By Ernie Harris
From humble beginnings in Spring City to the professional ranks of the NFL, David Douglas has defied several odds in his life, enough to land him into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame at Thursday’s 33rd induction ceremony held at the Knoxville Convention Center.
“From where I came from in Spring City and Rhea County, it’s been humbling and quite an honor,” said Douglas of his induction. “To be honest, it’s actually been quite shocking to have the opportunity to go into the hall of fame.
“I’m going in with John Bruhin, who I played with in the 1985 Sugar Bowl, so that’s kind of neat,” Douglas added.
Douglas, a 1981 graduate of Rhea County High School [RCHS], played under the direction of former Golden Eagles’ head coach Butch Morrow, where his offensive and defensive line coach was Gene Douglas.
As an Eagle senior, Douglas was named honorable mention to the All-Tri-State team, which covered Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. He was selected to the All-District 5-AAA team. Douglas was also recently listed 25th overall on the Chattanooga Times Free Press 50 best players of the past 50 years in the Chattanooga area. With his height, Douglas was also a force down low on the basketball court for the Eagles.
After RCHS, Douglas decided to take his talents and 6-foot-4, 200-plus pound stature to the University of Tennessee in hopes of playing for former Vols’ head coach Johnny Majors. However, he did not receive a scholarship and had to walk on.
“I was only 200 pounds and coach Majors and [Phillip] Fulmer were concerned that I was too small to play line,” said Douglas. “I was 6’4” to 6’5” and Coach Fulmer said they were going to invite me to walk on and he told me if I gained my weight, they’d put me on scholarship.”
By his sophomore season, Douglas had worked his way through the ranks and earned a scholarship. He was the 1982 Volunteer Award winner, which is an award given each spring to a player that entered UT without a scholarship and earned one.
Along the way, he endured lots of one-on-one battles in practices against former Vol and NFL great Reggie White. It may have taken a few years, but Douglas never lost focus, remained patient and enjoyed the rewards of his hard work.
“The coaches came to me and said you’re going to be the best lineman for every team we play for the scout team that year,” said Douglas. “I was getting red-shirted that year and it was Reggie’s upcoming senior season, and I went up against him in every practice.
“Going against Reggie really helped me a lot,” added Douglas. “Sometimes I would win, but I wasn’t sure if he was feeling bad for me, or if I was actually getting better,” he jokingly added.
“Reggie was a really good person and we had become friends because we grew up nearby, with him going to high school at Howard in Chattanooga,” added Douglas. “There wasn’t one any better than him. There were some as good, but at that level, there wasn’t anyone that could literally take over a game the way he could.”
The offensive line coach at UT for Douglas was Phillip Fulmer and his tackle coach was David Cutcliffe. To this day, Douglas has maintained a relationship with Majors, Fulmer and Cutcliffe, one that he is proud of.
Douglas stated one of his favorite moments as a Vol was being crowned SEC Champions in 1985 and then going on to win the Sugar Bowl later in the season, soundly defeating the Miami Hurricanes 35-7. Many Vol fans still place the Vols’ Sugar Bowl victory as one of the greatest in UT history.
Following graduation at UT, Douglas entered the 1986 draft, where he was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the eighth round and played with them for three seasons. He worked his way into the starting lineup for many games, rotating back-and-forth on the offensive line at center, guard and sometimes tackle.
In the 1987 season, Douglas was named Bengals’ Frito-Lay Player of the Game vs. the Houston Oilers as starting center.
The Bengals played in Super Bowl XXIII during the 1988-89 season and fell to the San Francisco 49ers 20-16 at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami. Despite the loss, Douglas holds that game as one of his fondest NFL memories.
“It was a lot of fun and a good group of guys so talented with that offensive line of Anthony Munoz, Dave Remington, Max Montoya and Boomer Esiason as our quarterback,” Douglas said. “I was very fortunate to have the opportunity and to go through the Super Bowl.
“Of course we lost in the last seconds to the 49ers but that was a lot of fun and I will never forget it,” added Douglas. “I remember walking onto the field before the game and saying to myself, ‘I can’t believe I’m here.’ Actually, it was pretty much a ‘thank you Lord for letting a boy from Spring City play in the Super Bowl.’”
Douglas finished his pro career with the New England Patriots, where he spent the 1989-91 seasons before having to give up football for good because of cracked C-6 and C-7 vertebras in his neck, causing his official early retirement from the NFL.
With his football career in the rear view mirror so to speak, Douglas settled in Maryville, Tenn., where he and his wife Karla Horton Douglas raised their son Aaron and Ashley. Many Lady Vol fans may recall Karla’s talents on the basketball court, as she was part of Pat Summitt’s first national championship team in 1987. Karla was a three-year starter.
Keeping with the family tradition, Aaron Douglas was an All-State tight end for the state champion Maryville Rebels that went on to win a starting offensive tackle position for the Vols. He was named to the All-SEC freshman first team and first team freshman All-American in 2009.
