A college football player rushing for 2,000 yards in a Division I season has only happened 26 times in history – and two of those were the work of one man: Iowa State’s Troy Davis. In 1995 and 1996, Davis raced into the record books and kicked off an era of Iowa State football in a way no other player could.
“We were coming off an 0-10-1 season and needed somebody to get us on the map and represent the standard our new coach, Dan McCarney, was espousing,” remembers former Cyclone offensive tackle Tim Kohn (1993-1996). “Troy was a talent that was an order of magnitude above everyone else on that team. Even though [1995 and 1996] were losing seasons, what he did in reversing our momentum is an accomplishment you can’t find on the stat sheet.”
Kohn (’96 pol sci & intl. studies) says he wouldn’t have blamed Davis if he’d left Ames after a winless freshman season in which he carried the ball only 34 times for Coach Jim Walden. But if there was one person who could light a fire under the diminutive phenom, it was McCarney. The young, energetic coach was full of belief – not just in Iowa State, but particularly in Davis. McCarney knew he could make the elusive, 5-foot, 7-inch Miami native the centerpiece of his program.
“Coach Dan McCarney didn’t recruit me, but he re-recruited me,” Davis says. “He told me he could help me transfer, but he also promised we were gonna run the ball here. He looked me in the eye and shook my hand.”
Davis took a chance on the future, surmising that McCarney’s commitment could translate into as many as 20 carries a game for him going forward. As a sophomore, Davis would carry the ball 345 times for 2,010 yards and finish fifth for the Heisman Trophy. As a junior, he rushed 402 times for 2,185 yards. In ISU’s 1996 home opener against Northern Iowa, Davis carried the ball an astounding 53 times.
Davis, who averaged nearly six yards per carry in his college career, succeeded because, Kohn says, he was almost mystifyingly durable, mentally tough, and innately able to see holes on the field.
“He was an incredibly complete player,” Kohn says. “He knew his body and knew what he was capable of and absolutely maximized it. He took Coach Mac at his word, and my goodness Troy held up his end. He always had the self belief and the awareness that he could do all the things he ended up doing – and I know a lot of us are better because of it.”
Davis still remembers his years at Iowa State – particularly 1995 and 1996 – as the best of his life. He held up his end of the bargain, put in the work, and showed off his talents. His belief in McCarney paid off and he became the football star he always knew he could be. So when, in 1996, Davis was denied the prize at his second-straight Heisman Trophy ceremony after accomplishing something no one in college football had ever done – rushing more than 2,000 yards in back-to-back campaigns – he felt helpless and hurt.
“I still remember Coach McCarney after the ceremony saying, ‘Troy, are you coming back for your senior year?’ I was like, ‘There’s nothing else for me to prove, Coach.’”
So Davis took his talents to the NFL, but he landed with Mike Ditka’s New Orleans Saints in a situation where he struggled to showcase his talents on a bad team. He spent three years with the Saints before heading north to Canada, where he became a Hall-of-Famer during seven seasons with three different CFL squads.
“I hear people say, ‘Troy, you left too early’ or ‘Troy, you did a good thing leaving,’” Davis says. “I can’t have any regrets. I feel like I made the best choice but ended up in the wrong situation.”
Years went by, and memories of Davis’ unprecedented accomplishments faded from the national conversation. Davis settled into a quiet existence surrounded by family back in Miami, returning to Ames just once in 2007 for his induction into the Iowa State
Athletics Hall of Fame. Number 28 jerseys remained popular at Jack Trice Stadium, however, and the lore of Troy Davis endured. “Only Iowa State,” self-deprecating fans would moan, “could produce a 2,000-yard rusher in back-to-back seasons and NOT get the Heisman Trophy.”
ISU officials never stopped toiling to right the Heisman wrongs and get Davis the recognition he deserved, even as decades passed and football coaches came and went. And then, in 2015, they learned their efforts had finally paid off: The 2016 College Football Hall of Fame class would include Troy Davis.
Davis couldn’t believe the news himself: “My first response was, ‘Oh, okay, when does the ballot come out?’ But I wasn’t just on the ballot, I was in. I just dropped the phone and looked up [in disbelief]. Every kid, that’s in their goals and dreams to be a Hall-of-Famer – and I’m there.”
Davis was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in New York City in December, the culmination of a year’s worth of celebration and reminiscence. A visit back to Jack Trice Stadium this fall wasn’t without “chillbumps” or tears for Davis as his beloved coach, Dan McCarney, was introduced on the football field as a member of the 2016 ISU Athletics Hall of Fame class one weekend and Davis was presented with his College Football Hall of Fame plaque the next.
Davis has been able to use the year to reflect on his unique story – on the people who helped him achieve his dream and the decisions he made along the way that shaped not just his life, but the Iowa State football program.
“I just think about how I was ready [in 1994] to pack it all up and go back home,” Davis says. “If it wasn’t for Dan McCarney, there wouldn’t be a story and there wouldn’t be a Hall-of-Famer. I’m glad he invited me to play in his system. There will never be another Troy Davis.”
This article was originally published in VISIONS magazine. To receive the full issue delivered to your mailbox four times per year, become a member of the ISU Alumni Association.