He's a guy who played high school football, loves fishing and worked with his hands his whole life. He's a guy married to an all-American beauty named Dixie who can shoot a gun better than most Marines. He's a loving grandpa to 15 grandchildren and lives in Freedom, Indiana.
But to the 12 Naval Academy football players crowded around him in the lobby of the Hilton in downtown Knoxville, he is nobody. All they see is a ruddy face and blonde hair going white, maybe the hint of the military posture they're learning themselves. It's midmorning, and the midshipmen are in town to attend the funeral of a former teammate.
They did not come here to meet a Medal of Honor recipient.
In fact, they would have been eating complimentary breakfast, had Joe Thompson, an organizer of this year's Medal of Honor Convention, not seen an opportunity to introduce them to Sammy Davis.
At first, they seem indifferent toward the veteran, perhaps still sleepy or already grieving. But then Joe explains who this particular veteran really is. Suddenly, the medal appears in Sammy's beefy hand.
Their indifference melts away, replaced by eyes bigger and brighter than the medal they pass around. Sammy pointedly encourages people to touch his medal; it's been held by more than 2.7 million schoolchildren, he says, proudly. These young men add to the number, afterwards posing for pictures with Sammy and asking him questions about his time in the service. One shakes his hand so enthusiastically that Sammy almost loses his balance.
It will be a busy day. After his impromptu talk with the midshipmen, Sammy's schedule is packed with an appearance, three interviews and a film shoot—not to mention the world premiere of the documentary "Medal of Honor: A History." Sammy will be a bonafide, red carpet celebrity.
"Really, today's about publicizing the convention," Joe says, turning to leave.
The annual Medal of Honor Convention, which Joe has been organizing, will bring to Knoxville many of the 80 living recipients of the nation's highest award for military valor. It's a chance to honor the recipients and preserve their heritage. Sammy is here several months ahead of time – for publicity.
Just before we reach the doors and begin the itinerary, Dixie, ever the loving wife, fixes the medal around his neck. His celebrity, manifested and secured around his throat.
Sammy stands patiently, back straight, eyes forward. Smiling, but not saying a word.
He was 21 years old when the Vietcong ambushed his base, and 47 years later, Sammy tells the story of November 18, 1967 several times a day.