The lasting legacy of Sara and J.W. “Wobble” Davidson
Written by Eugene Stockstill | Photographs Courtesy Deb Davidson Mashburn and Ole Miss Athletics
It might be said that one couple was at the heart of the Ole Miss football team in the 1950s and 1960s: J.W. “Wobble” Davidson and his wife Sara Simmons Davidson made it their life’s work to make Ole Miss a genuine home, especially for young, incoming footballers.
Imagine Wobble, an assistant for three football coaches at the university, including almost 20 years as an assistant under John Vaught, guiding his players with a tough-as-nails coaching style; and Sara, a nurturing dorm mother, arranging Christmas parties for the football team. The Davidsons lived in the football dormitory with their two children for 13 years.
Sara, often described by her own mother as “born happy,” died last January. Her husband Wobble, remembered as “one of the real legends of Ole Miss sports,” died in 1998.
“We lived in the football dormitory until I was 13,” recalled daughter Deb Davidson Mashburn, now retired and living in Memphis. “We went to a bowl (game) every year. Our life was sort of centered around what bowl we’d be going to at Christmas. There was a spirit of dedication to the kids and the university.”
Case in point: Near the beginning of one of his books, former Ole Miss chancellor Robert Khayat wrote about when he first came to campus. Most envision Khayat as a standout scholar and collegiate athlete who went on to even bigger things. But one day back in June 1956, the lonely freshman sat on a curb at the school, feeling about as homesick for his native Mississippi coast as he could ever remember feeling.
That’s when something happened that changed his life.
“I’ll bet that’s one of our boys,” Mashburn quoted her mom as saying to a friend as they drove by the young, dejected Khayat. Mashburn’s mother did more than make the future NFL player and higher-education leader feel at home in a strange new place. “He writes about how she sort of saved his life, because he was so homesick,” Mashburn said.
“She was incredibly loving and generous, taking an interest in those of us who were away for the first time,” Khayat said. “She was the first person who lovingly welcomed her freshmen.”
J.W. Davidson grew up in Memphis during the Depression, served in the Marine Corps, lost a buddy to friendly fire during World War II, and, Mashburn said, everything about the way her father came of age created a man of tough love.
He earned the nickname Wobble when a teacher reprimanded him during class for being a wiggler, only to be informed by the young student that he did not wiggle, he wobbled.
“He was a rascal,” Mashburn said of her father.
As a child, Wobble rode behind Memphis streetcars on a handmade skateboard because he couldn’t afford a ticket, once hitchhiked with a friend to Water Valley to find a watermelon festival, and for a time, hitchhiked to West Memphis to help slaughter cows, Mashburn said.
“I think they moved 16 times during the Depression, trying to find a place they could afford to live,” she said. His first year at Ole Miss, he and his best friend would swap pants, so it looked like each of them had two pairs of pants.
Mashburn’s mom, a Greenville native, was an Ole Miss cheerleader when Wobble (then a football player) approached her and said the following: “I know you’re a freshman, you’re having a great time, and I want you to have fun. But when you’re ready, I want to marry you.”
After they married, the entrepreneurial Sara owned a well-respected interior design and antiques business at the Oxford Depot, and she built a house in downtown Oxford that the family still owns. The Davidsons are parents to Mashburn and her brother Don.
Wobble, who is in both the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Ole Miss Sports Hall of Fame, lettered in multiple sports, worked as an assistant for three football coaches at the university, then later worked as a pro scout for the New Orleans Saints and other teams. He started the M-Club scholarship that now bears his name.
“He’d be amazed at how much money is in there now,” Mashburn said.
But those individual accomplishments only scratch the surface of the sort of work the two of them did that made them far more than Oxford superstars.
It went something like this for the couple who lived for 13 years of their lives in an athletic dorm. Sara did indeed arrange Christmas parties for the team, and Wobble did enforce dormitory discipline. She nurtured nervous freshmen. He weeded out half-hearted players on the old freshman football squad. She brought confections to lonely kids. He turned boys into men.
To modern ears, this may sound like an odd, old-fashioned recipe for happiness. Or it may make you think students would have loved the sweet, happy Sara the most. But much like Vince Lombardi, who barked orders yet commanded fierce loyalty among the old Green Bay Packers while he secretly prayed the rosary on the sidelines, Wobble let his guys know he loved them, too.
“Wobble was a man of strong character who was very much loved by all the boys,” former head football coach John Vaught said in an Ole Miss news release following Wobble’s death. “He was the disciplinarian of our team, and they were certainly influenced by his guidance.”
For Mashburn, such happy thoughts are part of a bygone home she visits quite often in her own cherished memories.
“I have such great memories of living in the dorm, throwing the football with all-Americans,” she said. “It was a different time then, a simpler time.”