A headache succeeded where NFL defensive coordinators have failed: It took Davis out of a game. "It's weird," Broncos fullback Aaron Craver says, referring to Davis's success in light of his underwhelming pigskin pedigree. "You never know who's going to end up being great."
It is weirder still that a 5'11", 200-pound guy who volunteered to play noseguard in high school to get on the field is already considered one of the most complete backs in the league. "There's not an area in his game that isn't strong," says Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, citing Davis's soft hands, reliable pass protection and devastating lead blocks.
Denver management was so impressed with Davis's rookie performance that last summer it tore up the final two years of his contract and signed him to a five-year, $6.8 million deal, which spiked his average annual salary from $166,000 to $1.36 million. As The Denver Post noted a day later, "Anytime anyone receives an 819 percent pay raise in one day, it is a good day."
No Bronco begrudges the kid a dime. "We have a high level of respect for him," says tight end Shannon Sharpe, who then poses a rhetorical question: "How many teams say to their best back, 'Look, we're going to give the ball to the fullback, so we want you to take on their best linebacker'? I don't think they say that to Emmitt Smith or Barry Sanders. We tell Terrell that, and he crashes up in there. He's all man."
But he is not the Man. In Denver that honorific belongs to quarterback John Elway, whose appreciation of Davis runs as deep as, if not deeper than, any Bronco's. Elway has played in three Super Bowls despite being saddled for most of his 14-year career with ordinary backs and receivers. No more. Through Sunday the Broncos had the NFL's top-ranked offense. This is the most potent running attack Denver has had for Elway, who has engineered 39 fourth-quarter game-winning or game-tying drives. It would not break his heart, Elway admits, if he no longer had to spend the waning minutes of games scrambling around like a man with scorpions in his pants. "I'd much rather hand the ball to Terrell in the fourth quarter," he says. "I'd rather bleed the clock than race against it."
Davis gives Elway, now in his NFL dotage at 36, a chance to finally win it all. And to think that 21 backs were selected before Davis in the '95 draft. "It makes you wonder," says Elway. "How many guys have been hidden like that and never got discovered?"
Davis proved to be a pleasant discovery for the venerable George Allen, the coach at Long Beach State when Davis arrived in 1990. As a freshman he was the star of the scout team. Allen called him Secretariat. But tragedy struck the program at the end of that season. The 72-year-old Allen died of heart failure on Dec. 31. After the following season Long Beach State officials, citing budget shortfalls, dropped football.
Two schools threw Davis a lifeline: Georgia and UCLA. "Georgia?" he said when his roommate told him the Bulldogs' recruiting coordinator had called. "Where the hell is Georgia?"
"If you'd have given me a puzzle of the 50 states," says Davis, "I wouldn't have known where to put Georgia. But it was a free trip, so I went."
Listen to his recollection of that visit, and you'll understand why he chose the Bulldogs: "They took me through this big old museum-looking building with all these trophies and video screens. When you touched the screens, they showed famous plays. Downstairs, in the locker room, it's all red and pretty. They give you cleats and gloves—at Long Beach we had to pay for those things. You get a game helmet and a practice helmet. They had my jersey with my name already on it. I was like, 'I'm here!' "