Willie Davis, one of the pillars of the Packers’ famed defense under head coach Vince Lombardi in the 1960s, has died.
Davis, 85, passed away in a Santa Monica, calif., hospital this morning with his wife carol at his side. He had been hospitalized for several weeks with kidney failure.
“Willie was an icon, a great teammate and player,” said former teammate Dave Robinson via phone late Wednesday afternoon. “Carol called me this morning with the news. It came as a shock.”
Davis, Robinson, and cornerback Herb Adderley comprised the left side of a Green Bay defense that won five NFL championships in seven seasons.
Davis anchored the defensive line for a decade and always cherished two firsts: winning the league title in 1961 after losing to Philadelphia in 1960 and defeating the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl I.
“I’ve talked to many players who would never get there—to a championship game—and you realize how fortunate you were to be there six times,” Davis said in a 2010 interview with Martin Hendricks. “After we lost that first championship to the Eagles, Lombardi said that we’d never go that far and not win again. There was nothing better than winning that first one and the first Super Bowl.”
Davis was a defensive team captain for his last five seasons under Lombardi.
“He had great athletic ability, for one thing, and a strong desire to succeed,” said Forrest Gregg in a 2015 interview, who also played football with Davis in the Army at Fort Carson in Colorado. “I went up against Willie in practice every day, and he helped me elevate my game, I promise you that.”
Gregg, noted for his fiery disposition on the field, did not relish facing Davis in Lombardi’s infamous one-on-one drill, the “Nutcracker,” in training camp. “I wasn’t very happy when I went up against him one-one-one,” Gregg said. “But it brought out my best.
“We were fortunate to get young players like Willie and Henry Jordan from the Browns—they helped us win championships. Willie Davis was a very physical football player who played hard every game. I don’t remember him every missing a game.”
Davis did not miss a game—preseason, regular season, and postseason—in his 12 years in professional football. One hundred and sixty-two in all: 138 with the Packers and 24 with the Browns.
The durable defensive lineman earned numerous accolades, including five All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections. With his speed and agility, he was a pass-rushing specialist who led the Packers in sacks nearly every season.
The NFL did not officially record sacks until 1982, but by unofficial count Davis would be Green Bay’s all-time sack leader with a minimum of 120 sacks.
Davis related in the 2010 interview that, “I played 10 years and I averaged in the ‘teens’ in sacks for those 10 years. I had 25 one season. (Paul) Hornung just reminded me of that the other day.”