After four years, Davis ready to move on
STORRS, Conn. – Dan Davis had just woken up and was lying in bed, hurting all over from the previous day's activities.
His mind and his body were fighting over whether or not he should get up and prepare for another day of football practice. His body was winning. On this early August morning in 2001, his thoughts were interrupted by the presence of his father, Daniel Sr., who stuck his head in the door.
"What are you doing?" Daniel asked his 15-year-old son. Daniel knew his son enjoyed spending long stretches of time in his room thinking about life, music, sports and anything else that came across his mind.
But this was different. Dan didn't seem like he wanted to get out of bed.
"I'm asleep," Dan said. "What do you mean?"
"Aren't you supposed to be at football practice?" his father asked.
"I'm not playing anymore," Dan responded.
Dan had made his decision. After just one day, after just one practice, he knew it wasn't for him. His body told him so. All the hitting, all the grabbing - it was too much. That was it, he thought. He wasn't going back out to the field. He was content sleeping in and spending the morning at home. Football was not his sport.
Daniel Sr. wasn't going to give up. Not now. He always wanted his son to have the best opportunities life could afford him, which was part of the reason he and his wife, Olga, moved to the United States from Liberia two years before Dan's birth. Plus, after Dan spent so much time preparing for his first opportunity to play organized football, Daniel Sr. was confused as to why his son would just want to walk away. He asked – and was not happy when Dan said football was too hard.
"He grabbed me and he told me, 'Get your butt up, get dressed. You're going to practice,'" Dan recently recalled from the Burton Complex. "So I went to practice and I kept going, and the rest is just history."
Not yet, at least. Davis still has two games remaining as a senior but will play his last home game at Rentschler Field against Syracuse today at noon. And while the captain has emerged as one of the most vocal leaders to play for the Huskies, never missing a chance to spur on his teammates with the right mix of wisdom, praise and insults, it was that first conversation with his father that set him on the path to athletic success.
Davis' hard-hitting mentality was rooted deep within him as a child growing up in Plainfield, N.J., a city of approximately 50,000 located a half-hour southwest of Newark. While his parents were eager to move to the United States to give Dan and his brother, Emile, 18 and his sister, Cindy, 15, a chance at earning a college degree and wealth, their location hasn't shielded them from some the more cruel elements of the world.
"It's not a great area. There are a lot of drug dealers on the street corners," Daniel Sr. said. "I was very concerned, and I didn't even let him go across the street. I only allowed him to play in the backyard."
According to Davis, many of those who attended Plainfield High School with him failed to move on to college and instead ended up involved either in jail or, worse, dead. Those circumstances hit close to home for Davis this past spring when Kee-ah-sha Dickson, 21, was allegedly shot in her home by Ismael Cathcart, 24, her boyfriend at the time. Davis said he would go out with his girlfriend, Dickson and a different boyfriend in groups of four when they were younger and took her death as a reminder of how lucky he was to stay out of trouble.
"But that's really where my parents came in," he said. "I want to say that they were kind of strict, but they really weren't being strict. They kept me out of the things that weren't going to help me be successful a lot. Even though I had seen it and I was right in front of it, I never partook in it a lot because I knew it wasn't the right thing for me."
What ended up being the right thing was football, although Davis didn't know it until he entered high school. Instead, he spent most of his younger years in love with music, playing the saxophone starting while he was in fourth grade at Clinton Elementary School and playing the drums in church.
While he was forced to drop the saxophone in seventh grade due to time commitments, he still enjoys music, especially gospel – "The message and the music alone is just very unique to me," he said. He even hopes to learn to play the piano someday when he escapes the daily rigors of classroom life.
He also spent much of his childhood at home caring for his younger brother Emile, who has cerebral palsy, a condition typically marked by abnormal muscle development and lapses in motor coordination. Davis describes his brother as a "very happy person," one who can't talk or walk around but still understands everything.
"Because my brother couldn't really communicate – I didn't have a brother I could sit down and talk to – and my sister was young growing up as opposed to how old I was, whenever I was by myself, I sat down and did a lot of thinking," Davis said. "It exercised my mind a little bit, helping with the type of person that I was. Whenever I wasn't doing anything, I would just go and try to find somewhere I could sit down and just start thinking about anything."
By the time Davis enrolled at Hubbard Middle School in sixth grade, he started to gain an idea of who he was and what he wanted out of life. He got involved more in music and sports by making the all-city band, which performed at functions such as the high school graduation, and joining the school's basketball team.
"I put a half basketball court in my backyard," Daniel Sr. said. "I didn't like him to leave the home, so he collected all the kids around the yard to come in the backyard and play so I could keep my eye on him."
Practice slowly made perfect. As he started to get better at basketball, Davis found less and less time for the saxophone. Inevitably, he had to choose between the two, deciding that basketball was the better fit at the time. Plus, it provided him an opportunity to do something different.
He continued to play basketball throughout his middle school years, carrying the love of the game into his freshman year at Plainfield High School. It was then when he began to find out who he truly was.
"[High school] was a new experience – you got to meet new people," Davis said. "Just going through the different routine with classes and lunch … I know lunch was a big thing, because usually you have to eat what they set up for you in elementary and middle school, but you get choices now. The sports and everything were just a big deal and that was really my biggest transition – to high school, meeting new people and everything."
While Davis greatly enjoyed both his freshman year and senior year, it was his sophomore that truly shaped who he had become. At around 225 pounds, Davis was already stronger than most people in his grade, leading to suggestions from teachers, classmates and coaches that he try his hand at playing football.
"He said he felt that he really would be successful at playing football, and the coaches advised him to play," Olga said.
