GATESVILLE — As a star high school athlete in Coryell County, Cotton Davidson went on to Baylor University and became the first Bear quarterback ever selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
The former Gatesville quarterback was drafted as the fifth pick by the Baltimore Colts in 1954.
Davidson had never seen a professional football game until he played in his first — a preseason contest against the Philadelphia Eagles. Fresh from an MVP performance in the East-West Shrine Game, Davidson started against the Eagles as a punter.
After his rookie season in Baltimore, Davidson returned to Gatesville with high hopes for his second season.
But in February 1955, Davidson was drafted again — by the U.S. Army. “I was a little disappointed,” he said. “I was going to be the only quarterback coming back, and I felt I really had a chance to put it together.”
Instead of returning to Baltimore, Davidson reported to basic training in Fort Carson, Colo. Eight weeks later, he reported to Fort Bliss.
Instead of training on the missile range, Davidson was assigned to the gridiron. Like many other professional athletes in the Army, he spent his military hitch playing football (and baseball). He was named All-Army Quarterback in 1955.
In 1957, Davidson was discharged from the Army as a private to resume his NFL duties. Things had changed.
In Davidson’s absence, the Colts had drafted quarterback George Shaw in 1955. When Shaw broke his leg in 1956, the Colts signed a quarterback who had been drafted in the ninth round, then promptly cut, by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Guy by the name of John Unitas,” Davidson said with a shake of his head. “Unitas’ first year was a good year and his second year was a great year.”
With little hope of cracking the starting lineup, Davidson requested, and was granted, a trade to Calgary in the Canadian League. A shoulder injury cut short his Canadian football career.
In 1959, Davidson returned to Baylor to help install the Colt offense for head coach John Bridges, who had been the defensive coordinator at Baltimore.
When Lamar Hunt called in 1960 and asked him to join the Dallas Texans of the American Football League, Cotton agreed. His shoulder had mended and he was eager to play.
He won eight games his first year with the Texans, and the following year he was MVP of the AFL All-Star Game.
The Texans moved to Kansas City and became the Chiefs. In 1962, the team picked up quarterback Len Dawson and traded Davidson to the Oakland Raiders for several prime draft picks, including the first overall.
“I told Hank (Stram) I would not go to California,” said Davidson. “By 5 o’clock that afternoon, I was on a plane headed to Oakland.”
After a rough first year, Davidson was ready to call it quits in Oakland, but the Raiders’ new coach, Al Davis, persuaded him to stay.
“If Al Davis were alive, he would say the greatest game was that win against San Diego,” Davidson said.
Cotton was the star of what would be Davis’ triumph against his former coach and team.
On Dec. 8, 1963, the Raiders were trailing the Chargers 27-10 at halftime. Davidson came off the bench to start the second half and rallied the offense to score 31 points in the last 12 minutes of the game. Davidson was presented the game ball after the 41-27 win.
Shoulder injuries forced him to retire in 1968. He did some scouting for Davis, then returned to Baylor and spent 22 years on Grant Teaff’s coaching staff.
After retiring, Davidson helped start the Boys & Girls Club in Gatesville and supports it with a celebrity golf tournament featuring “old worn-out ball players” like Walt Garrison, Bob Lilly, Randy White and Roger Staubach. Alongside his trophy case of NFL memorabilia is a plaque from the Boys & Girls Club honoring Davidson for his steadfast support.
Davidson is a fan of that other Coryell County quarterback who went to Baylor and on to the NFL, Robert Griffin III of Copperas Cove.
“He’s a super kid,” Davidson said of Griffin, who was drafted No. 2 this year by the Washington Redskins.
Relaxed and happy on a ridge overlooking Gatesville, Davidson, 80, enjoys golf and doting on his grandchildren.
“It has been a fun life, I will say that,” he said. “Still is.”
By Tim Orwig