Our series on ASN’s 50 greatest NFL championship competitors of the past 50 years continues with No. 30 Eric Davis, originally published on Jan. 25.
Eric Davis might have played in the Southeastern Conference were he a little more patient and a little less confident. Instead, he grasped the opportunity to play immediately at a smaller school and still ended up an NFL player and Super Bowl champion.
Davis parlayed his start at Jacksonville State, then a Division II program, into a 13-year NFL career as a cornerback and a Super Bowl ring with the San Francisco 49ers.
“I had very strong parents that always taught us that nothing can make you feel inferior without your permission,” Davis said in a June 2008 story in his hometown paper, the Anniston (Ala.) Star.
Davis was an unlikely second-round draft pick by the Niners in 1989. He was All-Gulf Coast Conference as a senior, when the Gamecocks went 13-1 and advanced to the NCAA Division II national championship game. Jacksonville State now plays at the Division I FCS level in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Professional scouts began to learn of the 5-11, 185-pound Davis during his junior year and routinely traveled to Jacksonville State to work him out. After he was selected by the Niners, he worked his way into the lineup quickly.
He became a fixture in the San Francisco secondary, though when the Niners won Super Bowl XXIX after the 1994 season, he might have been the least heralded member of the group. Future Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, a free-agent acquisition, manned the other cornerback position and was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Safeties Tim McDonald and Merton Hanks both made the Pro Bowl.
Yet Davis was instrumental in the Niners reaching Super Bowl XXIX in Miami. In the NFC Championship game against the rival Dallas Cowboys, he intercepted Troy Aikman and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. He also forced a Michael Irvin fumble that the Niners turned into another touchdown, the second of three turnovers that staked San Francisco to a 21-0 lead. They eventually won 38-28, denying the Cowboys the opportunity to win a third consecutive Super Bowl.
The 49ers dusted the San Diego Chargers, 49-26, a game famous for Steve Young’s six touchdown passes and the Niners’ breathtaking offensive efficiency.
“It’s not like we were possessed or anything,” Davis said in Sports Illustrated’s game story. “The AFC is just a different brand of football. It’s not like the NFC, like us or Dallas, or even some other teams. I feel fine now, but after we played the Cowboys, I was really beat up. I hurt bad until the next Friday.”
Davis had one of the Niners’ three interceptions against the Chargers. Late in the second quarter, Tony Martin had gotten behind him for what might have been a touchdown, but Davis recovered while Stan Humphries’ pass was in the air, and he intercepted in the end zone to squash the threat.
Davis, a self-described “late bloomer” in football, finished his career with 44 interceptions. He is one of only two players to have intercepted passes in five consecutive postseason games. He was a two-time Pro Bowl selection, in 1995 and ’96, and a three-time All-Pro, in ’95, ’96 and ’97. He signed with Carolina as a free agent following the ’95 season and played five years with the Panthers. He played one year apiece with the Denver Broncos and Detroit Lions before retiring in 2002.
Following the Super Bowl win, Davis told the San Francisco Chronicle that he recalled something Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott said to him his rookie year.
“He said, ‘Until you get one of these rings, you’re just another guy that played the game,” Davis said. “This is what we set our minds on doing. We all worked hard. We weren’t going to let this get away from us.”