BENTON, Tenn. — Among the framed memories hanging on the walls of the Polk County field house is a 30-year-old photo of a young Derrick Davis in a toboggan, celebrating one of his father's biggest coaching wins with several muddy players.
The 8-year-old Davis was just beginning to help his dad on the sidelines, retrieving the kicking tee from the field, handing out water and generally trying to stay out of the way, and that night Larry Davis had coached the Wildcats to a victory that carried them into the quarterfinals of the playoffs.
Now as the head coach himself, and with Larry working as an assistant, Derrick has Polk County one win away from reaching the quarterfinals for the first time since that frosty November night in 1979. The Wildcats host Notre Dame tonight in a rematch of a two-point win over the Fighting Irish earlier this season, and much like the seniors who suit up tonight, Derrick and Larry Davis know to savor a rare moment such as this.
Although Larry says he has no immediate plans to step away from the game, he realizes the rare disease that causes severe muscle weakness (myasthenia gravis) could make every Friday night the last he gets to spend working the sideline alongside his son.
"I've been dealing with it for a couple of years, but I had a really bad episode that caused me to miss all of spring practice and I could tell about halfway through this season that I still just don't feel right," Larry said. "It can affect your breathing, and I get tired real easy.
"I don't want to think about it, and I know I may be forced to, but it's hard to quit. I still like being around the kids, and I like getting to work with Derrick every day. We're both hard-headed and there were times we would get so mad at each other we wouldn't even speak in the car even though we rode together. But it's been a great experience, I hope for both of us."
No other coaches currently working in our area have deeper roots to their program than the Davises. Aside from one five-year stretch, they have been involved with Polk County football for five decades, including 27 with Larry as the head coach and the last 14 with Derrick overseeing the program and his dad working as an assistant.
When Derrick was named to take over at his alma mater, at just 29 years of age and having never been a head coach, he asked Larry to come out of retirement and help, "just till I get my feet on the ground."
"All these years later, I still don't know if I've got my feet on the ground," Derrick joked. "I do know one thing, I'm not ready for my dad to not be there with me. He can't do everything he used to, and he's not calling the offense anymore, but he's still a huge part of our program.
"This has put things in perspective. You always think of your dad as immortal, that nothing can get him down. It was awful not having him out there last spring, and I can't imagine walking out on the field and not having him there with me. I'm glad we're having a good season for the seniors, but also for him, just in case he doesn't feel up to coming back next year."
In Larry's 27 years as head coach he had just two losing seasons. The program hit an eight-year dry spell between when Larry resigned as head coach and Derrick took over, averaging just two wins per season during that time. But since Derrick became coach the Wildcats have averaged eight wins and reached the playoff's second round three of the last four years.
"He jokes that he's going to count about half the wins we've got with me as head coach to his record," Derrick said. "And that's fine. He probably should.
"When I walk out on that field and see the sign that says 'Larry Davis Football Complex,' it definitely makes me want to work extra hard just because of the pride I've got in what he's done here. I know I'm not the man he is, but I see the respect he's got from former players and hope I can have players feel the same about me some day."
As not only his son, but one of Larry's former players, Derrick knows the best way to continue honoring his dad is to earn the right to work together for another game next week.
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...