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The manager told Davis that if he could buy some slip-resistant shoes for work, he'd consider hiring him. Davis went to a nearby Walmart, bought the footwear and returned 30 minutes later. Immediately he went to work, manning the grill, cooking fries, cleaning the bathrooms and, after a few weeks, running the cash register. With his first paycheck he bought a pair of Air Jordans for himself and clothes for his siblings. "Once I got paid I just wanted more, so I started working as much as I could, sometimes starting at 5 p.m. and working until 7 a.m.," he says. "After two shifts I'd head home, shower and then go to school. I was tired, but it was worth it just to have a little money and make sure my brother and sister had what they needed."
In 2007, his junior year at Marshall, while still toiling at Whataburger three nights a week, Davis emerged as the team's star tailback. Through the first four games he gained 425 yards and scored four touchdowns. Despite missing the rest of the season with a fractured right collarbone, Davis was rated the nation's No. 17 running back in the class of 2009 by Rivals.com. "He was a big man who could run fast," says Arkansas running backs coach Tim Horton. "Just on tape, you could tell he was very, very special."
Scholarship offers poured in from across the country—Arkansas, LSU, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas A&M—and the phone began ringing nonstop. But in just the second game of his senior year, Davis broke his right ankle, forcing him to miss the rest of the season. Suddenly the calls from recruiters slowed down. But Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino never wavered.
"We knew what kind of potential he had, and we weren't going to back away in any respect," Petrino says. "And we knew just how special of a person Knile was."
Impressed with the Hogs' staff, Davis committed to Arkansas, graduated from high school a semester early and enrolled in Fayetteville in January 2009. Warren and Regina helped him move into his dorm, and then Davis and his mother toured the stadium. Pops said he couldn't join them—he wasn't feeling well—so he rested in their hotel room. "In three or four years you will be playing for a national championship, as long as you keep working hard," Pops told Davis before he left campus. "Never quit and never stop chasing the dream."
Two months later, during a spring scrimmage, Davis received a handoff and bolted around the left corner. As he was turning upfield, a defender grabbed him by the back of his jersey and pulled. Before Davis even hit the ground, he heard a sickening popin his right ankle—the same one he'd fractured in high school. Again it was broken, and his freshman spring was lost.
In July 2009, as Davis rehabbed in the morning and attended classes in the afternoon, he received a phone call from his mother. With urgency in her voice, she told Davis to come home immediately. Pops was sick.
That episode from January turned out to be one of the first signs that Morgan had lung cancer. The last day of Pops's life was Aug. 1, 2009. Before Morgan drew his final breath, Davis, sitting at his bedside and holding his hand, whispered into his ear that he was praying for him. "Thank God," Morgan replied softly. "Always thank God."
Davis was still clutching Pops's hand when he passed away. Moments later Davis walked outside, alone, tears streaming down his face, and wandered into Community Park, one of the places where he and Pops had dreamed their big dreams.
A week later Davis returned to Fayetteville. His heart was heavy, but suddenly—and all the Razorback coaches swear to this—he started playing with the determination of someone running for two.