Harper Davis carries the ball for Mississippi State University.

This was before Julius Harper Davis became Mr. Mississippi State and a standout on some of the greatest Bulldog football teams in history. This was before Davis played for the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, and before the legendary George Halas named a play after him.

This was long before Davis coached as an assistant at Mississippi State and then for 25 years with great success as head coach at Millsaps College. This was before all that. This was when Harper Davis was just 18 years young, a recent graduate of Clarksdale High, and found himself across the continent in the mammoth Los Angeles Coliseum lined up across from the UCLA Bruins.

This was October of 1944 and America was still fighting World War II. Davis was in the Navy, stationed at St. Mary’s Preflight where his astonishing foot speed proved much more apparent on the football field than in a cockpit.

Davis, who died Saturday at 95, once showed me the news clipping from the next day’s Los Angeles Times, which ran an eight-column banner headline across the top of the first page of the sports section: St. Mary’s Preflight Jolts Bruins 21 to 12; Davis gallops over Uclans.

Rick Cleveland

The story details how Julie Davis ran for 206 yards on 31 carries and dazzled heavily favored UCLA. Davis was described as an “18-year-old newcomer from the Mississippi prep ranks whose arrival has transformed the Preflighters from plodders into dazzlers.”

“All these years later, it remains my biggest thrill in sports,” Davis told me in 1989 after he retired at Millsaps.

And that was saying something because Harper Davis, older brother of fellow Mississippi State great Art Davis, enjoyed a lifetime of thrills in sports.

He led Mississippi State in scoring in three of his four seasons, led them to 25 wins against 12 defeats, made All-SEC and All-South. As good as he was on offense, he was best in the defensive secondary.

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him in the second round of the NFL Draft, but the Los Angeles Dons, who played in the LA Coliseum, drafted him in the first round of the All-America Football Conference draft. The Dons offered him more money, plus Davis was familiar with the surroundings.

Davis signed with the Dons but after one season the league folded. The NFL held a dispersal draft and the Bears, coached and owned by Halas, chose Davis in the first round. Davis became a defensive star, intercepting five passes during the 1950 season. Halas also designed an offensive play featuring Davis as a wide receiver, who would get the ball on a double reverse. The Bears ran it once and Davis scored from 40 yards out. Afterward, Halas revealed the play’s name: The Harper Davis Special.

Brothers Art (left) and Harper Davis, in 2011.

What wasn’t special about the Bears was the payroll. As a coach, Halas was innovative. As an owner, he was miserly. Davis said players often had to mend their own uniforms. He was making $8,000 a season.

Young fans of today’s NFL can scarcely imagine what the league was like in the early 1950s. When Harper and Camille Davis welcomed a young son into the world in 1953, he sought some financial stability. Davis quit pro football to become the head coach at West Point High School. “I had to work toward a future and there was no future in pro football,” Davis told me.

After two years as a high school coach, Davis spent eight as an assistant at State. In 1964, he landed at Millsaps for a 25-year run, during which the Majors won 136 games, lost 84 and tied four. His 1980 team finished 9-0. He was old school, Harper Davis was. Offensively, his teams most often ran between the tackles. Defensively, they got after you. They practiced long and hard. Nobody, including Davis, drank water during practice.

Mostly, they won.

When he retired, I asked him, are you going to miss it? “I probably will,” he said, and he did.

It wasn’t long before he was volunteering to help Jackson Academy’s junior high teams learn to play the sport.

“He was great with the kids, one of the neatest, kindest people I’ve ever known,” said Joey Hawkins, long-time JA coach.

Hawkins reminded me of another Harper Davis exploit from years and years ago. World War II had ended. Mississippi State and Ole Miss both wanted him to play for them and awaited his return. But Mississippi State didn’t wait. Coach Allyn McKeen took action, dispatching an assistant coach to pick up Davis at Corpus Christi Naval Air Station. That was on a Wednesday. They drove back to Mississippi on Thursday with Davis studying the playbook. On Friday, State traveled to Birmingham to play Auburn. On Saturday, Davis, who barely knew his teammates, entered the scoreless game in the second quarter. His first carry was a 61-yard touchdown. Eventually, he would then rush for 166 yards on 22 carries and score two of State’s three touchdowns in a 20-0 victory.

You couldn’t make up a story like that. And thankfully, where Harper Davis is concerned, we don’t have to.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.