I remember the first time that I saw Big Ben Davidson in my hometown of La Mesa. I was a high school junior, and a linebacker on the football team, when my dad pointed out a very tall man with a handlebar mustache standing a few feet away from me at a Souplantation restaurant. We did not speak, but I remember recognizing him from the great Miller Lite beer commercials as well. In many ways, La Mesa is still a small town, and after that, I would bump into Ben a couple of times each year. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school and writing my thesis on Sid Gillman, however, that I first spoke with him. I figured that I should have the input of one of Gillman’s opponents in my thesis, and so I gave Ben a call after finding his listing in the phone book. He invited me to his home, which happened to be just up the hill from me, and he gave me an excellent interview.
As I became involved with the history of the AFL, I had more opportunities to see Ben, and every time it was a fun experience. One of my most memorable AFL-related days took place a couple of years ago with Ben and his teammate, Tom Keating. It was a simple afternoon of sharing stories and laughs, but as always, Ben made it enjoyable by being himself. With Ben, you had the impression that he truly cared about the things you said, and how you were doing. He made you feel good.
I recall Ben exhibiting that same fun and kindness with my son, Toby. Toby and I showed up at an autograph signing that Ben was participating in. We didn’t really have anything to get signed, but were in the area, and thought we would say, “hello.” Ben and Toby began talking, and soon Ben was signing a photo for Toby. I took a look at it several minutes later when we were back in the car. It was the famous shot of Davidson crashing down on Dolphins quarterback, Bob Griese. Ben’s inscription made me smile. “Toby - This guy didn’t listen to his dad! Ben Davidson #83.”
When I began writing this blog, Ben took an interest. He was one of the first former players to subscribe to the blog, and he would ask me how things were going and who I had been in contact with. A few months ago I mentioned that former Texan and Chief, Chris Burford, had been reading and posting comments. It so happened that Burford’s daughter and the Davidson girls had been in youth swimming together, and Ben and Kathy told me stories of getting together with the Burford’s for swim meets.
Shortly after the New Orleans bounty scandal was announced, I asked Ben if he would be willing to speak about it. As the AFL’s favorite bad guy, I thought he would have an interesting insight into the situation. Of course he had some interesting thoughts on the situation. After the interview was concluded, Ben, Kathy, another friend of theirs and I sat around for a couple more hours. The fed me red wine and meatloaf, and we talked about football, wine, chili peppers, elementary schools and anything else that came up.
One of the inherent problems with writing about the American Football League, is that the players are getting up in years, and we are losing some of them. It is simply the cycle of life, but that makes it no easier when we lose a good person. Ben Davidson died Monday night after a long bout with prostate cancer. I had last seen Ben about six weeks ago. He told me that the doctors thought that he was winning his battle with cancer. He and Kathy had recently bought a place to retire to in downtown San Diego, and things were looking good. I left with a wave, and a promise that I’d see him again soon. Unfortunately that time will now not come.
I’m not sure what exactly made Big Ben the wonderful person that he was. Maybe it was his free spirit. Maybe, by the time I had met him, it was his ability to look back on a life of accomplishment. Or perhaps it was something he told me more than once, about how he felt fortunate because he had lived a fun and interesting life, and yet he had never held a real job. I guess in the end it doesn’t really matter. The cause of his kindness is not important. That he was kind is what I will remember.
Thank you, Ben, for your friendship, your kindness, your hospitality, and the interest you had in the people who you encountered. You made lives better just by being yourself. Even if you did keep playing after the whistle.