Migraine Vexes Player? Terrell Davis Was Different Kind Of MVP
He had reached the pinnacle and was living his dream. Then, suddenly, Super Bowl XXXII became a nightmare for Denver’s Terrell Davis. Would an ill-timed migraine derail his dream, or would he join an impressive list of NFL stars who overcame injury and illness to make a lasting memory?
For Terrell Davis, playing in Super Bowl XXXII was more than just the culmination of an improbable career arc that saw him go from a late-round draft pick to a 1,750-yard rusher for Denver in 1997, leading John Elway and the Broncos back to the Super Bowl after three blowout losses in Elway’s previous three appearances and four losses overall since 1977. This game, played at Jack Murphy Stadium in the Mission Valley section of San Diego, would also be Davis’ triumphant homecoming.
Davis had grown up in San Diego, learning the game of football at Georgia before joining the Broncos in as a sixth-round pick in 1995, but it was during Davis’ young upbringing that an insidious disorder became as much a part of his life as running with a football. As early as age 9, Davis would begin suffering from truly debilitating headaches.
It wasn’t until he was in college at the University of Georgia that a CAT scan revealed that Davis suffered from chronic migraines. The headaches would plague him throughout his life, but he learned to combat them on the football field by taking medication before games designed to stunt the headaches before they could form.
But on the day of Super Bowl XXXII, a game unlike any Davis had ever participated in, with an entirely different pre-game routine, Davis made a critical mistake that would cost him dearly at the end of the first quarter against the Packers: He forgot to take his preventative medicine. But it would not be the first time in football history that an internal condition, completely unrelated to the game on the field, would affect a player in a dramatic way.
Joe Montana was one of the quarterbacks to doomed the Broncos to a humiliating Super Bowl defeat, beating Elway 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV, the worst Super Bowl loss in history. It was the last of Montana’s four Super Bowl titles with the San Francisco 49ers, but before he ever got to Candlestick Park, before “The Catch,” Montana was the key figure in another game that earned a classic nickname.
As a fifth-year senior for Notre Dame in the 1979 Cotton Bowl game against the University of Houston, Montana was overcome in the first half by the brutally cold and damp conditions in Dallas, suffering from hypothermia. Notre Dame as a team suffered right along with him, falling behind by 22 points after three quarters.
But according to the legend, Montana was revived at halftime with a therapeutic bowl of hot chicken soup. Re-energized by the Campbell’s classic, Montana led the Irish on a furious 23-point, fourth-quarter comeback, throwing for the winning touchdown with no time left. It became known as “The Chicken Soup Bowl,” and the Montana comeback legend was born.
But before Montana would become the savior of the 49ers franchise, he had to sit on the bench as a rookie backup to Steve DeBerg. And when DeBerg suddenly came down with laryngitis during the 1980 season, the 49ers chose not to replace DeBerg with Montana. Instead, the team’s training and medical staff came up with a rather unique way to keep the muted DeBerg in the game.
In 2018, communications are such that all quarterbacks have the ability to communicate with the sideline via specially-designed helmets that contain audio receivers. That’s why quarterback helmets have that little green sticker on the back (The More You Know …). But in 1980, in order to allow DeBerg’s linemen to hear the QB call out the snap count, the 49ers rigged his pads with a microphone and speaker contraption that made the quarterback look like the Humpback of Norte Dame (rather than the backup from Notre Dame).
Despite the truly bizarre look, and the fear that a big hit by a linebacker could knock the whole rickety system off-line, DeBerg played the entire game and the contraption succeeded. It went to well that three years later, when DeBerg played for the Broncos and sustained a neck injury that paralyzed his vocal chords, the Broncos called the 49ers and asked, “Hey, you guys still got that speaker thing?” They did, and DeBerg kept right on playing.
But like in San Francisco, DeBerg was replaced by a legend. First it was Montana, now it was Elway. But Elway could not win a Super Bowl, not without a superstar running back like Terrell Davis. But now, in Jan. 1998, in San Diego, late in the first quarter against the heavily-favored Packers, it appeared Elway would not have his star runner available to play.
Super Bowl XXXII started out just fine for Davis and the Broncos. Playing before family and hometown friends in San Diego, Davis scored the Broncos’ first touchdown to tie the score at 7-7. And when the Broncos got the ball back late in the first quarter, Davis led a lengthy drive that brought the Broncos down to the Packers’ 10-yard line. With just under two minutes left in the quarter, Davis carried down to the 6-yard line for a first down, but something was wrong. Davis couldn’t get up. His worst nightmare was coming true.