After Aaron transferred to the University of Alabama in December 2010 and was the projected starting tackle in the fall, tragedy struck the Douglas family in May 2011 when they faced his untimely death.
Out of Aaron’s passing, David and the Douglas family set up a foundation bearing his name called the AD Foundation, which formed in 2012.
“We’re going to get out and hopefully do some things in Rhea County and surrounding areas and discuss with a lot of these kids the evils of pills and bad things out there for these kids,” said David of the foundation’s purpose and future goals. “I look forward to it now, although you wished it had never happened, but it is going to be something positive we can do for the community.
“There’s a lot of things we can do to truly save lives for the youth,” added David of the foundation. “These pills are in middle schools and high schools, it’s everywhere, and they’re going to hammer a whole generation if we don’t get our arms around it.
“At Maryville High School, the foundation also gives an athletic and music scholarship to two individuals each year,” he added.
A year ago this month, doctors found a cancerous tumor in David’s brain, making yet another hurdle for him and his family to climb. After undergoing procedures to remove the tumor at UT Medical Center, he has received treatments from UT and Duke University Hospital, located in Durham, N.C., ever since.
As of his last few checkups, David stated the cancer has disappeared, as he is appreciative of his current status and thankful to so many friends, former teammates and coaches, family and loved ones for all of their support.
“I’m not going to work again at age 51 because of the cancer, and that’s kind of hard, but at the same time, I’m getting better,” said Douglas of his recent battle. “God’s taken care of me. My treatments at UT and Duke are going well and I’m getting better. But, it is brain cancer and it doesn’t go away. As of right now, they’re not seeing anything. You just keep doing the right things and hope and pray it stays away.
“It’s been great to have all the prayers and the support of the people, friends and family,” added Douglas. “It’s just amazing, you don’t realize how many people care about you and not because of anything, but they just care about you. It’s truly been a blessing and God is good.
“I’m blessed to have my wife, little girl, my parents Max and Pat Douglas and to have a great family,” he added. “And some friends I played with at UT have been like brothers to me. They’ve taken to me to the treatments. It’s just been a blessing to know how many people care for you.
“Coach Majors, Fulmer and Cutcliffe and my former agent Jimmy Sexton have also reached out to me and helped out,” Douglas added. “Coach Cutcliffe and Jimmy are the ones that got me down to Duke when they found out I had brain cancer. It turns out that my doctor at Duke, Henry Friedman, is one of the top brain doctors in the world, so that’s another blessing.”
Some interesting side notes from David included him calling his younger brother Steve Douglas “The best football player in the State of Tennessee in 1982.” Steve was an All-State linebacker for RCHS and followed David to UT, where he broke into the lineup early on, but injuries sidelined his career.
“I’m really glad to say that my brother was the best player in the state of Tennessee in 1982, but he never really got to show people how good he really was with all the knee injuries he sustained,” David said.
This past fall, UT honored the Douglas family by permanently naming a locker in the Peyton Manning football locker room at Neyland Stadium in their name, including the names of David, Karla, Steve and Aaron. All four lettered at UT.
“It was quite an honor by UT, especially after we lost Aaron, to know that his name will always be up there with us on that locker means a lot,” said David. “It was pretty cool, and it goes to show you the friends that you have, some that you don’t talk to that much, they’re still your friends.”
David also acknowledged his offensive line teammates from the 1984-1985 season all played at least five years in the NFL. They include Bruhin, Harry Galbraith, Bruce Wilkerson, Raleigh McKenzie and Daryle Smith.
He said jokingly of his former teammates, “We were all brothers with different mothers.”
David wished to express thanks to the following people/organizations:
1. UT Medical Center and Doctors: Dr. Hannah-Cancer, Dr. Walsh-NeuroSurgical, Dr. Bertoli-Radiation and many more Nurses, Therapists, Office Staff and Doctors.
2. Duke Medical Center and Doctor Henry Friedman and his team.
3. Family Care and Jeff McMichael (linebacker): Family physician and UT teammate.
4. Jimmy Sexton: Friend and NFL agent
5. John Bruhin and Glenn Streno: Friends who took David to many treatments at UT over last year.
6. Thanks to a lot of friends and family, including Jimmy Jackson family in Spring City.
The 2014 class of Knoxville Hall of Fame inductees included John Bruhin (Football), Atlee Hammaker (Baseball), Joel Helton (Coach), Wade Houston (Basketball), Jenna Johnson (Swimming), Nikki McCray (Basketball), Peter Oppegard (Figure Skating), Jimmy Pitkanen (Tennis) and Jerry Wrinkle (Coach/Official).
Former UT standout and Colorado Rockies’ first baseman Todd Helton was the featured speaker. He was also the recipient of the Thanks for the Memories Award. Other special recipients included Peyton Manning, who received the Chad Pennington Professional Athlete of the Year Award and Inky Johnson received the Pat Summitt Ignite Greatness Award.