Milt Davis knew how to read people - on and off the football field.
As an All-Pro defensive back for the Baltimore Colts, he outfoxed receivers, twice led the NFL in interceptions and helped the club win two world championships. As a pro scout, Davis judged prospects with the best.
But it was his touch with everyday folks that will be remembered most, those who knew him said.
"When you did your goodbyes with Milt on the phone, the last thing he'd say was, 'Be noble,'" said Ernie Accorsi, former Colts general manager.
Davis died Monday of brain cancer at his home in Elmira, Ore. He was 79.
Born on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma and raised in a Jewish orphanage in California, Davis attended UCLA, shoveling coal to pay the bills. After an Army hitch, he played briefly with the Detroit Lions before joining the Colts in 1957. A 28-year-old rookie, "Pops" led the league with 10 interceptions and was a mainstay on Baltimore's title teams in 1958 and 1959.
"Milt was a huge addition to our defense," said Raymond Berry, the Colts' Hall of Fame wide receiver. "He was in that elite group of cornerbacks, with [Detroit's] Night Train Lane and [the Green Bay Packers'] Herb Adderley, who could both cover people and catch the ball. They were the ones receivers feared most."
One of five blacks on the team, Davis became their spokesman and mentor, said Lenny Moore, the Colts' Hall of Fame running back.
"We looked up to Pops because of his intelligence and the way he carried himself," Moore said. "He had this way of stating the truth about race relations without changing his tone or offending anyone.
"He taught you to be cool and to not let things overrun you. He made you proud to be around him."
Davis retired in 1960, earned his doctorate in education from UCLA and taught for 25 years at Los Angeles City College. On weekends, he scouted for the Colts and then three other clubs for 36 years.
"Milt was an exceptional judge of talent," said Accorsi, also the GM for the Cleveland Browns and the New York Giants before retiring in 2007.
In his 37-year career, Accorsi said, Davis was one of "two or three" people who most influenced his scouting acumen. "In 1970, I stood with Milt on the sidelines at Colts camp, watching John Unitas struggling," Accorsi said. "I asked Milt, 'Can we win with John?' " Davis' reply is forever burned in Accorsi's mind:
"Let me tell you, Ernest, and never forget: You evaluate a quarterback solely by his ability to take a team downfield with a championship on the line."
Thirty-eight years later, Eli Manning - the oft-maligned quarterback Accorsi had picked to lead the Giants - trotted out late in the Super Bowl and won it.
"Milt's words rang in my ears," Accorsi said.
But Davis' life was more than football. A professor of natural history, he treasured wildlife and raised sheep, cattle and llamas on his Oregon farm. An avid ornithologist, he liked to swap bird calls with former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll when they met.
"I remember having dinner with Milt in 1972, when he lived in the Hollywood Hills," Accorsi said. "All of a sudden, in the restaurant, he stood up and said, 'We have to be home by 9 o'clock. That's when the coyote comes.'"
"Every night at 9 the coyote comes to my window, looks in and howls," Davis said. "I dim the lights, then he serenades me for three minutes and leaves.
"That coyote counts on me."
"Milt never forgot his heritage," he said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun