So Principal Bob Fazio was amazed when he found out about Davis' own medal-winning extracurricular activities.
"It blew me away once I knew," Fazio said last week. "He was a very humble man who didn't want to brag about it."
In 1960, Davis won two gold medals in track and field at the Olympic Games in Rome, winning the 400-meter dash and winning the mile relay. Emerson has its own resident Olympic hero.
Recently, a group of teachers at the school honored Davis with a banner reminding the student body of his achievements.
U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame
When Davis was inducted into the United States Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2003, he asked Principal Fazio to accompany him to the ceremony in Los Angeles.
"I didn't know he didn't know," Davis said. "I thought everyone knew."
Once Fazio found out, he had to make sure that his achievements were displayed for everyone to see in the school.
"Otis brings such a level of dignity to this place," Fazio said. "He's a good, solid man who should be a role model to our youngsters. A lot of the kids don't have real role models to look up to."
Some of the teachers, including art teacher John Slater and photography teacher Dan Rizzi, recently decided that they should do something more to highlight Davis' incredible accomplishments.
"Someone pointed Otis out to me and said, 'He won two gold medals in the Olympics,' Rizzi said. "I said, 'C'mon, that can't be true.' It never really clicked in that it could be true or how important it is that he's here in this school every day. Not enough people know who he is or what he won."
So Rizzi wanted to make a display honoring Davis.
"I asked him to bring in his gold medals," Rizzi said. "We took a picture and made a banner to honor Otis. Even teachers walk by and are amazed by it. It's a good thing for everyone to know about."
When the banner was recently hung, Davis was honored.
"I couldn't believe it when I saw it," Davis said. "I was surprised and speechless. I really didn't know what to say."
Otis Davis' story is quite remarkable, considering that Davis didn't even begin to run competitively until he was a student at the University of Oregon, when he was 26 years old.
Davis was born in Tuscaloosa, Ala. nearly 74 years ago. In his early days, he was a fine basketball player and actually dreamed of becoming a pro.
However, for a young African-American growing up in the deep South, those were lofty goals that weren't usually attained.
"I was never one to let anything stand in my way," Davis said. "I never let anyone tell me that I couldn't do something or I shouldn't do something. I always dared to be different. I always had dreams to achieve, to make something out of my life."
Davis went to the University of Oregon on a basketball scholarship.
"One day, I was hanging out at one of the dorms with a friend and we were looking out onto the track," Davis recalled. "We were watching the athletes running on the track and I said to my buddy, 'I can beat these guys.' I never had run a thing in my life. We didn't have track teams when I was growing up in Alabama. We just had basketball and football."
So on that fateful day in 1958, Davis approached famed Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman, who eventually became the founding father of the Nike athletic conglomerate, actually making running shoes out of his own waffle iron.
"I went up to Bowerman and asked him if I could join the track team," Davis said. "He asked me, 'Well, what do you do?' I didn't know what I did. He said that he needed high jumpers, so I tried the high jump."
Among his first attempts ever at the high jump, Davis jumped 6-0.
"I had no form," Davis said. "I had no style. I just jumped."
He also hit 23-0 in the long jump without trying. When it came time to try the sprinting events, Davis was a little befuddled.
"I didn't even know how to get in the starting blocks," he said.
But in his first event ever, Bowerman entered Davis in the 220-yard dash in the Pacific Coast Conference championships. Davis won. He also entered the 440-yard dash. Davis won again.
"I didn't know I was only two/tenths of a second off the school record," Davis said. "I didn't even know what the record was."
First Nikes for him
Incredibly, Davis said that Bowerman made the first pair of the special Nike shoes for him - contradicting a claim that they were made for Phil Knight, the current president of Nike.
"I wore the first pair of Nike shoes," said Davis, who still wears Nike sneakers today. "I told Tom Brokaw that I was the first. I don't care what all the billionaires say. Bill Bowerman made the first pair of shoes for me. People don't believe me. In fact, I didn't like the way they felt on my feet. There was no support and they were too tight. But I saw Bowerman make them from the waffle iron, and they were mine."
Within a year, Davis was competing on a national level for the Ducks. He was on the way to becoming a national AAU champion in the 440-yard run.
A year later, in 1960, at the age of 28, Davis made the U.S. Olympic team, heading to Rome as one of the oldest members of the track team.
"The guys on the team called me 'Pops,'" Davis said. "I was still learning how to run with the staggered starts and all. I was still learning the strategy involved. I was still learning how to run in the lanes. Just a week before the Olympics, I had run my fastest time. Things just happened at the right time for me."
David and Goliath
At the Olympics, Davis was to face off against the thought-to-be invincible Carl Kaufmann of Germany, who was the world record holder in the 400-meter dash. No one expected Davis to do well in the race.
"I was just happy to be on the team," Davis said. "He was undefeated. No one told me that he was. I'm glad they didn't tell me."
But the underdog Davis shocked the world, not only beating Kaufmann, but winning in world record time in the process. Davis' time of 44.9 seconds was the first time that anyone had broken the impenetrable 45-second barrier.
Davis was essentially the Roger Bannister of sprinters, breaking a mark that never was thought to be possible, much like Bannister shattered the four-minute mile.
Two days later at the Olympics, Davis was at it again, facing Kaufmann again, this time head-to-head in the finals of the 4-x-400 mile relay. When Davis got the baton in the relay, he never looked back and defeated Kaufmann again, helping the U.S. relay team to a gold medal and another world record time of 3:02.2.
Two events, two gold medals. Not bad for someone who only had been running for two years.
"It was surreal," Davis said. "I thought I had a chance to get a medal, but I never thought I would get two gold medals. For that time, it was unbelievable. No one believed it."
After the Olympics, Davis' competitive running career was virtually over. He competed in a few meets here and there, but never reached the same pinnacle again. He went back to Oregon to get his degree, then considered playing professional football with the Los Angeles Rams as a wide receiver.
"I knew I could catch the ball, but it was all about being able to take the hits," Davis said.
After retiring from competition, Davis became a high school teacher in Springfield, Ore. for many years, then went overseas to serve as an athletic director at United States military bases.
Coming to UC
In 1991, Davis wanted to move closer to New York, so he just chose Jersey City and then eventually settled in Union City.
He was hired by the Union City Board of Education three years ago and has served as the school's truant officer, but he also likes reaching out to the youngsters, as a teacher, coach and mentor.
"I believe in introducing the kids to track and field," Davis said. "There's a lot to be gained with track and field. Look at me."
Davis is a member of the University of Oregon Hall of Fame, the New Jersey Sportswriters' Association Hall of Fame, and is currently the president of the Tri-States Olympic Alumni Association, which he helped to start several years ago.
He was also one of the torch bearers for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
And Otis Davis is a gift that is treasured by the Emerson High School family.
"My goal is to take Otis and have him become a mentor to our students, to mold them and shape them," Fazio said. "He'll be one of the pillars in the school."
For now, a new banner serves as a reminder of the great achievements of Emerson's resident Olympic hero. "I'll do anything to help them," Davis said of the students.
Still humble, some 46 years after achieving Olympic glory. Maybe that's the greatest achievement of Otis Davis.