More intriguing is the present Willie Davenport, a perfect model of consistency who went through the indoor season undefeated, unthreatened and, it often seemed, unrecognized. He first experienced relative obscurity at the Olympics, when his gold medal was overshadowed by a pair of black gloves and then almost forgotten when he simply, and sanely, stated at a press conference, "I didn't come to talk about Black Power or anything like that. I came to talk about the race." And, despite his win streak in races from 45 to 120 yards, in which he tied four world records besides the three he broke, he received the outstanding athlete award at only one meet.
"Sure it bothers me," he says, "but the hurdles is an early race and a lot of people aren't there and it happens so fast...well, by the time the end of the meet comes along, they're all thinking about how good George looked winning the two-mile or how good Sam looked winning the mile and they forget about Davenport setting that new world record."
But those he beats don't forget. Ery Hall, who was second to Davenport in the Olympics and somewhere behind him every time they raced this winter, says, "Actually, I have a little more incentive when I run against Davenport. A lot of the pressure is off of me because I have nothing to lose. There's more on him. But he's just a great hurdler. He's always been that way."
Leon Coleman, fourth behind Davenport in the Olympics and a nine-time loser this winter, talks a bit more bravely. "Sometimes I just try too hard," he says. "It might be a psychological thing. But I still think he can be beat."
Davenport himself doesn't have any real explanation for his newfound consistency. "The only thing different," he says, "was that up to the Olympics I was strictly a competitive runner. Now that I'm winning so regularly and setting world records with other runners two- or three-tenths of a second behind, I'm more confident and relaxed when I go to the line. I'm not sure I'm going to win, but I think some of the other runners might be psyched out."
Whatever the answer may be, it certainly isn't training, a ritual Davenport religiously avoids. This attitude conflicts with that held by Dick Hill, the track coach at Southern, and before the 1968 outdoor season began Davenport quit the team. "It was just a lack of communication," he says.
Hill says it was more because of Davenport's training—or nontraining—methods. "I maintain certain disciplines on the team," Hill says, "and one of them is that the runners show up every day for practice. Willie doesn't train that way, and I don't think it's right to make special rules for anyone."
As a matter of fact, Davenport doesn't even train every other day. He practiced twice during the indoor season—once on his start, on Jan. 8 and again, on getting more snap over the first hurdle, the following week. "I've studied hurdles well enough," he says, "and I know the techniques well enough that if I make a mistake in a race, I can pick it up by myself. Then I'll practice it. Like I said, I had to work once on the start and once on the first hurdle. But other than that, well, everything just fell into place."
However, there was a time, shortly after he quit the Southern track team last April, that the Davenport Method was sorely tried. Tennessee's Richmond Flowers, himself an outstanding hurdler, was at Southern for the school's Pelican State Relays. It was the first time in the nine-year history of the meet that the field had been integrated and the first time, as Southern Publicist Bennie Thomas remembers, "You could look up in the stands and see salt and pepper."
The day turned out to be disastrous for Davenport. He not only got beat by Flowers but by Southern's Harvey Nairn as well. "Well," Thomas says, "Willie saw all the kids running to get Flowers' autograph, surrounding him, and there he was, nothing more than an also-ran walking with his head down. On Monday he came to me and asked if he could go on television and apologize. I got him on. And he apologized."