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Catching Up With ... former Colts QB Cotton Davidson

Catching Up With ... former Colts QB Cotton Davidson
Cotton Davidson (holding ball) warms up in the Colts locker room with Raymond Berry (No. 82), John Unitas (No. 19), and Royce Womble (No. 26) in 1957. (Richard Stacks, Baltimore Sun)

Down by two points and 80 yards from the end zone, their chances looked bleak. Two minutes remained when the Colts began a drive against the Los Angeles Rams that would stamp their rookie quarterback, No. 19, as a coming star.

He completed one pass, then a second and third. Time and again, his throws found their mark. Seven straight completions put Baltimore into the red zone. With 12 seconds left, a field goal won the game.

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Sixty years later, Francis Marion "Cotton" Davidson — the quarterback who led the rally — recalled that furious finish Dec. 4, 1954, in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

"That was the first time where I felt that I really produced for the Colts," said Davidson, the fifth overall pick in the NFL draft that season.

A week later, he nearly did it again. Trailing the San Francisco 49ers 10-7 late in the game, Davidson marched the Colts 75 yards in 10 plays — seven of them passes — to set up a field-goal attempt. The kick failed.

That loss left the Colts at 3-9 in their second NFL season and all but ended Davidson's career here.

"I left town feeling good, knowing I was the only one of three quarterbacks coming back the next year," said Davidson, of Gatesville, Texas. "But when I got home, there was a letter from the Army saying they wanted me for two years. All I did in the service was play football and baseball at Fort Bliss. When I returned to the Colts in 1957, another guy was wearing No. 19."

That was Johnny Unitas.

"I told John, 'I can't believe I was out there, fighting for my country to protect you, and you came in and took my jersey,'" Davidson said. "John tried to give it back to me, but I took No. 18 instead."

The two squared off in the Colts' annual intrasquad game. Davidson completed 12 of 21 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns; Unitas was 16-for-34 for 194 yards and one TD.

"John was top of the line. We never had a cross word," Davidson said. "I backed him up that season and you knew that son of a gun was going to be the guy."

"He is one of the best boys I ever coached," the Colts' Weeb Ewbank said then. "He was all heart, but he couldn't beat out [Unitas]."

Davidson signed with Calgary of the Canadian Football League but hurt his shoulder and quit in 1959 to coach at Baylor, his alma mater. A year later, he gave the new American Football League a shot and starred for six years with the Dallas Texans and Oakland Raiders. Twice named to the Pro Bowl, he retired having passed for 11,451 yards and 73 touchdowns.

"The AFL gave me a second life," Davidson said. His best game? Rallying Oakland to a memorable comeback against the San Diego Chargers in 1963. Losing 27-10, the Raiders scored 31 points in the fourth quarter to win, 41-27. Davidson led the surge, passing for two touchdowns and running for one. He still has the game ball, signed by teammates.

Davidson returned to Baylor and coached there for 22 years. He and Carolyn, his wife of 60 years, live on the family's cattle ranch, a 700-acre spread where he putters around, mending fences and fixing gates. Among his 12 grandchildren is an 11-year-old would-be quarterback.

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"I play catch with him some," he said. "I can still throw a decent ball — just not very far."

He threw bullets in his prime and, in doing so, drew Ewbank's ire in practice.

" 'Just lay the ball in there,' Weeb would say while chewing me out," Davidson said. "Then [Hall of Famer] Raymond Berry came over and whispered, 'Cotton, you throw the ball the way you want to and I'll catch it the way I want to.'

"Raymond never dropped anything."

The Colts welcomed him as a rookie, Davidson remembered.

"Before a game in Chicago in 1954, Buddy Young [a Pro Bowl running back] walked over during warm-ups, put his arm around me and said, 'Cotton, when you throw a ball today, don't stand in the pocket and watch it go downfield because these guys will come up behind you and knock your head off — and the refs won't call it.'"

"I looked over at Ed Sprinkle, the Bears defensive end who was probably the dirtiest player in the league. Well, during the game, once I threw the ball, boy, did I move."

His teammates included Art Donovan, the All Pro defensive tackle whose reputation as a storyteller even then was legend. But Davidson got the best of him.

"One day, in the shower, Artie looked at me and said, 'What's that hole in your chest?' See, my sternum bent down for some reason. But what I told Artie was, 'When I was little, a brahma bull stuck his horn in my chest, carried me across the field and threw me against the wall.'

"He believed it — and I never told him anything different."

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