NOTE — This is the last in a series of stories profiling the 12-person Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2023, who will be inducted to culminate three days of festivities in Natchitoches beginning this evening. For tickets and more information, visit LaSportsHall.com or call 318-238-4255.
By SHELDON MICKLES, Written for the LSWA
Looking back on the totality of his track and field career, it seems nearly impossible to think that it almost didn’t happen for two-time U.S. Olympian Walter Davis.
After just one track practice in the spring of his freshman year at Beau Chene High School in Arnaudville, the affable Davis decided he would rather stick with his first love — basketball.
Years of playing against his brothers and cousins helped mold him into an all-state point guard who averaged 15 points and seven assists as a senior, which earned him an invite to the Louisiana High School Coaches Association’s East-West all-star game.
But thanks in part to the persistence of Beau Chene girls basketball coach Ken Winfrey, who also coached the jumpers on the track team, Davis’ final game came a couple of months after he won the long and triple jump titles at the state meet.
It led to an illustrious career at Barton County (Kansas) Community College and LSU, where he became the program’s most decorated male athlete in just two seasons while leading the Tigers to two national titles. Then he began 13 years on the international circuit.
He earned a spot on the U.S. team for the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games, the first time as a 20-year-old from tiny Leonville, Louisiana, and he won two gold medals as well as a silver and bronze at the World indoor and outdoor championships.
Davis’ all-time best in the triple jump was 58 feet, 2 inches in winning the title at the 2006 World Indoors in Moscow and his best long jump ever of 27-0 ½ netted the gold medal at the 2003 USA Championships.
That resume’ makes the long journey from Leonville to LSU to track stadiums all over the globe to his induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in Natchitoches all the more special for the 44-year-old Davis, and those who marveled at his highly-successful career.
“Without a doubt, Walter is the best athlete I ever coached … just from a standpoint of raw talent,” former LSU jumps coach Boo Schexnayder says unequivocally..”
None of it was in Davis’ plans almost three decades ago at the end of his first — and what he thought was his last — track practice after Winfrey told Davis he wanted him to come out for the team.
“So I go out my freshman year and I’m thinking I’m just going to jump,” Davis said with a laugh. “Then, he had me running the 400. That was my first and last day at practice.
“I couldn’t jump and he had me running the 400. I was like, ‘Oh, no.’”
But Winfrey knew he had to have Davis, who comes from a long line of well-known athletes in St. Landry Parish.
“When I first started coaching in 1989, someone told me if I went to a school that had some athletes to look for the Davises,” Winfrey said. “If you had a Davis on your team, you were going to be all right. I found out very quick that I needed some Davises on my team.”
Joe Davis, Walter’s dad, and several of his brothers were basically basketball players, Winfrey said. But the elder Davis was also a state champion jumper at the old Leonville High School.
“I knew his dad … I followed the dad and all his uncle’s careers,” Winfrey said. “They were outstanding athletes. There were six or seven boys, and, all of them, they liked to work.”
Eventually, Walter Davis came around — especially after playing basketball games in gyms where he would look up and see the names of his dad and uncles displayed on banners celebrating their many accomplishments.
When Winfrey asked him to come back out for track for his junior season, Walter was soon running the short sprints — the 100 and 200 meters — and jumping.
“I talked to him again and he started working out with me after basketball practice,” Winfrey said. “He was a jumper and sprinter for me, and the rest is pretty much history.”
It certainly didn’t take long for the lanky kid with big-time hopes to start making a name for himself in the Acadiana area — and beyond.
“He started doing things that were surprising to everybody,” Winfrey said. “He could just jump and jump and jump. Walter still was kind of hesitant about becoming a track guy.
“I’d say, ‘Walter, name a couple of people that can play and dunk and jump like you can,’” he added, noting Davis named a few and pointed at him as well. “I said, ‘Well, tell me this, Walter. … How many people in the nation you know can triple jump 51 feet?’”
A nine-time All-American at LSU under legendary coach Pat Henry and Schexnayder, a world-renowned jumps coach, Davis won six of a possible eight NCAA horizontal jumps titles in his two seasons. He also ran the leadoff leg on the 4×100-meter relay team that won the 2002 national title with a time of 38.32 seconds.
“He’s such a great competitor,” said Henry, a 2021 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee. “He knew the value of training; he knew it was important and he showed up.
“That’s as important as it gets. You do what it takes to be great, and Walter was good at doing what it took to be great.”
Schexnayder said accountability was one of the things that set Davis apart.
“Walter held everybody else accountable and put the team on his back,” Schexnayder said. “As a coach, you had to make sure you had him in the ball park on his final attempts. As a coach, you knew if he was close to the top he would find a way to win on his final attempt.”
He did it again in making that last leap to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.