TURNING THE HEADS OF DEFENDERS AND FANS, KNILE DAVIS LAST FALL WORKED HIS way up from the bottom of Arkansas's depth chart to lead SEC running backs in rushing. He didn't become a starter until late October. Still the sophomore finished with 1,322 yards, and his 6.48-yard average was best in the nation among backs with at least 200 touches. Life had never been so good. Yet Davis was in pain.
With breakaway speed that turned his 6-foot, 230-pound frame into a blur and with an explosive first step and a shiftiness between the tackles, Davis made it seem as if he were no longer being weighed down by a heavy heart. His final flourish, five straight 100-yard rushing games to close out the season, made it seem as if the position had always been his and that he'd never considered quitting. If only that were true.
As the Razorbacks opened camp in 2009 Davis found himself back home in Missouri City, Texas, paying final respects to his stepfather, Warren Morgan—the man he'd known as Pops since the second grade, the only person who believed that his son still could be a starting running back in the SEC after breaking his collarbone (in his junior year) and ankle (senior) at Fort Bend Marshall High.
The two had worked out together nearly every day since Knile was an eighth-grader, lifting weights in the garage and running hills at a nearby park, often with a heavy bag tied around the boy's waist. Morgan himself was a basketball player and knew nothing about football except that his son needed to get bigger, stronger, faster—and that he could play with the best.
Intrigued by Davis's size and aggressiveness (as well as his 360-pound bench press), Arkansas weighed the risks of his injury history and offered him a scholarship. He was in Fayetteville for the 2009 spring semester and practices. During that time Morgan was diagnosed with stage IV liver cancer, which metastasized to his brain, left him blind in one eye and wasted his body to about 100 pounds before summer's end.
Morgan could barely speak, sit up in bed or grasp Knile's hand when his son returned home that August. In stark contrast to Morgan, Knile was bigger, stronger, faster. The two were side by side when Morgan passed away. It was the hardest hit Davis ever took.
"You could see how down and how depressed he was," Razorbacks coach Bobby Petrino says. "He wasn't the same young man with the smile on his face. The good thing is, he hung with us."
After getting just 33 carries in his freshman year, Davis had a breakout performance against Ole Miss last Oct. 23, rushing 22 times for 176 yards and three touchdowns. He started the final six games, including the Sugar Bowl, and was regarded as a team leader long before quarterback Ryan Mallett left school a year early for the NFL.
Davis's smile was back, but the sorrow had never left. "Our goal was to be the best running back," Davis said in June, his voice quivering at the thought of his Pops. "While he was alive, I never got over that hump. I was never able to get 1,000 yards in high school. To get it, to lead the SEC, to make it to a BCS game—I don't know if he would have been able to control himself if he had been able to see it happen. I think about him every time I see a football."