Davis, of African-American and Native American descent, served four years in the United States Air Force. After leaving the service, he enrolled at the University of Oregon on a basketball scholarship. He joined the track team under coach Bill Bowerman and excelled immediately, matching school records in the 220 and 440-yard races and becoming a national AAU champion. According to Davis, Bowerman, who went on to found Nike with another sprinter, Phil Knight, made him a pair of track shoes with rubber soles moulded in a waffle iron. He didn't like the way they felt and stopped wearing them. Knight has claimed that the first pair of waffle-soled shoes were his own.
In 1960, Davis made the United States Olympic team, even though he was still learning track strategy at the age of 28. He beat undefeated world champion Carl Kaufmann of Germany in the 400-meter dash, setting a new world record of 44.9 seconds. He beat Kaufmann again the the 4x400-meter relay, winning a second gold medal in his only two events. During the event he befriended fellow American Muhammad Ali.
After the Olympics, Davis returned to Oregon to finish his degree in health and physical education. He tried out as a wide receiver for the Los Angeles Rams, but instead became a high school teacher in Springfield, Illinois. He left to serve as athletic director at U. S. military bases overseas, then returned to the United States, settling in Union City, New Jersey. He has worked as a truant officer, teacher, coach and mentor to students in Union City schools.
Davis was inducted into the United States Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2003.
- Hague, Jim (May 14, 2006) "Truant officer was Olympic hero Emerson High has gold medallist in midst." Hudson (N.J.) Reporter
- Lee, Jimson (September 13, 2009) "Otis Davis, 1960 400 meter and 4x400m Olympic Champion" SpeedEndurance.com