Stephen Davis sat on the floor in the living room of the town house in Ashburn, trying with all his ingenuity to get his Christmas toy working. Try as he might with a remote control, he could not make the little car run on its plastic track. But then Stephen is only a year-and-a-half old, and with a small assist from his mother, Virginia, who moved his left foot off the track, the car sped forward.
His father, the Stephen Davis known to Washington Redskins fans, looked on proudly. So did Queen Davis, the running back's mother and grandmother of the toddler, of whom she said joyfully as he found the way to sound the car horn, beep-beep: "He's 18 months old going on 35."
In that family snapshot, "Big Steve," as Queen sometimes calls her son to differentiate him from "Little Steve," was surrounded by those whose inspiration guides his life. Davis's career turned sharply upward this season, his fourth with the Redskins, when he led the NFL with 17 touchdowns and the NFC in rushing with 1,405 yards -- even though he missed the final 2 1/2 games with an ankle injury that could limit his playing time and effectiveness in today's game. He is 6 feet, 234 pounds, just 25 years old.
As he related it, his life's models have made possible his accomplishments: his high school coach, his high school athletic director and, most of all, his family -- his mother and now his own family. He has had what a young person needs, a caring family and a few other devoted individuals.
His mother's guidance endures: "One thing she said, `Never quit doing something you started.' "
The simple message struck Davis with the psychic equivalent of a blindside tackle because when Queen gave the advice she was battling for her life -- and she wasn't quitting. It was a little more than 10 years ago, Davis's sophomore year of high school in Spartanburg, S.C. His mother told him the bad news -- that she had breast cancer. "I took it pretty bad," he said. "I wanted to quit." His youthful instinct had been to quit school, and football, and stay home to do what he could for her. Nothing else mattered to him at that moment when he realized the tenuousness of life.
But she explained to him that his place was in school. "What she said always sticks in the back of my mind, especially when things aren't going my way," he said, leaning forward on his sofa, his mother off tending to something in another room. He is soft-spoken. "I got more serious about playing football, and my schooling. Sometimes I could be hard-headed. In the neighborhood I grew up in, there was a lot of temptation, and there was a lot of peer pressure there. But she stayed behind me and kept me out of trouble. Without her I wouldn't be here today.
"Just seeing what she was going through when she was sick, the situation she was in, for her to tell me not to quit inspired me. How she raised five kids alone, when we were struggling. . . . She made everything seem so easy."
Queen Davis was a single parent, Stephen the youngest of the five whom she supported by working in a mill operating a knitting machine. When she had to undergo a mastectomy, and chemotherapy, her family offered support. "God bless Mama," she said. That would be the tireless Ethel Davis, now 86. "So beautiful," Queen Davis said of her mother, "86 going on 16."
"My sisters wouldn't let me dwell on it. They were always keeping me busy, always talking. Somebody was always with me. I've got the world's best family. God gave me another chance. To me, one of the things in getting through this is don't dwell on it. I talk about this to anybody because I have gotten a blessing. I would say to anybody: Have faith. It's your frame of mind. And most of all, get early detection."
In what once seemed a cruel irony but now is a source of wonder and hope to their sons, the mothers of Stephen Davis and his longtime friend and current teammate, safety Leomont Evans, both suffered breast cancer. "That's something we both relate to," said Evans in revealing the harsh coincidence.
Davis and Evans met at a banquet when they were in high school. Davis led the state in rushing. Evans, who played for nearby Abbeville (S.C.) High, was second. Davis went off to Auburn because he liked former coach Pat Dye and the school's history of running backs, including Bo Jackson. Evans attended the area college, Clemson. They were reunited on the Redskins. They live close to each other and have similar-size families: Davis's wife, Virginia, nicknamed Dee Dee, had two daughters, Denita, 12, and Sherrell, 9, before meeting Stephen.
"My mother had the same thing," Evans said, speaking one day at Redskin Park of his mother Dorothy's cancer. "I was in college -- I was a kid. I was thinking, `I'm going to make it in the NFL one day and she'll never get to see me play.' But she's fine."
She came to the Miami game last Sunday, as did Davis's mother. "To look up in the stands and see her there is a great feeling," Evans said.
Queen Davis said her illness "made Stephen appreciate life more. I think it matured him a little more." And sooner than they believed possible, they shared the happiest of times. Stephen ran for 2,448 yards and scored 32 touchdowns as a high school senior, and his mother rooted him on. "I was running up and down the sidelines, running right along with him," she said.
Davis praised his Spartanburg High coach, Doc Davis, who is not related. He took the job before Stephen's junior year. The school's trainer, Myles Wilson, introduced the new coach to the blossoming football star by taking him to a track meet in which Davis was running the 100 and 200 meters. He would be state champion three times in the 100, once in the 200. "I saw the gleam in Coach Davis's eye when this 16-year-old, weighing 220 pounds, came off the turn in the 200," Wilson said.
