Former Steelers teammates remember ‘beloved and respected’ guard Sam Davis
On a team full of stars, MVPs and Hall of Famers, he was simply a four-time champion. He never was an All-Pro selection or invited to the Pro Bowl, yet he was named a team captain and owned as many Super Bowl rings as his more decorated teammates.
Sam Davis, a guard who trapped and pulled the way for running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier to enjoy great success in the 1970s, was underappreciated and perhaps little-known on the national landscape — but never inside the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room.
“To Sam’s teammates, he was a superstar,” former Steelers tight end and tackle Larry Brown said Wednesday. “For linemen, your name usually isn’t talked about a lot, but if you don’t hear your name, that means you’re really good. Sam was really good.
“Maybe that’s why Sam may have floated under the radar to some people, but not to his teammates.”
Davis, 75, died Tuesday at an adult care facility in McKeesport after going missing for 14 hours earlier in the day. Davis suffered from dementia and was legally blind.
“We are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Sam Davis,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said in a statement, adding the former guard was “beloved and respected by his Steelers teammates, coaches and staff.”
Undersized for his position at 6-foot-1, 255 pounds, Davis spent 15 years with the Steelers, including 13 on the active roster, before retiring in January 1982.
He pre-dated Chuck Noll, his Hall of Fame coach, and he shared the field and locker room with nine players bound for enshrinement in Canton, Ohio, and 11 other Pro Bowl or All-Pro members. Although he didn’t get the same recognition, Davis was considered instrumental to the only NFL team to win Super Bowls on back-to-back occasions.
When the Steelers unveiled their 50th anniversary team in 1982, Davis was tabbed as the left guard.
“He was the leader of that offensive line,” Bleier said, “unheralded as he might be.”
Davis appeared in 168 games with the Steelers, making 114 starts. A reserve on the Steelers’ first two championship teams, Davis started in Super Bowl XIII and XIV. In the third championship, a 35-31 victory against the Dallas Cowboys, Davis was tasked with blocking future Hall of Famer Randy White, the Super Bowl co-MVP the previous year.
Thanks in part to Davis’ blocking, quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw for 318 yards and four touchdowns to become Super Bowl MVP.
“ ‘Tight Man’ did his job,” Bleier said. “Did it well.”
Tight Man was one of several nicknames Davis earned throughout his Steelers tenure. Jon Kolb, who lined up at left tackle next to Davis for a decade, said the moniker was coined because Davis kept the ’70s Steelers and the many egos on the roster banded together as a close-knit — or tight — group.
“Ann Landers wrote that column in the paper and solved everybody’s problems. Sam was the Ann Landers of our football team,” Kolb said. “He could talk to the coaches. He could talk to the players. He was a team captain. It wasn’t a cursory thing. He took that seriously.”
Davis went undrafted in 1967 after playing at tiny Allen University in Columbia, S.C., a historically black college where he was discovered by legendary Steelers scout Bill Nunn. When Noll arrived as head coach two years later, he cut many holdover players who he deemed unworthy of the NFL, but he kept Davis, who had started only three games the previous two seasons.
“He fit into all the pulling and trapping that Chuck wanted from his linemen,” said Kolb, who was part of Noll’s initial draft class, “and he could pass protect.”
Added Brown: “I think Chuck appreciated him very much.”
After starting just one game in 1975, Davis regained his job the following season and helped Harris and Bleier become only the second duo in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.
“That offense was perfect for me with Sam leading the charge,” said Harris, who held Tuesday night poker sessions that Davis regularly attended. “He was a great guy and had so much fun. He was a big part of our football life during our playing years.”
Davis made the cover of Sports Illustrated that season in a photo that depicted him leading a block against the Cincinnati Bengals with Bleier in tow.
“It was so apropos of Sam’s ability to pull, run sweeps, run traps that Chuck had put in,” Bleier said. “He was an imposing force.”
Injuries slowed Davis after the Steelers won their fourth championship in January 1980. He spent his final two seasons on injured reserve. In 1980, with the Steelers trying to replenish their line, they drafted guard Craig Wolfley in the fifth round.
It was on the first or second day of training camp at Saint Vincent that Wolfley was approached by Davis and given the veteran’s dormitory room number.
“If you need help or are confused about things, come see me,” Wolfley said Davis told him. “And I did. I went a number of times. He would help me, mentor me. He was an encyclopedia of how you play the game as a guard.”
Wolfley referred to Davis by another nickname that predated his arrival in 1980 — “Hero.”
“That’s what he was to me,” Wolfley said.
In September 1991, Davis was seriously injured in a fall, and he suffered a traumatic brain injury. He was beset by health problems for the rest of his life. In May, with dementia robbing Davis of his memories, his wife unveiled the Sam & Tamara Davis Family Scholarship at the Heinz History Center. It was believed to be Davis’ last public appearance.
The Davis family awarded three scholarships — all in dollar amounts ending in 57, Sam’s uniform number — and recognized young adults dealing with a parent suffering from a mental or physical disability.
“I’ve seen a number of people have injuries and the family disintegrates,” Kolb said. “It’s cruel. Yet, all these years, Tammy and Sam’s family and kids have been there for him. They stood by him through all of his difficulties.”
Among the teammates in attendance that night were Harris, Brown, and J.T. Thomas.
Yet it was his partner on the offensive line that got Davis’ attention.
“He had this faraway look,” Kolb said. “I said, ‘Sam, what do you do on 34 Trap.’ All of a sudden that faraway look leaves.”
“I pull and block the (defensive) tackle,” Davis responded.
Kolb asked Davis about his role in a 60 Base.
“I have the tackle in front of me, and it’s a pass,” Davis said.
Kolb asked which lineman is tasked with providing help.
“You,” Davis replied. “Then, he points at me and says Jon … Kolb.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .