Seventy-nine-year-old Union City High School verification officer (formerly known as truancy officer) Otis Davis sat at his desk in the school’s library in front of a banner with the five linked, trademark Olympic rings beside his photo, which read, “Mr. Davis’ Academic Hall of Fame.”
Below the banner was a photo of six students who recently had won the United States Olympians Tri-States Chapter Annual Achievement Award out of entries from New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. The top five winners of the tri-state academic/athletic achievement honor were Union City students.
Davis is pleased when students at his school win anything related to the Olympics. He won two gold medals for the United States in 1960 Olympics held in Rome: one for the 400 meter dash, and one for the four by 400 meter relay as anchor.
What makes his achievement even more remarkable is that Davis is black and Native American. In the 1960s, the U.S. was still in the midst of an ongoing civil rights battle.
“People used to say to me, ‘You’re ahead of your time,’ ” Davis said. “And I answered, ‘No, I’m ahead of your time. I started doing this years ago.’”
Students often approach Davis after they “Google [him] or something – is that how they say it?” he said, and they find his website and see all that he has achieved, despite all the adversity.
It is a topic the students can relate to, he said.
“Opportunity is the only thing that gives you the chance,” Davis said. “Both for myself and the kids, the more things you get involved with, the more things you find out you can do – that are legal,” he emphasized with a chuckle.
‘If I can do it, so can you.’
“Sports. That’s all I did,” Davis said of his childhood. “That’s one thing that pulled me through being in a situation like I was in the South.”
Davis was born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., 15 minutes from the then-segregated University of Alabama campus. Even though there were two schools two blocks from his home, he had to go to school “across the tracks” and miles away because they were white schools.
After four years serving his country in the U.S. Air Force, Davis attended the University of Oregon. He played basketball before he decided he’d try his hand (or feet) at track.
The coach at the time was Bill Bowerman, who along with Davis’ teammate, Phil Knight, co-founded Nike.
Davis wore the first pair of Nike sneakers, he said.
At 28, Davis qualified for the Olympics. He ran the 400 meter at the trials held in Palo Alto, C.A. in 46.4 seconds, which earned him the chance to compete.
“It was only natural because I was running real fast,” he said.
Though his time in the Air Force took him many places, he had never been to Rome. As soon as he arrived in the city, he thought, “Boy, when are they gonna fix all these buildings?”
In addition to earning his county two gold medals, Davis also met boxer Muhammad Ali.
“Boy, you think I talk a lot, but I couldn’t get a word in with him. And since he’s a boxer and I’m a runner, I couldn’t really argue with that,” Davis chuckled. “We just kind of gelled.”
“Take it from me: it’s not too late to be great.” – Otis Davis
Athlete Earl Young, who placed sixth in the same 1960 Olympic race as Davis ran in, landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated the following year.
“I felt like they already forgot about me. I know fame is fleeting,” Davis said, “but it was also a different time back then as far as ethnic acceptability.”
So Davis asked Bowerman to enter him in 1961 U.S. Nationals held at Randall’s Island in New York. to prove he was still viable. By then, he was 29, but he won.
“I tell you the truth; I couldn’t sleep after the race, because the veins in my arms and legs just stood up,” Davis said. “I put everything I could from a mental aspect into it, but it takes the mind and body. And I succeeded.”
‘I’m not just some guy who can run’
Davis received his degree in physical education from the University of Oregon and taught for many years until he became the athletic director at McGuire air force base in New Jersey in 1989.
He eventually decided that he wanted to get back into civilian life, so he moved to Jersey City in 1993 to get closer to New York City because, as he said, “That’s where all the things happen.”
He taught various after-school programs for gifted students, and 10 years ago he entered the Union City school district as a verification officer. Davis began to organize after school football and basketball programs, and eventually began to work exclusively with the high school’s special needs students.
“I didn’t know where I would end up,” Davis explained. “It all worked out pretty good, but I’m still working on it because I want to get my book out and do some speaking engagements to encourage other people to not give up.”
As president of the U.S. Olympians Tri-State Chapter, he mentors students at UC high school to be the best that they can be, in every aspect of life; not just sports.
Principal John Bennetti helped fund the cost to transport the parents and students who won the competition in November to and from the awards ceremony held in New York City, since the organization is non-profit. The students’ photo hangs proudly on his wall of fame.
Davis has many more plans in the works for how to keep kids going strong, despite the odds.
“I want to give people the word’s-eye view of where I am now and what I’d like to do,” he said. “Take it from me: it’s not too late to be great.”
For more information on the U.S. Olympians Tri-States Chapter Annual Achievement Awards, call (201) 392-8448. For more information on Davis, visit his website at www.otisdavisolympian.com.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at email@example.com.