SI Vault
Skip Myslenski
March 17, 1969
Every weekend Willie Davenport (right) proves once again he is history's finest hurdler. Unhappily, few notice—and he may have to rely on pro football for real fame
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
March 17, 1969

The Woes Of Wee Willie Wisp

Every weekend Willie Davenport (right) proves once again he is history's finest hurdler. Unhappily, few notice—and he may have to rely on pro football for real fame

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4

"Some of the criticism I received then was unjustified," Davenport says now. "I had been hurt, that was the first outdoor race I ran that year and Flowers already had some competition. But still, yes, my pride was hurt, especially because I had gotten beat in front of the student body. When I got on TV, I just promised them I wouldn't lose again."

He kept his word well enough to win the Olympic Trials at Lake Tahoe and, of course, the gold medal in Mexico. "Willie has studied the hurdles and mastered all the techniques," says Hill. "His form as a hurdler is as perfect as any I've ever seen." Villanova Coach Jumbo Elliott agrees. "What makes Davenport great is that he works over the hurdles," he says. "He doesn't just float over. This gives him more efficient time on the ground to do the running."

But despite Davenport's success, Hill is not fully convinced. "You always have to wonder. A man can get this far," he says, moving a knife across the lunch table, "without training and without coming out for practice. But could he get this far"—and the knife moves a little farther—"if he did train?"

Davenport disagrees. "I know this is best for me," he says. "I've tried both ways, training and nontraining. But it's like Ralph Boston said at the Olympics. Leon Coleman was telling people how he didn't think Davenport was going to do anything because he doesn't do any training. Boston told him to relax—that the only time you worry about Davenport is when he does train."

This singular posture is, in a way, a reflection of Willie Davenport himself—a proud, enigmatic person shaped and formed at Howland in that world of so many white faces with so much money and so little time. He became a loner in school, a hustler out. And he became sensitive to those he learned to trust, listening to them, appreciating them, and, most of all, respecting them.

"Howland is made up of a very large amount of the very wealthiest people in the area," says Johnson, who still teaches there. "It also has very high academic achievement, and I'm afraid in Willie's case it was a guy not keeping up with the next one and just getting pushed around, ignored. So he developed a plain sour attitude toward the whole world." Although Davenport credits Johnson with "pulling me together," Johnson demurs. "I don't think it was me specifically who changed him," he says. "It was just that he needed someone to pay attention to him, and I happened along."

The deference Davenport pays Johnson is shown those closest to him today. He gave Dr. G. Leon Netterville, president of Southern, a pen set fashioned from a trophy he won at the Texas Relays. "I admire and respect the man," Davenport says. "I just wanted him to have it." He puts his arm around Doc Williams, the Southern trainer who fixed him up for the Olympic Trials, and says, "I could never have done it without Doc. Make sure you say something nice about him."

"I was attracted to Willie," Dr. Netterville says, "because he has the qualities I'd like to see in my own son. He's quiet and reserved, actually sort of shy. He's not namby-pamby by any means. No one runs over him. But he doesn't walk around with that attitude of Here I Am. Willie Davenport. Olympic Champion. As a matter of fact, it's very hard getting him to speak of himself."

His reserve disappears, however, when Davenport is among friends, having a drink or two (rusty nails and German beer are his current favorites). Then he likes to tell stories from his past or, preferably, from the past of those he is with. "You know my old lady here," he said one evening, referring to Marian Calvey, his fianc�e. "Well, when we first met she couldn't remember my first name. So she kept calling me Davenport, Davenport, Davenport. Of course, the real reason was when she looked at me, that was all she could think of."

He is also himself as Davenport the businessman or, bluntly, Davenport the hustler. "When I was growing up," he explains, "my parents were well enough off to give me most of what I needed, but they made me go out and make my own way." So Davenport started "hustling honest money" at 13, sweeping out a hardware store. Since then he has been a printing press operator, everything from a stock boy to a salesman at Sherwin-Williams in Warren, a popcorn vendor at Southern football and basketball games and, even now, a clerk in a Baton Rouge discount house and sole owner, operator and manpower of something loosely called Davenport Maintenance Service. "I have this car and an apartment and a console color television to take care of," he explains. "Well, you figure it out. The money has to come from someplace."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4