HE HAD HIS FIRST TASTE OF football stardom at the age of 8 when he earned the nickname ""Boss Hogg'' as a bowl-'em-over running back on a Pop Warner team in San Diego. So Terrell Davis was thrilled to accompany his Denver Broncos teammate John Elway to see John's son play in a Pop Warner game. The parents and kids may have become blase about seeing the superstar quarterback, but they thronged Terrell, seeking autographs, handshakes, even hugs. Davis, 26, still a reluctant star in his fourth NFL season, was so nonplused by the attention that he fled the field. ""I don't think I've completely mastered the idea of being famous yet,'' says Davis.
Fame has become an increasing predicament for Davis since the Broncos' upset win over Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXII. The victory will be remembered as the crowning achievement of Elway's Hall of Fame career, but it was Davis who earned the MVP trophy. ""Terrell is, no question, the greatest back I've ever played with,'' says Elway, who had been 0 for 3 in Super Bowls before Davis's arrival. Beginning this Sunday, the pair takes aim at an encore, following a season in which Davis became the fourth NFL rusher ever to surpass 2,000 yards. He achieved that milestone in the regular-season finale with the same grit he displayed in the Super Bowl, where he returned after missing the second quarter with a severe migraine. ""I had a sore back, bruised ribs, but I had to go out there and give it all I had to get those yards,'' he said.
In an arena where ego is often confused with accomplishment and flash passes for class, Davis is a rare embodiment of old-fashioned virtues. He boasts no tattoos, wears no jewelry and prefers jeans and a casual shirt to the stylish three-piece suits that abound in the locker room. He is lots of work and little play: he celebrated the Super Bowl victory with some vanilla ice cream in his room. And when People magazine sought to anoint him the year's sexiest athlete, he politely declined. ""That's so, so not me,'' he says.
Davis is, rather, a bit of a loner who high-tails it home after practice and whiles away evenings with music, movies and videogames. ""What can I tell you? I'm a boring person. But I like just chilling,'' he says. ""I don't have a wife and kids, so it's just me, and I like it like that.'' He does, however, have five older brothers, several of whom have lived with his mother in a house Terrell purchased in Denver right around the corner from his own. Davis plans to start his own construction firm so that his brothers, who have struggled, can attain a little of the security he now enjoys. He even intends to take a plumbing apprenticeship this summer so he can work alongside them in the off season.
Terrell can even put a happy spin on the family's troubled saga. He recalls the wholesome fun--Little League games, go-carting and his dog, Bonnie--as well as his father's drunken rages. Davis is matter-of-fact when recounting the times police were called to the house because of his father's violent outbursts, even that one occasion when his father lined them up against a wall and fired shots over their heads. He blames the disease--alcoholism--not the man. ""My father was a wonderful man who loved us,'' says Davis. What others call abuse, Terrell sees as an attempt ""to make us men, to toughen us.''
Joe Davis died in 1987. And whatever his intent, Davis's brothers turned out tough, but also wild. There were minor arrests and jail stints. Then in 1993 Bobby, the fourth oldest, shot a pregnant woman during a botched robbery. She survived, but her unborn child died. Bobby served four years in prison and, when paroled, was allowed to move to Colorado under Terrell's wing.
""I watched my brothers do things that changed their lives for the worse, and I couldn't let that happen to me,'' he says. Except for one arrest his freshman year at Long Beach State for stealing car rims (""a stupid idea that one of my friends had that I went along with''), Terrell stayed out of serious trouble. But after transferring to the University of Georgia, he didn't achieve the kind of football stardom he had expected, either. As a result, he was only the 21st running back drafted in 1995. Denver coach Mike Shanahan claims no prescience in snagging the 5-foot-11, 213-pound star. ""We had no idea what we were getting,'' he says. ""But his work ethic is incredible.''
Amid the afterglow of last season's championship, Davis still attended 90 percent of the team's voluntary workouts. He even arrived at 6 a.m. on weekend days for a hellish regimen of bench presses, stomach crunches and plyometrics, a technique to speed muscular response. He caps his routine by doing sprints--both backward and forward--while hauling a weighted sled. ""I know I'm not the most talented back out there,'' he says. But Davis's leg strength gives him a low center of gravity and remarkable balance. He's also blessed with great field vision. ""I can see a hole opening as quick as anyone,'' he explains. Davis studies film exhaustively and has mastered the sophisticated blocking schemes that are at the heart of today's NFL offenses. ""When he gets the ball, he doesn't waste time messing around the backfield,'' says Howard Griffith, Davis's blocking back. ""It's one cut and he's running downhill.''
Davis's off-field instincts are almost as good. He has established two charitable foundations, one for education, the second for treatment of migraines in inner-city children. Though he understands how to use his fame, it still puzzles and discomforts him. ""I haven't discovered the cure for some deadly disease or anything, so I'm still a little shocked when people react to me like I'm this amazing person,'' Davis says. ""I'm just plain old Terrell.'' He doesn't even have his own name on his locker, using one with the nameplate JOE ABDULLAH, a former Bronco who was cut last season. Right now Davis cares only about seeing his name on another Super Bowl trophy.
PHOTO (COLOR): Not the natural: Davis does it with strong legs and hard work.
TERRELL STEPS IT UP
After a big pay hike for last season's heroics, Davis in 1998 became only the fourth player to rush for 2,000 yards.
1997 1998 Annual salary $815,000 $6.2 million Yards rushing 1,750 2,008 Total carries 369 392 Yards per carry 4.7 5.1 Touchdowns 15 23