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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 739

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This is the grave of Milt Davis.

Born in 1929 in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Davis was half-Black and half-Native, growing up in Jim Crow Los Angeles, which was pretty segregated at that time. He had little patience for the racism of America and was unwilling to tolerate it any more than he absolutely had to. Davis was an astounding athlete, great at both track and football. He played college ball at UCLA, first earning a partial scholarship for his track prowess and then making the football team as a defensive back. He was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1954. But Uncle Sam also drafted him and he then served two years in Korea. When he returned to the U.S., he went back to the Lions and said he wanted to play. Now, I don’t want to alarm you about a franchise that may just have a slight history of firing Black people to hire highly inferior white people, but the Lions told him that since they had no other Black players, he didn’t have a natural roommate and therefore they weren’t going to sign him.

Another great call for the Lions there, as Davis went on to become an instant star at defensive back for the Baltimore Colts, who swooped him up. In his rookie year of 1957, he merely led the NFL in interceptions with 10, interception return yards with 219, and interception returns for touchdowns with 2. He had 4 picks in 1958 and then led the league against in 1959 with 7 interceptions. To put this in modern context, the seasons were only 12 games at this time. In 1960, he had another six picks. The man was a huge ball hawk. In a mere 46 games, he had 27 interceptions! This was a career that was headed to the Hall of Fame. He also forced one of Frank Gifford’s two fumbles in the 1958 NFL Championship Game against the Giants, the so-called “Greatest Game Ever Played,” despite playing with two broken bones in his right foot.

But then Davis quit. And the reason is that he was just sick of all the racism he had to deal with in the NFL. Specifically, he was furious about having to stay at segregated hotels and eat at segregated restaurants while his white teammates did nothing to fight this. So he left the game and went back to UCLA, got his Ph.D. in education, taught high school for awhile, and became a professor of natural history at Los Angeles City College from 1964-89, while also serving as a scout for several NFL teams, presumably staying in southern California for this. He also built a very fancy midcentury modern house that has been profiled in the Los Angeles Times.

In 1989, Davis retired and bought a farm outside of Elmira, Oregon, which is a tiny town west of Eugene. He raised cattle, llamas, and sheep. He died of brain cancer in 2008, at the age of 79.

Milt Davis is buried in Willamette National Cemetery, Portland, Oregon.

If you would like this series to visit other NFL interception leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. In 1957, he actually shared the interception lead with two other players. Jack Christiansen, who played for the Lions, has an unknown grave site, but Jack Butler of the Steelers is in Pittsburgh. Jimmy Patton, who led the league in 1958 with 11 picks playing for the Giants, is in Belzoni, Mississippi. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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