Terrell Davis is the ultimate what-if in Denver Broncos history.
His Saturday induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame removes some of the sting from the sad 1999 afternoon when he shredded his knee, traveling from glittering superstar to hobbled has-been in a violent instant.
Remember, the induction removes some of the sting, not all of it.
Davis collected 6,413 regular-season yards and 61 touchdowns, plus 1,140 playoff yards and 12 touchdowns, in a staggering four-season run from 1995-98. He carried the Broncos to consecutive Super Bowl titles. He possessed a rare combination of vision, desire, power and speed.
His future wasn’t limitless. It was only close to limitless.
On Oct. 3, 1999, a sad day, his future collapsed, along with the Broncos. Quarterback Brian Griese floated a pass into the hands of Jets safety Victor Green, and Davis took up the chase. At the sideline, Davis collided with Green and Bronco teammate Matt Lepsis. The trio went down in a heap. Green and Lepsis quickly got to their feet.
Davis stayed down after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his right knee. He was never even close to the same.
When Davis fell, he was 26 and thousands upon thousands of yards seemed on the horizon. LaDainian Tomlinson, who joins Davis as a 2017 HOF inductee, gained 6,323 after he turned 27. Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, gained 9,399 after 27.
Davis, his knee shredded, gained only 983 after 27, and every one of those yards was a testament to his will.
For a far-too-brief time, Davis ranked among the NFL’s all-time uplifting stories. He came from nowhere, a sixth-round pick who looked on his way to, at best, an NFL life of special teams and a couple of dozen carries a season. He had never quite become a college star, largely because of an acrimonious relationship with Georgia coach Ray Goff.
He instantly became a star with the Broncos, becoming the lowest-round pick to ever rush for 1,000 yards as a rookie.
The Davis game that sticks in my mind came early in the 1998 season. The Broncos were mighty, one of the top two or three teams of the Super Bowl era. On Sept. 13, the Cowboys' defense sought to slow down Davis.
Let’s just say the Cowboys failed. Davis scored 63- and 59-yard touchdowns, and that was just the first quarter. He finished with 191 yards on only 23 carries. He was dominating, entertaining and inspiring. So much seemed ahead.
Less than 13 months later, he tumbled to the turf against the Jets and never truly stood up again.
But that’s the sad part. On Saturday night in Canton, Ohio, Davis will be honored for his astonishing four seasons. He was a comet who did not enjoy the blessing of an enduring career. Corey Dillon, who is not in the hall, rushed for 3,634 more yards than Davis, but Dillon was never the NFL’s best running back.
For a two spectacular seasons, Davis was the best. That’s why he’s being honored.
The Broncos had long been on the edge of NFL supremacy, but John Elway lacked the required sidekick. With Davis, the Broncos twice ruled the NFL.
“He changed things,” Elway said of Davis.
He sure did.