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ESPN The Magazine: Marked Man
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Alone for a moment, Terrell Davis smiles. He's eating Skittles in front of his locker, ice wrapped around his right shoulder and right knee, packing his bag for the night, and he smiles. It's a strange smile -- head up, gaze straight ahead, looking at no one -- but it's still that same toothy grin that captured Colorado by way of two Super Bowl titles, sending the holder of the state's most famous toothy grin into retirement bliss. "You didn't see much of that smile the past two years," says Broncos receiver Rod Smith. Finally, football is worth smiling about again.

Four hours earlier, in the moments before the Broncos played the Saints in their third preseason game, the goose bumps were back. Davis paced the sideline at Invesco Field, 35 to 35, a football locked in his right arm. He strapped and restrapped his gloves, like a hitter between pitches. He started, carried 11 times for 34 yards and, as he says, "that was that." Actually, it was more than that. This is where we are with Terrell Davis: If he finishes a preseason game without playing 20 Questions with the trainers, the late-night news has a top story. Davis' best run -- a hard cut inside for a first down on third-and-two -- was exactly the play he hasn't been able to pull off for two years. Running backs coach Bobby Turner says, "Amazing, isn't it, what a sharp cut to the right can do for a guy's game?"

When Denver opens against the Giants on Monday, Sept. 10, we'll watch Davis with the only eyes we can trust -- our own. If we've learned anything in the past two seasons, it's that anyone's word -- the doctor's, the coach's, even Davis' own -- is maddeningly unreliable. When he's expected to play, he doesn't. When he's injury-free, he isn't. Davis hopes to start against the Giants, but we've heard this before. When Davis smiles and shrugs off the belief his career is at a crossroads, do we trust it? "I don't lie," he says. "Last year I said something was wrong, and everyone said, 'Yeah, whatever.' If I'm sayin' I'm healthy, I am. I'm okay, all right?"

Davis' faith in himself has been the flak jacket for all the hits his career has taken. Since hoisting his second consecutive Lombardi Trophy in January 1999, Davis has been trying to climb out of a ditch that seemed to get deeper and deeper. First, it was the blown-out knee in 1999. Then an ankle sprain after coming back in September 2000; when that made him sit, his toughness was questioned. Two months later, a stress fracture was found in his shin. Then, this past spring, his image was smeared in the Gold Club mess, and his big endorsement deal was lost. Supposedly healthy this summer, so far he's pulled a hamstring and his restructured knee, classified as degenerative, swelled up, keeping him out half the preseason. Football can make a guy feel old. "To go from being the best in the NFL," says Smith, "to having to prove yourself again and again ... Man, you could see it in his face."

In those same two seasons, things have changed plenty in Denver. Davis, a 2,008-yard wonder three seasons ago, now happens to be one of three 1,000-yard rushers on the Broncos roster. Not The Man, but one of three. And that's not good enough -- not for him, not for Olandis Gary, not for Mike Anderson. If Davis' body could be trusted, Gary or Anderson would be gone. But forget the argument about who should start and who should be traded. This is about a tailback who had his heart publicly questioned, just two years after carrying Denver to a Super Bowl win with broken ribs. It's about someone who has watched every detail of his career-- his ankle, his knee, his psyche, his pride -- become a point of contention.

Has he thought about retiring? "No way." Playing for another team? "Sure, I always play the what-if card." Stonewalling the media? "That's what I've done." Whether he'll be the same player he was in '98? "I'll never be the same back." Saying, Hey, remember me? "They still write about me. At least they know I'm still here, right? That's good."

Maybe. Before Broncos offensive tackle Matt Lepsis rolled onto Davis' knee in September 1999, all Davis needed was a gap the length of a good cigar to break open a game. Since then, the cuts have been a little more round, fifth gear a bit harder to find. Says one AFC defensive coordinator, "His genius was he could clear the line, break the linebackers' tackles and burst into the secondary. Now, who knows if he can get to the linebackers?"

Only four offensive starters remain from the squad that whipped Atlanta in Super Bowl XXXIII. But in a reflection of Mike Shanahan's eye-on-the-target philosophy, the Broncos have their sights set on New Orleans no matter who plays running back. "He wasn't here, so we had to move on without him," says quarterback Brian Griese. "We couldn't dwell on it."

But walk through Denver's training complex and you can't help but dwell on it. A wall-length "TD: 2K" mural reminds you that Davis' 2,008-yard campaign was not some SportsCentury memory; it was 1998. His three-year rushing total ('96-98) of 5,298 yards is the best in NFL history. And without Davis, John Elway would be Dan Marino: on the greens with no rings. Says defensive tackle Trevor Pryce: "People forget how good he was."

It was good to be Terrell Davis back then. His college-backup-to-All Pro story played every stage from MTV to Sesame Street to anywhere you could find a Chunky Soup commercial. He was popular and productive. Before the '99 season, Smith went to Davis and said, "You know you're not going to be able to keep this pace up."

Davis joked back, "I know, I know."

That pace ended in Week 4, when Lepsis rolled on Davis' leg while they were trying to make a tackle after an interception. His season -- along with that of the Broncos -- was put on ice. Davis cruised through rehab, minicamp and training camp, and, well, it was nothing more than a cruel tease. In the 2000 opener in St. Louis, Davis carried the ball nine times before leaving with what everyone thought was a sprained left ankle. He sat out one game, but moments before kickoff against the Raiders in Week 3, Davis told Shanahan: "I can't do it."

