The owner, too, is softening his relations with traditional enemies. When the owner of the Cleveland Browns, Art Modell—whom Davis often characterized as former commissioner Pete Rozelle's running dog—offered to solve a fractious dispute among owners by resigning his position on the NFL's television committee, Davis was the first to insist that he stay. When Rozelle, long Davis's enemy, announced his retirement, Davis was the first to shake his hand. Strange times? Perhaps, as Hayes says, "the man is but a mere mortal."
If it is arrogant to put yourself beyond the working laws of the NFL, what do you call someone who places himself outside the rules of life and death? A mere mortal? Davis might be surprised to hear that. Might have been at one time, anyway. Concerning mortality, Davis intends to seek an exemption, both for himself and for friends.
"Death is the only thing I'm afraid of," he told Pete Axthelm in an ESPN interview this spring. "It's the one thing you can't control."
His friends have been hearing this for years. In an interview seven years ago Davis admitted, "I'm just nutty about death." He said, "I lost my dad in a strange way, and it does bother me.... So all this other stuff is kid stuff, because I believe I can overcome all other things and dominate."
As it turns out, he was being modest. He thought—and with some reason—he could dominate death, too.
In 1979 his wife, Carolee, whom he has described variously as "a big-time New York girl" and a "wild woman," went into cardiac arrest and sank into a coma. Davis has said that the doctors told him she would be a vegetable if she ever woke from the coma, an unlikely event in itself. Davis responded with a stubborn fury that is all his own, and within a week he'd set up shop in her hospital room, taking this matter into his own hands. Getting it done. He stayed by her bed around the clock, talking into the nights. Over and over he would say, "Wake up, Carolee, the plane is waiting for us, we've got to get to the game." After another week and a half Carolee came out of the coma, willed back to life by her husband.
"I don't think there was any virtue in that," Davis told Axthelm. "She was my friend. I would do it for any friend." Davis gave everyone on the hospital staff who had attended to Carolee—an interim family that included doctors and nurses and orderlies—a new television set. Carolee sits beside him in the owner's box at all the home games.
With others, though, Davis wasn't able to get it done. He tried to intervene in the fatal illnesses of two sportswriters, Jack Murphy and Wells Twombly. For the latter, a San Francisco columnist, he even arranged a liver transplant.
So many deaths. "It's busted him up," says Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder, a member of the Davis inner circle. "That's the one thing he can't put up a game plan against." Certainly it mocks all his assumptions. Upshaw, now executive director of the Players Association but still in touch with his old boss, says, "He always told me, 'If I could just conquer that, if I could just conquer life and death.' It's always been a mystery to him. It's a mystery to all of us, but he thinks about it a lot more than most."
Little artifacts of defiance—as when he said after a pet dog died of cancer a few years ago, "There are places I know now [that might have prolonged the animal's life]"—are being replaced by hints of resignation. People and pets do die, contrary to his best intentions. As for himself, he continues to lift weights, which he hauls along to training camps and NFL meetings, not to gain strength but to preserve his health and maintain his "lines." He drinks ice water with meals, though he has been seen with a Diet Pepsi. He has no known vices outside of fashion, in which he makes an interesting statement—that the development of style was halted abruptly in 1963. Everything about him seems concerned with the preservation of the past, which is strange in a man given to forward thinking.