high school—he had been the first back in Dade County to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season—and thought he would build his offense around him. But while the NCAA clearinghouse delayed approval of his transcript, Davis missed most two-a-days, and by the time he worked his way into shape, the Cyclones had de-emphasized the I-back in their offense. In addition Walden, who was aware of Davis's unhappiness in Ames, says he was afraid to count too heavily on a guy who might bolt town any moment. Davis finished the season with only 35 carries and was still plagued by homesickness. He blew off classes and came, he says, "very, very close to flunking out."
He didn't care. He had never lived outside of Florida before. He had been so mystified by snow on his recruiting trip that he had tried to take some home in a bottle. Now here he was in frigid Ames, a town so white that Romero, who's Hispanic, enlisted his tavern cronies to help sell the place to black kids. "I'd get this guy named Smoke," says Romero. "And he'd come out and say, 'Oh, this place is so great!' The next day I'd bring out a guy named Sam, and he'd say, 'Oh, man, this place is great!' Those are the only black people I had up there to help recruit the kids: Sam and Smoke."