May 9, 2021

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The Life And Career Of Ben Davis (Complete Story)


 

Most NFL general managers will tell you that one of the keys to a successful draft comes in the later rounds.

If you can find one or more “diamonds in the rough” at the end of a draft, your draft is likely to be considered a success.

One such “diamond in the rough” for the Cleveland Browns was Ben Davis.

Although 438 names were called in the 1967 NFL draft before Davis, he had a solid career as a cornerback and returner for Cleveland, earning All-Pro and All-Conference honors and helping Cleveland win four division titles in 1967, 1968, 1971, and 1972.

We take a look at the life of Ben Davis – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.

 

The Early Years Through High School

Benjamin Frank Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama on October 30, 1945.

Davis’ father, B. Frank Davis, had been a schoolteacher and operated a service station in Birmingham.

His mother, Sallye E. Davis, was a schoolteacher in Birmingham.

Davis’ sister, Angela, was a well-known political activist and college professor.

He had another sister, Fania, and a brother, Reginald.

Davis grew up in an area of Birmingham which became known as “Dynamite Hill” because of a series of bombings of African American homes by Ku Klux Klan members.

In addition, Davis was only able to attend racially segregated schools in Birmingham.

He said:

“The black schools certainly weren’t equal. From the buildings to the books, it was all second class. The results of this were evident in both the test results and attendance. The educational opportunities for black students back then were extremely limited.”

Because of both the danger of living in the “Dynamite Hill” area and the poor education situation (very important to Davis’ parents as educators), it was decided that Davis should leave Birmingham.

Davis’ parents worked with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker program providing educational placement for students from underserved areas.

At the age of 13, Davis attended Fair Lawn High School in Fair Lawn, New Jersey.

Fair Lawn is in the suburbs of New York City.

At Fair Lawn High School, Davis was in the school band.

Davis graduated from Fair Lawn High School in 1961 at the age of 15.

Given Davis’ young age, it was decided that Davis should attend a college preparatory program before heading to college – Bridgton Academy in Bridgton, Maine (in southern Maine).

It was at Bridgton Academy (which Davis attended from 1961 to 1963) that Davis first played football.

Bridgton Academy did not have a music program, so Davis was unable to continue his band activity there.

Looking for another activity and especially one that would enable him to explore off the campus of Bridgton Academy, Davis decided to play football.

Davis stated:

“I tried to get involved with as many activities as possible at the Academy. Although I was small in stature, I wasn’t afraid or tentative. Everyone was friendly and I don’t recall ever having to feel on guard. I doubt if many of my classmates had ever been around a black guy before, so I guess it was all new to all of us. . . . At Bridgton, they didn’t cut anyone. And, while I didn’t play much, I did at least get to travel!”

After Bridgton Academy, Davis decided to attend college at Defiance College.

 

College Years

Defiance College is a private college in Defiance, Ohio.

Defiance is located in northwestern Ohio, about 55 miles southwest of Toledo.

Davis continued to play football at Defiance College.

He principally was a running back and wide receiver at Defiance College.

Davis was named All-Mid-Ohio Conference in 1964.

Defiance College had a 4-4 record in 1964.

In 1965, in a game against Ashland, Davis returned a punt for 96 yards, one of the longest plays in Defiance College football history.

Davis again was named All-Mid-Ohio Conference in 1965.

Defiance College posted a 3-4 record in 1965.

The following season, in 1966, Davis helped Defiance College post an undefeated 9-0 record and win the Mid-Ohio Conference Championship.

For his play in 1966, Davis was named Honorable Mention Little All-American by the Associated Press.

He also was named first-team NAIA All-District 22, and again named All-Mid-Ohio Conference, in 1966.

Davis graduated from Defiance College in 1967 with a B.A. degree in business education.

 

The Pro Football Years

 

1967-1970

The Cleveland Browns drafted Davis in the 17th and final round of the 1967 NFL draft.

Davis was the 439th overall pick (out of 445 players drafted in the entire 1967 NFL draft).

Although Davis played running back and wide receiver in college, Cleveland already had running backs Leroy Kelly and Ernie Green and wide receivers Paul Warfield and Gary Collins on the team.

Thus, Davis was switched from offense to defense as a defensive back.

In his rookie season in 1967, Davis (at a height of five feet and 11 inches and a weight of 180 pounds) played in all 14, and started three, regular season games.

Davis contributed to the Browns on special teams as well as on defense in 1967.

On September 24, 1967, Davis returned four kickoffs for 98 yards and one punt for 51 yards, in a 31-14 Browns loss to the Detroit Lions.