The migraines that had been such a part of Davis’ life, the migraines that required the preventive medication that Davis had forgotten to take before the game, had come back with a vengeance at the worst possible moment. After a few moments on his knees, with teammates and lead referee Ed Hochuli checking on him, Davis finally got up and staggered to the sideline. He would remain there for one play, squinting with discomfort and trying to focus his eyes, before coming back in to run the ball once more, to the Packers’ 2, on second down.
But as the Broncos allowed the clock to run out on the first quarter before running another play, and with the break between quarters lasting several minutes, the migraine was given time to fully explode. Suddenly, Davis could not see. Like so many times before, the intense pain and pressure had rendered Davis effectively blind. There was no way he could continue playing in this game. “Normally, when I get a migraine, this first thing that goes is my vision,” Davis told FoxSports. “Nothing is clear, everything is in pieces. I just remember in my mind saying ‘no, no, no, not right now.’”
The Super Bowl has often been the stage for stories of courage and self-denial. In Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005, Terrell Owens returned from a grisly leg injury sustained in a game a month earlier against the Cowboys, when a tackle from behind caused Owens’ leg to bend awkwardly behind him, resulting in a sprained ankle and fractured fibula.
The injury was so gruesome that the “horse collar” tackle that caused the injury was outlawed by the league that offseason. Owens would not play again until the Super Bowl against the Patriots, and even though he was not fully healed, Owens caught 9 passes for 122 yards and nearly led the Eagles to an upset victory.
But the standard by which all “overcoming injury in the Super Bowl” stories are measured came in 1980, when Rams defensive end Jack Younblood played in Super Bowl XIV against the Steelers with a broken fibula. Youngblood originally broke the bone near his left ankle during the Divisional playoff game against the Cowboys in Dallas. But true to Youngblood’s old-school nature, one that would earn him the nickname as the John Wayne of football, Youngblood denied the pain and continued playing, sacking quarterback Roger Staubach late in the game to help seal a 21-19 upset victory, in what proved to be Staubach’s final game in the NFL.
Youngblood, who had played in four NFC Championship Games over the previous five seasons and lost all four, was determined not to allow another loss, this time to the Cinderella Buccaneers in Tampa. Despite the hairline fracture of his fibula, Youngblood played the whole game and the Rams advanced to its first Super Bowl with a 9-0 victory. Two weeks later, Youngblood played another full game in a 31-19 loss to the Steelers. But Youngblood was not done.
In a scenario that would never happen in today’s NFL under any circumstances, Youngblood played in THE PRO BOWL the following week. That is dedication. But it was no match for the bravery about to be displayed by Terrell Davis in the second quarter of Super Bowl XXXII.
Davis was eligible to play in the 1997 Pro Bowl after his brilliant season, but now, as the second quarter of the Super Bowl was set to begin, it appeared that Davis’ season was over. The migraine that bloomed inside Davis’ head had rendered him unable to see. Team doctors were able to get critical medicine into the star running back, but it would take time for it to provide needed relief. And that was a huge problem for coach Mike Shanahan as his team faced third down from the Packers’ 2-yard line.
Shanahan had the perfect play in mind that was certain to result in a touchdown. It was called “Sprint Right Option,” and was most famous in NFL history as the play the 49ers ran against the Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship game that resulted in Joe Montana rolling out to the right and finding a leaping Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone with less than a minute to play to beat the mighty Cowboys 28-27. “The Catch,” put the 49ers in the Super Bowl for the first time.
Sixteen years later, Shanahan wanted to run the same play, with Elway rolling out right and either passing to an open receiver or running the ball in himself. But the only way the play would work is if Davis was in the backfield. Once Elway snapped the ball and faked the handoff to Davis, the Packers defense would be expected to follow Davis to the middle of the line, allowing Elway to roll out right to an open field in front of him. But if Davis wasn’t in for the play, the Packers would have to reason to go for the fake. The play would not work without Davis. But Davis could not see!
“I remember thinking, walking off that field like ‘This is just a wrong time,’” Davis told Migraine Again’s podcast in 2017. “’God please. It’s just the wrong time. This is just it. Tomorrow’s fine, later today, I’m fine, but just not right now.’ I felt like I was letting a lot people down, even though I had no control over that, I just felt like I was letting, at the end, my teammates down, my family down, friends, the fans, everybody.”
During the lengthy timeout between quarters, Shanahan was appraised of Davis’ condition. There was no way a blinded Davis could go out and run a play, as much as he wanted to. But Shanahan explained to Davis that technically, he didn’t need to do anything. He just needed to be a decoy, to fool the Packers into thinking he would be getting the ball, as he almost always did in goal-line situations. No, no, Shanahan told Davis, all you have to do is stand there. Davis, ever the competitor and team player, understood. He went back into the game.
