My Memories of Big Ben Davidson

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.

ben davidsonOne 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.  😉


Todd Tobias (790 Posts)

Todd Tobias's interest in the American Football League began in 1998, when he wrote my master's thesis about Sid Gillman. He created this site to educate and entertain football fans with the stories of the American Football League, 1960-1969. You can follow Todd and get more AFL history on Twitter @TalesfromtheAFL.

11 Responses to My Memories of Big Ben Davidson

  1. Mark Peters says:

    Great memories of a great player and great person. I grew up a Raiders fan and always loved learning about the men who had played during the earliest times in the team’s history. Thanks for the great info and the great post!

  2. Dave Leventhal says:

    You continue to impress me with your writing depth both historically and emotionally.
    Your posts are starting to become the highlight of my morning at the office.
    Keep up the good work!

  3. R.I.P. Big Ben! A true AFL warrior who played the game how it was supposed to be played. I wasn’t around during those times but thanks to my addiction to the AFL and football history in general, I got to see some of his bone crushing highlights and great interviews.

  4. Vicky Davidson says:


    Thanks for the lovely words about my dad. He was an amazing person and we miss him terribly.

    Vicky Davidson (Ben’s youngest daughter)

    • Todd Tobias says:


      I am so sorry that your dad is gone. He was a unique and wonderful person, and I will miss him as well.


    • Allison Hartwell-Davis says:

      Vicky – My name is Allison Hartwell (maiden name Davis). We are second cousins. My father, Gary Davis, was first cousins with your dad. My grandmother is Eva Demo. I recall a couple of family reunions as a teenager and one in college, but my family was in Oregon and no longer in S. Calif., so we didn’t get to other reunions. My dad is one of 4 boys as well and he is just about 6 months younger than your dad. He would tell us stories of the “cousins” getting together, 8 boys all similar ages and how fun it was. I recall taking a picture of them all together at a reunion at my Uncle Phil’s house in Bakersfield in the 1980’s and remember how small my dad and all of his brothers looked (though all about 6 ft. themselves) next to your dad and his brothers. The “Davis” side of our family has remained very close with regular reunions, but i realized recently, that my generation doesn’t know much about my grandma’s side, The Davidson’s. I know the name Avis and i know your dad’s name, but that’s about it. I began looking up info. on the internet about your dad and was happy to find your name. I recall that Ben’s daughters were swimmers, but that’s about all i recall. I would love to communicate more and to learn more about this side of the family. If you are interested, I’d love to connect on facebook. My family is still in Oregon.
      Blessings to you,
      Allison Harwell-Davis

  5. Mike VandenBergh says:

    Todd – I too had the fortune of meeting and talking with Ben, his wife, daughters, and Tom Keating over the past several years. I didn’t realize that the Davidson’s were neighbors until my wife and I were eating at one of favorite places, Rana’s, in Casa de Oro. The Davidson’s home is on the other side of the Murdock Elementary School from our home. I still remember seeing him in person for the first time. He was eating alone at Rana’s, but how could you not recognize him. After introducing ourselves, he would always recognize us and say hello. A very, very nice person with everyone that we saw him with, and always gracious. We will miss him “on the hill”.

    • Todd Tobias says:

      Mike – Thank you for your comments. That is funny, as my wife and I would run into Ben at one of our favorite La Mesa restaurants, The Bistro. You are correct, he was always approachable, and seemingly happy to see you. It was always a treat to see him.

      P.S. – How is Rana’s? I have heard good things, but have never been there myself.

      • Mike VandenBergh says:

        Todd – we have been going to Rana’s since Oscar, Dulce, and their family opened five years ago. They are really friendly people. Went there last night and found it remodeled inside. Really good Mexico City sytle mexican food, not just fish tacos, but really good meats with different types of sauces. Try the shrimp alambre and you’ll be going back for more. Tell them Mike and Cindy suggested their place to you. Cindy and I recently tried The Bistro and it was really good – we’ll be going back to try one of my favorite breakfasts, Eggs Benedict. I use that dish as a barometer for other menu items. We usually bounce around from place-to-place for good, inexpensive food places in East County. Let me know if you have any other restaurant tips!!

  6. John Freeman says:

    Todd: Absolutely loved your tribute to Big Ben Davidson. What a wonderful guy. About 10 years ago, I interviewed him at his home atop Mt. Helix. He couldn’t have been more gracious and cooperative…Such a contrast to his self-created “bad boy” image…RIP, Ben.

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