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It's a midsummer morning in 2006 in Missouri City, Texas, and Knile Davis is 14 years old. He grabs a football inside his family's modest three-bedroom house and slides into the passenger seat of a 2002 white Mustang convertible, alongside the man he calls Pops. With the Texas wind feathering their faces, Davis and his stepfather, Warren Morgan, drive the 20 miles to Rice Stadium in Houston. There, the two sneak through a chain-link fence and begin to dream.
Knile, who works overnight shifts (even on some school nights) at a local 24-hour Whataburger, starts to run the stadium steps. Under a scorching Texas sun and the watchful eyes of his stepfather, he attacks the stairs as if he's running for his life, sprinting up the concrete to the summit, then walking down, dashing up again, over and over for nearly an hour. Morgan reminds his stepson that football could one day be a path to a college education and a better life. When the workout is over, Knile and Pops play catch on the field. "That's when I fell in love with football," Knile says of that day, "and that's where my love of Pops really was formed."
IT'S A spring evening in 2012 in Fayetteville, Ark., and Davis is now 20 years old. He is strolling across the field at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, looking through the half light at the empty bleachers—"I've run enough of those in my life," he says. Then he finds the spot on the turf where everything changed. Last Aug. 11, on the first drive of the first scrimmage of Arkansas's fall camp, after fans had created a "Knile Davis for Heisman" Facebook page, he took a handoff and barreled into the line on an inside zone run. As he was gang tackled, a defender rolled up on Davis's left leg and broke his left ankle—the third time in four years he'd sustained a fractured ankle.
"As I was on the ground, I was just praying I wouldn't miss the whole season," recalls Davis. "I did, and it was very, very hard. But now I'm better than ever. I'm ready to roll. I've got a lot to make up for, and this is my year to make Pops proud."
It certainly appears that Davis, who was All-SEC in 2010 as a sophomore when he gained 1,322 yards in just eight starts, is once again 100% healthy. During winter testing inside Walker Pavilion on March 6, with his entire team watching, the 6-foot, 226-pound Davis ran the 40, and when the time was announced, the Pavilion erupted in ooohs and applause; Davis's 4.33 was the fastest of any Razorback.
At that moment they all knew: Even though he didn't play a down last season, Davis is better than ever, and Arkansas's SEC—and BCS—title hopes had gotten a whole lot more serious. "Seeing him run, that was like, Wow, Knile is definitely back," says quarterback Tyler Wilson.
Without Davis in 2011, the Razorbacks were forced to rely on the pass, and they still finished 11--2. This year Arkansas has lost its three most talented receivers, shifting the offensive load more to Davis, a redshirt junior who along with Wilson will enter the season as a bona fide Heisman Trophy contender. "He's so important to what we want to do on offense," says the quarterback. "He can break tackles; he can get the hard yards; he can pass-block; and he's a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball. I don't think there's another back like him in the country. He's a leader, because we all know everything he's been through and how he's fought to overcome it all."
It's an autumn night in 2004, and Knile is 13 years old. It has been seven years since Knile's mother, Regina Gardner, and biological father, Kevin Davis, separated. (They divorced a year later, but Knile still speaks occasionally with his father.)
The youngster is in the garage of his family's house with Morgan, who had met Regina in 1998 and will marry her in 2006. Knile is lifting a dumbbell when Morgan asks a question, "What do want to do with your life?"
"I want to play football."