In a 38-34 Cleveland loss to the New York Giants on October 29, 1967, Davis returned two kickoffs for 61 yards and one punt for 30 yards.

The following week, on November 5, 1967, Davis scored his first NFL regular-season touchdown on a 52-yard punt return (one of Davis’ two punt returns for 71 yards), as the Browns defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-14.

Davis also returned one kickoff for 26 yards.

Davis had his first NFL regular season interception, when he intercepted Minnesota Vikings quarterback Ron Vander Kelen and returned the interception for nine yards, in a 14-10 Cleveland victory over the Vikings on November 19, 1967.

For the 1967 regular season, Davis returned 27 kickoffs for 708 yards (which ranked fifth in the NFL) and 18 punts for 229 yards (which ranked third in the NFL).

Davis’ 26.2 average yards per kickoff return ranked fourth, and 12.7 average yards per punt return ranked first, in the 1967 regular season.

Cleveland won the NFL Century Division title, with a 9-5 record, in 1967.

Davis contributed to the Browns defense ranking in the NFL regular season in 1967 tied for fifth in recovered fumbles (14) and fourth in sacks (41).

On December 24, 1967, Cleveland met the Dallas Cowboys in a divisional round playoff game.

Davis (who did not start the game) returned four kickoffs for 93 yards, but the Browns lost to Dallas 52-14.

In 1968, Davis became a full-time starter, starting all 14 regular season games at right cornerback.

Davis set a Cleveland team record by intercepting a pass in seven consecutive regular season games in 1968.

In the 1968 regular season, Davis intercepted eight passes (which ranked tied for third in the NFL), which he returned for 162 yards (which led the NFL).

Davis also recovered a fumble, and returned eight kickoffs for 152 yards and nine punts for 11 yards, in 1968.

For his play in 1968, Davis was named second team All-Pro by the Associated Press and first team All-Conference by the Sporting News.

With a 10-4 record, Cleveland again won the NFL Century Division title in 1968.

Davis helped the Browns defense rank in the NFL regular season in 1968 first in recovered turnovers (46) and first in defensive interceptions (32).

Cleveland played the Dallas Cowboys in a divisional round playoff game on December 21, 1968.

Davis started the game and intercepted Dallas quarterback Don Meredith (which helped set up a Browns touchdown); Davis returned the interception for three yards.

In addition, Davis returned four kickoffs for 67 yards.

With Davis helping the Browns defense force four Cowboys turnovers, Cleveland avenged its 1967 playoffs loss to Dallas, defeating the Cowboys 31-20.

The following week, on December 29, 1968, Cleveland met the Baltimore Colts in the 1968 NFL championship game.

Davis again started the game and intercepted Colts quarterback Earl Morrall, for his second interception in two playoff games in 1968.

In addition, Davis returned three kickoffs for 40 yards and one punt for four yards.

Despite Davis’ play, the Browns lost to the Colts 34-0.

After his excellent season in 1968, it was projected that Davis would have another outstanding season in 1969.

However, early in the 1969 season, Davis tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.

He played in only one regular season game in 1969.

The injury was so severe that it also affected Davis’ playing time in 1970.

He only played in seven, and started two, regular season games in 1970.

In the first game that Davis started in 1970 (at right cornerback), his play helped the Cleveland defense hold the Dallas Cowboys to only 52 “net pass yards”, in a 6-2 Browns loss to Dallas on December 12, 1970.

The following week, on December 20, 1970, Davis (who again started at right cornerback) intercepted Denver Broncos quarterback Alan Pastrana, in a 27-13 Cleveland win over the Broncos.

The Browns posted a 7-7 record in 1970 and missed the playoffs.

While Davis at least somewhat returned to the playing field in 1970 after his injury, he faced another challenge in 1970 – his connection to his sister, Angela.

In 1970, Angela Davis was charged with aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder.

She became a fugitive and was placed on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List”.

Davis was closely monitored by the FBI, including that his phone was tapped.

He said:

“Some people didn’t think I should’ve been allowed to play in the NFL. There were some opposing coaches that motivated their team by saying the Browns had a Communist. On the positive side, I received letters from opposing players who said Angela deserved a fair trial. I have to give it to the people of Cleveland for supporting us during those difficult times.”

Angela Davis was eventually captured and put to trial in 1972; she was found not guilty.

 

1971-1976

Davis’ playing time dramatically increased in 1971, as he played in and started 12 regular season games at right cornerback.

The Browns had a 9-5 record and won the AFC Central Division title in 1971.

Davis helped the Cleveland defense rank in the NFL regular season in 1971 fourth in fewest passing yards allowed (1,967).

Cleveland played the Baltimore Colts in a divisional round playoff game on December 26, 1971.

Davis started the game, but Cleveland (despite forcing three Colts turnovers) lost to Baltimore 20-3.

In 1972, Davis started all 14 regular season games at right cornerback.

The Browns posted a 10-4 record and again won the AFC Central Division title in 1972.

Davis helped the Cleveland defense rank in the NFL regular season in 1972 third in fewest passing yards allowed (1,736) and tied for fifth in sacks (38).

Cleveland met the undefeated Miami Dolphins in a divisional round playoff game on December 24, 1972.

Davis started the game and helped the Browns defense hold Miami to only 74 “net pass yards”.

However, Cleveland lost to the Dolphins 20-14.

In 1973, Davis played in and started 13 regular season games at right cornerback.

Davis had his final interception as a member of the Browns when he intercepted future Pro Football Hall of Fame Miami Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese and returned the interception for 20 yards, in a 17-9 Cleveland loss to Miami on October 15, 1973.

The Browns posted a 7-5-2 record in 1973 and missed the playoffs.

On February 26, 1974, Cleveland traded Davis to the Detroit Lions for a fifth-round draft pick in the 1975 NFL draft.

Davis played for three seasons with the Lions.

In 1974, Davis played in nine, and started two, regular season games.

He intercepted one pass, which he returned for 14 yards.

On November 9, 1975, playing against his former team, Davis scored his second NFL regular season touchdown, on a 67-yard interception return of a pass by Browns quarterback Will Cureton.

Cleveland lost to the Lions 21-10.

Davis played in 11, and started three, regular season games in 1975.

He also recovered two fumbles, which he returned for three yards, in 1975.

In 1976, Davis played in all 14, but did not start any, regular season games.

1976 was Davis’ last season playing in the NFL.

 

The Years After the NFL

Davis is married to Sylvia.

They have two children, Cecilie and Benjamin, III.

Since his retirement as an NFL player, Davis has been involved in various business activities.

After his NFL retirement, Davis became a sales representative for the Xerox Corporation.

In 1982, he co-founded and was president of Telecable Broadcasting of America, a cable TV company in the Cleveland area.

Telecable Broadcasting of America was one of the first African American owned and operated cable TV companies in the United States.

Davis later started another cable TV company in Jefferson Township, a suburb of Dayton, Ohio.

In 1989, Davis began a radio station in Tulsa, Oklahoma (94.1 FM), which he operated for five years.

From 1990 through 2017, Davis operated Britt Business Systems, which sold and serviced Xerox office equipment in the Cleveland area.

Davis was inducted into the Defiance College Athletic Hall of Fame in 1981.

In 2004, Davis was inducted into the Bridgton Academy Hall of Fame.

Davis has lived in the Cleveland area since he was drafted by the Browns in 1967.

In assessing Davis’ career with Cleveland, his injury in 1969 must be given significant consideration.

Davis ranks tied for 20th in Browns career regular season interceptions (17) and 21st in Browns career regular season interception return yards (231).

In addition, Davis ranks 22nd in Browns career regular season kickoff return yards (860), ninth in Browns career regular season average yards per kickoff return (among players with at least 25 kickoff returns) (24.6), 25th in Browns career regular season punt return yards (240), and 12th in Browns career regular season average yards per punt return (among players with at least 25 punt returns) (8.9).

However, if Davis had not been injured, it would likely have had two positive impacts on his performance.

First, Davis would have played full seasons in 1969 and 1970.

In those years, he could have matched his interception and kickoff and punt return performance from 1967 and 1968.

Second, assuming that the injury helped cause Davis’ interception performance (seven interceptions for 61 interception return yards from 1971 to 1973, as compared with eight interceptions for 162 yards just in 1968) and kickoff and punt return performance (no kickoffs or punt returns after 1968) to decline in 1971 to 1973, in those years, Davis also could have matched his interception and kickoff and punt return performance from 1967 and 1968.

Thus, without the injury, matching his performance from 1967 and 1968 in the years from 1969 to 1973, Davis easily could have ranked in the top 10 or even top five in multiple statistics for intercepting passes, returning kickoffs, and returning punts in Browns history.

Nevertheless, even with his injury, Davis had a solid career with the Browns.

While Davis was with Cleveland, his play helped the Browns never have a losing record and win two NFL Century Division titles in 1967 and 1968, two AFC Central Division titles in 1971 and 1972, and a playoff game in 1968.

In addition, individually, Davis received All-Pro and All-Conference honors in 1968.

Browns fans should remember the fine play of Ben Davis – as a right cornerback (both intercepting passes and otherwise playing defense) and as a kickoff returner and punt returner.