Special teams standout Don Davis wants to make a training camp impression at linebacker in 2000
You've just met Don Davis, and you've found him to be open, straightforward, well-spoken…heck, just plain nice. You've also read up a little on his NFL career, and you know he's been released four times and probably thinks about that possibility during each training camp.
And so you wonder if that tired old cliché – 'Nice guys finish last' – is true. Or, conversely, you wonder if Davis' demeanor combined with a determined approach might actually help him finish on top.
Well, here's your answer: Don Davis will finish. Period.
Truth is, this isn't a story about a nice guy. This is the story of a man so determined to live his NFL dream that he has put a stranglehold on that dream and tightened it every year.
Davis can't tell you if he'll suit up in Buccaneer red for a third season in 2000; he can tell you that each time his NFL pursuit has been dealt a blow, he has come back more determined. And each time it has won him another shot.
His first shot came in 1995 with the New York Jets, who signed him as a college free agent out of Kansas. He was waived near the end of camp and then signed to the Kansas City Chiefs' practice squad, but he didn't last long on that unit. At that point, his extraordinary special teams prowess had yet to be discovered, and he was out of the league by October. As confident as he was entering the league, he was shaken by that development.
"You always doubt because you don't know," said Davis. "They cut you and you think, 'Maybe I'm not as good as I think.' My confidence wasn't very good back then. But I know that if I had to do it all over again, I would have worked harder or studied more, something. Now, I don't take anything for granted."
He went from football to feet, selling shoes in his hometown of Olathe, Kansas and dreaming of his NFL rebirth.
"I got cut and sold shoes," said Davis. "That's something I never want to have to do again. They're going to have to kick me out of this league.
"I remember watching games on Sunday, and I would literally give anything to be in on that. Now that I'm in it, I guess I got a second chance, and I refuse to give that up.
Actually, Davis is on his third or fourth shot. The Chiefs wanted him back after the 1995 season ended, and he came in with renewed vigor, determined to make the most of this new opportunity. It was a higher high, setting up a lower low.
"I sold shoes for three months – October, November, December – then they called me back, brought me back to camp," said Davis. "I was feeling pretty good, felt like I got another shot, and I worked really, really hard during that offseason. Then, when I got released again, that was a real blow. At that point, I felt that maybe I just wasn't good enough."
He was quickly picked up by New Orleans to play on the Saints' practice squad. In October, he was elevated to the active roster, and thus began the next phase of his career. With 13 special teams tackles in just 11 games, Davis emerged as one of the Saints' best special teamers. He was back at it again in 1997, averaging exactly one kick-coverage stop per week before a season ending wrist injury after 11 games.
In 1998, he was selected as a captain by his Saints teammates and was all set to have another standout year in the kicking game. Then, injuries struck again, little nagging ailments that kept him out of half of the first 10 games. In November, he was cut. Again.
"Down there in New Orleans, they loved me for my special teams play, but I got hurt," he said. "The way this business goes, you're great one day and you're not the next. I worked so hard to be dominant on special teams, I was chosen as the special teams captain by my teammates, and I was cut just like that. I realized, okay, you can't just do it on special teams."
Despite that epiphany, Davis was coveted by the Buccaneers for exactly that purpose. In a weird twist of fate, Tampa Bay was forced to place LB Hardy Nickerson on injured reserve due to pericarditis at the exact same time that Davis hit the waiver wire. Though Davis was not thought of as a replacement for Nickerson at middle linebacker, he was an attractive commodity suddenly made available.
"I was even healthy in New Orleans and wasn't given an opportunity to play," said Davis of his final season in the Big Easy. " When they released me, I actually thought that I was done. When you're just on special teams, a lot of times you don't get a lot of opportunities, and I felt like I had had my first and second chances.
"When the Buccaneers picked me up, I can't even explain to you the excitement that I had. So I just wanted to go out there and show that I could play, and then they brought me back again the next year."
As it turns out, the Bucs brought Davis back in 1999 to do just what he had done in '98, but for the entire season. With Nickerson back for the season, Davis thought his 'roster spot' was gone, but Tampa Bay eventually expanded its linebacker corps to seven players to make room for the special teams standout.
He went on to rack up 21 kick coverage tackles, second most on the team, playing on most special teams units. Still, memories of his original NFL travels plus his unceremonious release from the Saints in 1998 have left Davis feeling less than secure. Clearly one of the league's better special teamers, he feels a renewed sense of urgency to be considered for his linebacking skills.
And so perhaps fate has smiled on Davis again. In 2000, he has figured into the training camp mix at outside linebacker more prominently than in previous seasons. It appears that he is being considered as an option at more than just kick coverage.
"I hope so," said Davis. "You can't really tell. Last year, I was primarily special teams, played all special teams. This year, maybe I am getting a little bit of a look at linebacker. I would hope so. We've got great linebackers here, but I'm willing to show what I can do at linebacker.
"That's always what you strive for. My first three or four years in, I was just holding on with special teams. Okay, now I've got that down, the special teams play, and now I want to be known as a linebacker, a good, solid linebacker. If somebody goes down, I can step in – that's what I'm trying to establish.
"When the Saints gave me an opportunity and I played, I realized that I was good enough. Now, I just had to show them I was good on special teams, and I did that. Then I had to show them that I was great on special teams, and I did that. Now I've got to show them that I'm good at linebacker. So, I guess I'm four years behind."
Better late than never.