With the Denver Broncos favored to repeat as National Football League champions, one of the team's highly publicized players is revealing more about his past-about how late at night Joe Davis, armed with a .38, once woke up young Terrell Davis and his brothers, demanding that they prove their toughness. When they were all up and standing against the wall, the father raised his gun and fired a shot over each of their heads. Sometimes a drunken or drugged-out Joe Davis would pull out an extension cord and show his sons what he said life was all about. "I thought about hating my father when he'd be beating on us," Terrell Davis, arguably the best running back in pro football, told Sports Illustrated. "That pain goes away and the impressions are what remain. Those are what form you." Terrell seemed already formed at age 14 when Joe Davis died. With his mother constantly working to make ends meet, Terrell became familiar with the neighborhood drug dealers and hardly ever went to class. Football wasn't even an afterthought. But then his older brother Bobby shot a pregnant woman while robbing her outside a check-cashing office. The woman lived but her unborn child died, and Bobby ended up with an 11-year prison sentence. Terrell, not wanting to do prison time also, started taking class seriously and playing football. He made it to the University of Georgia and then the NFL in 1996 as an unheralded, sixth-round draft choice. He became the lowest drafted player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in his first season and was Football Digest's Offensive Rookie of the Year. Last January Mr. Davis was named the Super Bowl's MVP; given his childhood, he might have been expected to be an MVP only in prison-but there are surprises.
-Mario Zavala On the reservation
This past fall Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 51, moved to poverty-stricken Whiteriver, Ariz., on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. The National Basketball Association's all-time leading scorer was going to spend four months coaching a school basketball team. His explanation: "I come from a tough area myself-I was born in Harlem, and I know what the kids here are going through." The retired Los Angeles Lakers star, a Muslim, is coaching, learning the Apache language, and working on two books, one a motivational volume on championship strategies, the other a diary of this season. Basketball colleagues have speculated that Mr. Abdul-Jabbar might become an NBA coach, but he says that for now he is committed to the kids: "I want to teach them the value of education, and what it can mean to their lives."
-Marisela Maddox The less-knowns
As a high-school quarterback of average height and unimpressive stats, Tim Rattay received no college scholarship offers and enrolled at Scottsdale Community College, where he was the smallest of eight quarterbacks contending for a starting role. Nevertheless, he won the job, gained the most passing yards of any junior college player in the country, and went on to Louisiana Tech, where this past fall he spent hours watching game film every night, often falling asleep watching tapes showing the upcoming opponent's defense. Developing physical skills along with hard work made Mr. Rattay the most productive passer in the nation this year; Cade McNown and Tim Couch received much of the publicity, but the Louisiana Tech QB threw for 4,943 yards and 46 touchdowns, more than his UCLA or Kentucky counterparts. The lack of attention seems all to the good for Mr. Rattay personally: He spent his spare time this past fall coaching a sorority flag football team, and cornerback Sarah Johnston called him "so modest and so real." The relatively small amount of attention Tim Rattay received was great compared to that given to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics championship game between two Christian colleges: On Dec. 19 Azusa Pacific University (California) beat Olivet-Nazarene (Illinois), 17-14, with offensive player of the game Jack Williams gaining 108 yards on 22 carries and also intercepting a pass as a cornerback. Earlier, another NAIA team, Geneva College (Pennsylvania), won the Victory Bowl in Canton, Ohio, defeating Maranatha Baptist Bible College (Wisconsin), 27-6.
-Jonna Stout and Lee Wolverton