Davis had never scratched himself out of the lineup, and the next week against Kansas City he lasted only six carries. Team doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong. The right knee had healed fine. MRIs revealed no other damage in either leg. The trust was beginning to fray. Coaches would see him walk without limping, then suddenly he couldn't go. The week before the San Diego game on Oct. 8, he privately told teammates he wouldn't be playing, although he practiced every day. In 20 months, he had gone from league MVP to, as Shanahan joked, "the most expensive scout-team back in the NFL." It was just the start of what Pryce remembers as "beat up Terrell Davis season."

It continued when Turner told the Rocky Mountain News, "I don't think rest is what he needs ... [Davis] has got to go and fight through this." Then came the one that flattened Davis: A Bronco official went anonymously to the local papers and questioned Davis' willingness to play hurt, igniting a blaze of attention.

Angry, frustrated and confused, Davis, according to those closest to him, withdrew to a dark place inside himself and refused -- or was unable -- to come out. "He wasn't distraught every day," says Turner. "But a lot of the time he was." Davis would come home, fall onto his bed and wonder, How could they question my heart? "I saw him hide a lot of pain," says fullback Detron Smith, one of Davis' closest friends. "But most of it was in his heart."

He had no idea what was wrong with his left leg, except that it hurt like hell and he couldn't play. Frank White, Davis' Pop Warner coach in San Diego and a virtual family member, offered Davis a sunny-side-up answer to the pain -- and the hurt: "You can work through this stuff." But Davis was in no mood to hear that, answering: "No! You don't understand! Something's wrong! This is real! I'm on trial out there! This stuff is really happening!"

Pressing, Davis started against the Jets on Nov. 5 and rushed for 115 yards. Good numbers, right? Wrong. You couldn't trust them, either. The pain in his lower leg was as bad as ever. So while Davis sat and tried to explain the pain, Griese played with a separated throwing shoulder (an injury that required off-season surgery) in a heroic win against Oakland. Meanwhile, Anderson was on his way to being named Rookie of the Year. Among Denver's problems, its running game wasn't high on the list.

So on Monday, Nov. 27, while the team celebrated its fourth win in a row, Davis left. Frustrated with the Broncos doctors, he flew to Oakland to get a bone scan from Dr. Richard Mann. A stress fracture in his left leg was revealed. Whoops. Davis flew back to Denver limping in a boot. The human amphitheater of media was waiting for him. Davis defended his toughness and his pride, and a day later, the headlines read: Broncos Star Blasts Media. Davis' shoulders slumped even further. "Now I've got no heart," he recalls, shaking his head, "and I'm some irate, crazy football player." When it was clear that Davis would miss the rest of the season, he received a letter of apology from the Broncos medical staff. Understand if Davis holds on to Mann's number in Oakland.

When Denver's season ended with a playoff loss at Baltimore, Davis had his off-season set: lay low, get healthy, stay out of the headlines. That wasn't happening. On March 28, Gold Club dancer Jana Pelnis testified in Atlanta under a plea agreement that she was paid (by club owner Steve Kaplan) to have sex with Davis, among others.

During the racketeering trial, which ended with Kaplan's guilty plea to lesser charges, corporate America lost its faith too. Campbell's dropped its endorsement deal with Davis, which, according to reports, had as much to do with the Gold Club case as with Davis' injuries. "It hurt Terrell," White says. "He's trying to get ready for the season, and then he's thrown in with Michael Irvin, O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson. How would you feel? He felt marked." The injuries, the questions about his heart, the link to the trial, not being able to revamp his image, it marked him. It still does. It marks him every day.

Davis is building trust, play by play, step by step. He's regaining faith in his body. And if he's looking for positives, his 20-yard TD against the 49ers in the preseason finale will work. Everyone wants to see the Mile High salute's return. Even his competition is rooting for him. "If he's healthy, he's the man," says Gary. "I think he needs to hear that."

Unlike '97 and '98, Davis knows he won't carry Denver to the Super Bowl, but he wants to be one of the wheels. After all those 'backer-breaking runs, nobody expected he'd still be indomitable at age 28. So it doesn't warp his mind knowing that there will be Sundays when Gary or Anderson outrush him. He's back to getting what Turner calls "the ugly four-yarders." Someday his right knee will be arthritic, but, as he says, "that day ain't today."

So while "TD: 2K" may never come back, Terrell Davis looks like he will. Somewhere inside he's different, but, says White, "he knows himself better." He still spends his days off reading to kids, he still hits golf balls with buddies after practice and he still expects to be the first running back to touch the ball against the Giants. "I can still play," Davis says. "Not everyone has that faith. I do."

Faith? After the Saints game, minutes past midnight, an hour after every other Bronco has left for home, he walks from the locker room, wheels to the right and sees faith staring him in the face. A busload of screaming fans. Blue No.30 jerseys everywhere. There's even a poster of a sprinting Davis, and in big letters it reads, "Remember me?" Flattered, stunned, shocked, Davis says, "They're still here? For me?"

There's that smile again.

Amazing, isn't it, what a sharp cut to the right can do for a guy's life?

This article appears in the September 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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