But at first the young Davis was not pleased with the prospect of playing for the new coach. "I was a kid then, I thought I was everything, I wanted to be the guy," Stephen said. "But he sat me down and put me in my place, and made me earn my job and earn the respect I got when I was in high school. He was a disciplinarian."
Davis probably would have excelled anyway on his natural talent, but he expressed gratitude that the coach instilled in him a better attitude while helping him become an even better player. "It was something he didn't really have to do," Stephen said, "but he chose to do it."
Doc Davis professes only a modest part in Stephen's development. "He did more for me than I did for him," Coach Davis said, laughing. "We wouldn't have won the state championship without him, and we've won it three times since then. We've always run the I formation and so we've always needed two tailbacks to share the load. And there has never been any jealousy between them. That's the mark that Stephen left behind and the best compliment I can give him: He was always unselfish. That's how it's been on our team ever since. Every player on our team knows about Stephen Davis. Everyone in school knows about Stephen Davis. His number is retired -- 48, the same one he wears now for the Redskins."
At Auburn, Davis's career went well -- although it turned out slightly less than he had envisioned. Dye was replaced as coach by Terry Bowden, but still Davis's junior year was a huge success, 1,263 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns. He was widely considered a Heisman Trophy candidate. But Bowden shifted to a pass-oriented offense Davis's senior year, cutting his carries substantially. Yet he managed 1,068 yards (with virtually the same average per carry) and 17 touchdowns. How he lasted to the fourth round of the NFL draft suggests that logic is not always part of the pro selection process.
"On the second day of the draft, one of my aunts came in the house and she told me just pray on it," Davis said. "And that's what I did. I prayed that I got the opportunity, that an organization would give me the opportunity to play."
Redskins Coach Norv Turner said that an injury Davis suffered that year before the Senior Bowl curtailed his workouts for pro scouts. The Redskins themselves were not shopping primarily for a tailback. But Turner said that he and then-general manager Charley Casserly were surprised to find Davis still available on Day 2 of the draft, and decided to take him with their next pick if he were still available.
"When you put his runs on the reel and looked at his production, he was an outstanding college running back," Turner said. "Now he's gotten some good direction from Bobby Jackson, the running backs coach. He understands what it takes to play in this league.
"I think playing behind Terry Allen, watching Terry and seeing the physical and mental toughness you have to have to play that position, helped him. And I think moving him to fullback last year, where you get down and dirty, the blocking and all, really helped him.
"He was a favorite of Jack Kent Cooke's. He watched Stephen run in a couple of the early scrimmages and in preseason. It was his size and how physical he was."
`Love at First Sight'
As a Redskin, Davis bided his time learning, received 11 starts at fullback his third season and made good on his opportunity to be the full-time tailback during the team's last training camp.
"The first two years he had to wait, be patient. He's a very patient man," said his wife, Virginia. "He didn't hassle. He didn't come home and complain. He was just happy to be on the team. He's very laid-back. He was the same way when I met him."
Stephen Davis, then at Auburn, had a friend in Spartanburg who lived next door to Virginia's grandfather, whom she was visiting one day. "It was like love at first sight, to me. He walked in the door and that's when he caught my eye. I wanted to meet him. I didn't know who he was." They were married March 31, 1997.
Virginia describes Stephen as a devoted father. "He helps the girls with their homework. He takes Stephen out. . . . We're just sitting back, letting Stephen do his job, supporting him in the best way we can."
Queen Davis decided to stay on and attend today's playoff game, although she still hopes to be back in Spartanburg in time for church Sunday morning.
Observing her son at play with her grandson, she said that "Big Steve" probably would have been a teacher if he had not been a football player.
He's prepared, having graduated from Auburn with a degree in vocational education -- thanks in part to one other life model whom Davis was blessed to encounter, Spartanburg's athletic director at the time, Ray Wilson.
Spartanburg High's current athletic director, Jim Kilbreth; the trainer Myles Wilson, no relation to Ray Wilson, and Doc Davis all describe Ray as having been a devoted and gifted "mentor" who shaped the lives of an array of students.
"He prepared me for college," Davis said. "He sat me down and talked to me every day. . . . After I got to the NFL, he told me how important it was for me to come back and talk to kids there.
"I remember the time I wanted to quit football. He told me how far I could go in football. He died in 1996."
Ray Wilson suffered a heart attack. He was 52. Davis attended the funeral, part of a grieving crowd. The memory of the man endures with many, among them a grateful Stephen Davis.
REDSKINS ROAD THROUGH THE PLAYOFFS
vs. detroit Lions
4:15 p.m., WJLA-7
If they win...
Sat., Jan. 15
vs. Tampa Bay Bucs
Raymond James Stadium
4:15 p.m., WTTG-5
If they win...
Sun., Jan. 23
vs. other NFC winner
Site and time TBA
If they win...
Sun., Jan. 30
vs. AFC champion
6 p.m., WJLA-7