Davis has won on field, in business, in life
MENOMONEE FALLS, Wis. — Willie Davis leans back in his black reclining desk chair, trying to remember. Now 78 years old, he does this a lot, navigating the many memories filed away deep in his mind. His eyes glance up ever so slightly, as if the scene he's trying to recall is painted on the ceiling above him. And then it clicks.
The former Green Bay Packer and Hall of Fame defensive end — one of the greats to ever play the position — has been shaped by plenty of mantras over the years. They're written all over the book he's just released, Closing the Gap, a story of his path to excellence in football and business. He is a man of inspirational phrases.
But one mantra has built him and his business ventures into what they are today. It's something that's never too far away from his consciousness — words made famous by legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi, the man he feels shaped him most in life, outside of his own mother.
"Winning is the only thing."
He repeats it several times during the course of an hour-long interview in his office. It's obvious that he's repeated the phrase hundreds, if not thousands of times over the course of his life. Each time, you can hear a little bit of Lombardi beneath Davis' slow, deep voice.
And as he's trying to remember the time the moment that phrase stood out the most, it's impossible to ignore his eyes, living the memories out all over again —memories made fresh when his book was being written.
It was in a team meeting, he says, a week after one of the Packers' least impressive victories— a 6-3 win over the 49ers, one Lombardi wasn't very happy about. A week later, in order to avoid "Lombardi's wrath" — as Davis calls it — the team played so intent on winning, so harmoniously that it blew out its opponent. That's when Lombardi approached the team.
Davis can't remember everything Lombardi said in that meeting, but that blatant black-and-white phrase — winning is everything — touched him and his teammates in a different way. As the coach delivered his message, Davis looked over at his teammate and friend quarterback Bart Starr.
"If ever you could see a guy take in a message that had gone all the way to the heart and soul, I could see it in Bart," Davis said. "And I would think that I probably had the same demeanor. I'm sure they saw the same thing in me."
Davis smiles when he remembers this particular memory, and it's clear that he's thought about it on several occasions since. On many a morning, he says, he wakes up thinking about a lesson or story that Lombardi had once taught him.
"There's no question that Lombardi's comment that 'winning is the only thing' in many ways was the essence of my life in my football years," Davis said. "And to this day, they resonate."
That's part of the reason he wanted to write a book. Maybe, just maybe, someone who had gone through troubles similar to the ones he had endured would find the drive within themselves to succeed. His story is certainly inspirational enough to have that kind of effect — he had escaped from a sharecropping farm as a young child and pushed himself through Grambling State and into the fledgling NFL. Since then, everything, he says, has been about "closing the gap" — aptly, the title of his book.
After his football career ended, Davis entered the business world in 1970 with an even larger gap to close. He had never gained the experience necessary for business like he had with football. But after witnessing the transformation of the Packers in his time in Green Bay — going from worst in the NFL to one of its cornerstones — Davis was sure he could tackle anything. Lombardi's mantra had become his own.
Having spent time working with Schlitz in Milwaukee, Davis bought a wholesaler franchise in California — eventually named West Coast Beverage — and, in a few short years, turned it from worst to first in the state. It wasn't always that smooth, he admits, and on the days he worried that money would run out or a deal would go wrong, he kept Lombardi and his message closest to his heart.
"If I have a down moment, I immediately repeat some moments along the way from football, relate them to the extent that I could find some sameness, some kind of answer," Davis said. "When I stumbled in business, there's no question that I relied on some things that I learned first and foremost in football."
In an age when players make more than 100 times the salary Davis did in his years with the Packers, he remains a success story, while others in today's NFL continue to fall into debt or other worse things after their retirement. The voice inside of his head — Lombardi's voice — simply wouldn't let him fail.
Glancing briefly out the window of his office at 102.1 FM, one of many radio stations he now owns, he perks up when asked whether Lombardi would succeed in today's NFL. For him, it's a no-brainer. The legendary coach would have adapted. He would have done anything to win, then or today.
As he says it, Lombardi's words come out again. They are cut from the same cloth, Lombardi and Davis — one having helped construct the other, as a man and a football player, in his own image.
And for now, as Davis' counterparts and teammates continue to grow older, Lombardi's memory and message will stay alive in him, in his book, and in the businesses he has built by that design.
"Winning is everything," he said, his large hands extending from the arms of his desk chair. "It's the most important thing. It's the only thing I ever want to be associated with."
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