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Champion Entrepreneur and Athlete: The Willie Davis Story

February 27, 2024

Willie D. Davis was born July 24, 1934, in Lisbon, Louisiana, and died April 15, 2020, in Santa Monica, California, just shy of age 86. Davis had the rare distinction of being revered as both an iconic entrepreneur and athlete.

Willie D. Davis was born July 24, 1934, in Lisbon, Louisiana, and died April 15, 2020, in Santa Monica, California, just shy of age 86. Davis had the rare distinction of being revered as both an iconic entrepreneur and athlete.

At age 8, Willie’s father left the family, and his mother had to raise three kids on her own. Growing up poor, Willie was driven by his mother’s optimism to get a college education and a good job, and to be the best man he could be. Davis honored his mother by pursuing a degree while playing football at Grambling State University for legendary coach, Eddie Robinson. 

After being drafted with the 181st pick in the 1956 NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns, Willie served two years in the U.S. Army. In 1960, after two seasons in Cleveland, he was traded to the Green Bay Packers. There, Davis became a permanent fixture at defensive end under the leadership of Packers Hall-of-Fame Coach Vince Lombardi.

Davis anchored the Packers defensive line for 10 years, playing in 138 consecutive regular season games and part of 162 regular season games for his NFL career. He was a member of all five Lombardi NFL title-winning teams including Super Bowls I and II. 

While tackles and sacks were not official statistics during his playing time, some research analysts have estimated Davis’s 10-year sack total was likely more than 120, despite playing in an era with 12 regular season games vs. 17 games today. 

When Davis played in the NFL, few Black players were given the opportunity to play professional football. Bill Curry, an iconic college football coach who was the starting center on the Packers first Super Bowl team, told us that NFL teams in the early 1960’s averaged a few Black players per team, with the Green Bay Packers being the exception with 11 black players, nine of whom were starters.

Curry, a white player from rural Georgia, had never been in a huddle with a Black player. He credits the unexpected and undeserved kindness and leadership from Willie Davis for giving him the resolve to not only play on the Green Bay Packers, but become its starting center. He noted Lombardi praised the diversity of the team and hated prejudice. As the team’s defensive captain, Willie Davis was credited with taking Lombardi’s lead of having no one on the team treat any man different, regardless of race. Davis would offer to have meetings, lunch and/or dinner with players who had never played on an integrated team or eaten at the same table with an African American. He ensured that all players acclimated to Lombardi’s culture of inclusion, which most outside observers agreed was the cornerstone of the team’s success.

Davis eventually became a six-time all pro football player and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981. He also had a hall-of-fame-worthy business career, after using several off-seasons to earn a master’s in business administration from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business in 1968. 

In a 2017 article from Investor’s Business Daily, Michael Mink said Davis had many successful business ventures, including Willie Davis Distributing, a beer distributorship he founded in 1970, which featured Schlitz and other beer brands. In 1976, he established All Pro Broadcasting, which owned numerous radio stations in the greater Los Angeles area. Both his beer distributorship and radio broadcasting company were struggling when he acquired and renamed them both. But he turned each one around with the help of dedicated employees and the principles he learned as a student of Vince Lombardi and a leader of the Green Bay Packers. 

Willie Davis’s successful business career lasted almost 50 years and brought him acclaim and financial rewards as an entrepreneur and business advisor. He was highly respected for his business acumen and served on the boards of Marquette University, Alliance Bank, American Express, Johnson Controls, Kmart, LA Gear, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, MGM Mirage, Sara Lee, Schlitz Brewing and The Dow Chemical Company, to name a few.

Former Dow Chemical President, CEO and Board Chair William S. Stavropoulos noted, Willie Davis was a terrific man and a great board member.

“He was a real asset to The Dow Chemical Company,” Stavropoulos said.

 Current Dow Chairman and CEO, James R, Fitterling said he had the pleasure of spending time with Willie, hearing his stories and hosting him with Dow employees.

“Willie was a great human being and what he learned through his experiences and friendships in football were fundamental to his success in life,” Fitterling added.

In his book, Closing the Gap: Lombardi, the Green Bay Packers Dynasty and the Pursuit of Excellence, Davis wrote that the emphasis on good habits was something he learned from Coach Lombardi and then preached to himself over the years as a business leader.

“We can deceive ourselves that thinking having a clear goal in mind is enough to keep us on track, but it is not,” he continued. “We must develop good habits to keep on the path. Good habits include individual responsibility, accountability, self-discipline, commitment, focus and hard work. There’s nothing new and revolutionary in this philosophy. We all know what kind of results these good habits can bring.” 

The odds were against Willie Davis making it to the NFL or becoming a world-class business leader. Growing up prior to the Civil Rights Act, in poverty as a Black male without the mentorship of a father from a young age, made his path especially difficult. The influence of his mother and coaches like Eddie Robinson and Vince Lombardi allowed a longshot to achieve greatness through hard work, education and leading people based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Willie Davis is a human being all should revere and a role model for every man, woman, and child on God’s green earth.

About the Authors

Dr. Timothy G. Nash is Vice President, Emeritus; Director of The McNair Center for the Advancement of Free Enterprise and Entrepreneurship; and the McNair Endowed Chair in Free Market Economics at Northwood University.

Jeff Curtis was named Northwood University Athletic Director in the summer of 2021. Prior to this role, Curtis spent 21 years on staff at Northwood, the last 17 of which were as head coach of the women’s basketball program.

Editor’s note: This piece, which is a variation of articles published earlier this month by Townhall and the Midland Daily News, appeared in the February 2024 edition of When Free to Choose, Northwood University’s monthly signature publication dedicated to promoting free enterprise.

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