As the quarter began, Davis took his place behind Elway for the 3rd-and-2 play. On cue, Elway took the center snap and turned to hand the ball off to Davis. Davis faked receiving the ball and starting moving toward the goal line, as the Packers’ defense collapsed into the middle of the field to stop him. But Davis did not have the ball and he pulled up short of the line to avoid taking a debilitating hit. No matter, the plan had worked.
Elway, still with the ball, rolled out to the right and saw only fellow running back Robert Griffith in front of him. Elway could have easily passed to Griffith, but the lane to the end zone was so incredibly wide open because of Davis’ fake, Elway sauntered into the end zone untouched for the touchdown and a 14-7 lead. It was the first time in the Broncos’ five Super Bowl appearances that they had scored any points in the second quarter. Opponents had scored 54 against them, but that was due mainly to what happened 10 years earlier, when another player overcame injury to be a Super Bowl hero.
Super Bowl XXII was going to be special for Doug Williams regardless of the outcome. Just by reaching the Super Bowl, Williams had become a historical icon, a trailblazer for racial equality that would rival Jackie Robinson. Williams, who lost to Jack Youngblood’s Rams in the 1979 NFC Championship Game, became in Jan. 1988 the first African-American quarterback to start a Super Bowl, and the significance could not be overstated. But Williams and the Washington Redskins still had the game to play against Elway’s Broncos, making their second straight Super Bowl appearance. And, at first, things did not go well for Williams.
After the Broncos sprinted out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, Williams dropped back to pass late in the period. But as he dropped back on his own 25-yard line, his right leg slipped and his knee hyper-extended. Williams collapsed in pain and actually fumbled the ball. But a quick referee whistle prevented a Broncos recovery and defensive touchdown, keeping the score at 10-0. That was hardly Washington’s biggest concern, as Williams was forced to leave the game and he didn’t return until early in the second quarter. But when he did come back … BOOM!
Led by Williams, the Redskins put five touchdowns on the board for a 35-10 halftime lead. It was the most one-sided quarter in Super Bowl history, with Williams completing 9 of 11 passes for 228 yards and 4 touchdowns to earn MVP honors. Williams only missed a handful of minutes because of his injury. As it turned out, Davis would miss the rest of the second quarter after his critical cameo on the first play. Could he come back for an MVP performance of his own?
In the locker room at halftime, Davis took a nasal spray called DHE (dihydroergotamine mesylate) that reduces the effects of a migraine by suppressing inflammation of the brain. The medicine that had saved Davis in so many migraine attacks over the years was finally kicking in as the two teams prepared to emerge from their locker rooms for the second half. ”Those extra halftime minutes helped,” Davis said. ”I had taken some medicine for the onset of the migraine. But it takes time to work. By the time the second half started, I was pretty much O.K.”
Davis’ vision had indeed returned, and along with it his ability to focus. The Broncos still led 17-14, but they would need their star running back if they had any hopes of winning their first-ever Super Bowl. His head clearing, Davis did not let them down. ”In my book, Terrell is the best back in the league bar none,” Elway said. “If you don’t believe that, you weren’t watching the game too closely tonight.”
In the second half, Davis rushed for 94 of his game-high 157 yards and two of his three touchdowns. His two second-half touchdowns accounted for all of Denver’s scoring in the half, and his final scoring run came with 1:45 remaining in the game and gave the Broncos their winning margin of 31-24. For his efforts, Davis was named Super Bowl MVP.
”This is like a dream,” Davis said. ”And I’m kind of numb. It almost never happened for me. In the second quarter, I really couldn’t see straight. I had gotten dinged a little, and I knew a migraine was coming on. But I also knew there was a good chance it could go away. So when it did, I just went back out and ran behind our line, which was dominating the Packers up front.”
But perhaps more important, Davis’ great game, and his ability to overcome his migraine on such a worldwide stage, gave Davis a platform to bring attention, compassion and understanding for those who struggle with migraines in silence and fear.
“That platform, the biggest game of the year, millions of people watching. The amount of people who I’ve spoke to after that who said “Thank you. Thank you for your story and having the courage to go play,’” Davis told Migraine Again. “I was able to at least shed some light on it and bring it out for kids who felt like “Man, thank you, thank you for letting people know how tough it is to have this.” Now, people are more sensitive to their needs and sensitive to their conditions. It served a purpose which, I’m thankful for.”