Power Players

NFL Hall of Famer Terrell Davis: 'I can do more, and I should be doing more'

Terrell Davis poses during his NFL Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2017.
Joe Robbins | Getty Images

Though systemic racism in this country is nothing new, the protests and movement sparked by the killing of George Floyd have been a wake-up call for many Americans. 

Count among them NFL Hall of Famer Terrell Davis.

"I looked at myself, and I said that I can do more, and I should be doing more," Davis tells CNBC Make It.

"We all should be doing more."

Davis, who won two Super Bowls in the 1990s and was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2017 after rushing for more than 7,600 yards in his seven-year career, grew up in Valencia Park, San Diego, a neighborhood ruled by gangs.

He says watching the video of a police officer kneeling on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes opened up old "wounds."

"Growing up where I grew up, it's really a reminder, because I experienced it firsthand," Davis says. 

Davis, now 47, says as a teen he used to sit on an electrical box across the street from his house. He remembers the "menacing" looks law enforcement would give him as they drove by, trying to intimidate him.

"And if you stare back at them, they would stop the car, and they would get out and ask, 'What are you looking at?'" Davis says.

"So things like that is in my brain forever. I've been through that. I've seen it."

Davis says he is speaking out now not because he is anti-law enforcement but because he wants to help create real change.

"I have to speak my piece because there are people who rely on me to say something," Davis says.

But he wasn't always comfortable doing so.

Davis is one of six kids — his mother, Kateree, a nurse, raised him and his siblings after his father, Joe, died of lupus when Davis was 15.

Before he died, Davis says, his father — who had multiple run-ins with the law and spent time in prison — was extremely tough on him and his brothers to help prepare them for the realities of the world as black men.

"He was tough but he was firm, but he was fair,'' Davis told 9News in 2017.

"But he made us the way we are, my brothers and I, and he understood the world is not going to be easy on you. So he felt like he had to be harder on us than what we would be in the real world. And he prepared us all," Davis said.

When he was 7, Davis joined the sports program at the Boys & Girls Club in San Diego, where he would escape the perils of his neighborhood. After high school, he went on to play baseball and eventually football at Long Beach State University.

In 1995, Davis was drafted into the NFL. As the Denver Broncos' sixth-string running back, Davis almost quit the game.

"I just felt like it wasn't for me. They had faster guys who were better than me at the time, and I got a little discouraged, so I wanted to quit," Davis told Marcus Lemonis during a recent Instagram Live interview.

Davis stuck with it, however, and went on to win a starting position. He also made the NFL's Pro Bowl team for the next three seasons and won the league's MVP award in 1998.

Over the course of his eight seasons in the NFL, Davis made roughly $19 million in salary and bonuses, according to Sportrac, before retiring due to injury.

It's a far cry from the way he grew up. And Davis says he is learning that he has a responsibility as a professional athlete to use his platform. 

"A lot of us, we 'make it out,' as they say, and we don't give back. We don't give back to our experience or try to help others do the same," Davis says.

Davis says there have been times when he didn't speak up because he was afraid it would affect his speaking gigs and endorsement deals. 

But Floyd's case is "much bigger than all of that," he says. Speaking out is the only choice he can make now.

"I want to be there for the transformation from the point going forward," he says.

So what does Davis think about New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees' recent comment about taking a knee during the national anthem when the NFL season starts again? (Brees told Yahoo Finance on June 3 that he "will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag." He later issued an apology amid backlash from other players.)

Davis says Brees' comment about the flag is "part of the problem."

"The problem is people want to see what they want to see," Davis says.

"It's not about people that don't like America," Davis says, referring to the protest against the treatment of black and brown people in America started by Colin Kaepernick in 2016, which sees some NFL players kneeling rather than standing while the national anthem is played before games.

"It's about us trying to improve America," he says.

"Your America and my America are two different worlds. It's sad that people have to fight for the right to be treated equal."

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