For weeks, Davis was excited about the prospect of joining the team. Always eager to learn something new, he had succeeded in playing basketball and needed a new challenge. That August, he found himself on the gridiron for the first time, going through his first practice without pads.
After one day, Davis seemed willing to quit. But Daniel Sr. was able to convince him to stick with it.
"I said, 'If they're giving you the chance to practice, go out there and practice,'" Daniel Sr. said. "I just encouraged him to get involved in the community and it would keep him out of trouble. Going out there and playing football, taking him to play and picking him up from the field, I did that through his whole high school life."
Davis began his football career on the junior varsity team at defensive tackle, starting in the very first game. The accomplishment was somewhat impressive, he said, because at Plainfield, those who did not play in the varsity game the previous Saturday managed to see time on the field in Monday's JV contest.
It didn't take long for anyone to realize Davis had talent. He recorded two sacks in that first game and was promoted to the varsity team halfway through the season. By the end of the season, Davis was receiving plenty of accolades, being named to the all-area team.
His reward? A letter from Rutgers. While the fun had begun on the field, it was just about to start off it.
The Big Time
Over the next several seasons, letters began to pour in from college coaches around the country. Davis still has that note from Rutgers, a form letter colleges are allowed to send to prospective players after their sophomore year, and the rest of his recruiting letters, which he keeps in a large garbage bag in his home.
He also started to realize how important a scholarship to play football might be in pursuing his dreams. His parents had always stressed that a solid education would be the key to success later in life and now, the increased attention made that a reality.
But Daniel Sr. wasn't so sure. While he knew that education would be important for all of his children – he's still hoping Davis chooses to go for his Master's degree after graduating from college – he was afraid the spotlight would have an affect on his son's grades.
"The schools themselves were out there," Daniel Sr. said. "The teachers were calling, the coaches were calling, and if his grades were not good, then I would have stopped him from playing football for a semester."
He didn't have to. Davis managed his time well, performing in the classroom and on the field. After spending his junior year looking at a variety of schools, three contenders survived the cuts and emerged as leading candidates for his services – Connecticut, Rutgers and Virginia.
Virginia was extremely attractive to Davis and was his leading choice through much of his senior year. Having already taken an unofficial visit to the campus with Eugene Morrow, a Plainfield High classmate who currently plays for the Cavaliers, and spent time at Virginia head coach Al Groh's summer camp, Davis was convinced Charlottesville, Va. was a place where he would spend his next four or five years.
But there was just one slight problem – Virginia wasn't convinced he could. While the coaches had offered him a scholarship and were even telling him he could start for them at defensive end during his freshman year, many of the classes he had taken during his senior year of high school did not qualify for the Cavaliers' general education requirements.
As such, it would take some time for Davis to rectify the situation. By the time he got the official confirmation from then-assistant and current Temple head coach Al Golden that his credits might not line up with what the university requires out of a student, it was already Thanksgiving break and Davis had scheduled his spring semester classes.
The result was a heart-breaking one: he would forego a scholarship offer to play at the one school he greatly desired and focus on a chance to forge a strong relationship with the coaches at both Rutgers and UConn.
"I had already taken my Rutgers visit, and then I came up [to UConn]," Davis said. "Then I sat down with my family and we started talking about everything and were like, 'What am I going to do now?' And the Virginia thing was taking a bit too long, so I was like, 'Alright, I really want to make this decision now.'"
It wasn't an easy one to make. Rutgers, the school that first identified him as a legitimate Division I-A prospect, was a viable option. Located just 20 minutes away, Davis could be around to visit his family and, more importantly, stay close to his brother.
"He wanted to go Rutgers because it was close to home and close to all his friends," Olga said.
If Rutgers, with its 144-year history, was a program etched in stone, UConn, with its fresh stadium and blueprints for a training facility, was one sketched on paper. The Huskies were scheduled to join the Big East a year later after moving up to Division I-A just three before, and the base of operations was little more than a small brick building and several temporary trailers.
But all that was appealing to Davis. He was always fond of trying new things – first the saxophone, then basketball, then football.
"One thing my dad taught me is that you always want to set your mark and you always want to be a part of something special, so this was probably the best-case scenario for me to do something like that," Davis said.
His one-on-one meeting with UConn head coach Randy Edsall also helped. Davis planned his official visit to Storrs for Dec. 5, 2003, and when it finally arrived, a snowstorm postponed his routine three-hour trip from Plainfield to a total of 10 hours.
After arriving and taking in the UConn men's basketball game vs. Army that night, Davis – along with Will Beatty, Tyvon Branch and Keith Gray, all of whom joined him on his visit – set time aside to talk to the man who would be his future head coach.
"He just told me, 'You can help us do something special here,' and he kept it real," Davis said. He recalled the coach saying, "We don't have the tradition a lot of other people have, we don't have the best facilities right now, but we're building to that and we're trying to make a name for ourselves here. You can help us do that."
That was enough. After spending several hours talking with his family about the decision, it was settled – on Jan. 21, 2004, Dan Davis became a Husky.
'Born A Leader'
Shortly after making his decision, Davis was provided with an opportunity to show his true nature to his new assistant coaches. Coincidentally, Edsall gave him a call that night to check in, knowing that the recruiting battle with Rutgers was picking up as National Signing Day drew nearer.
After drawing out the declaration, Davis told Edsall he would be joining the Husky family. Edsall, knowing that assistant coaches Hank Hughes and Dave McMichael would be visiting Plainfield the next day to woo one of their top Class of 2004 targets, told Davis to tease them a bit.
"I started throwing some stuff out about Rutgers and stuff about Virginia," Davis said. "And I had a Peyton Manning jersey on that day and you could tell they started getting a little bit skeptical. They were like, 'What the hell is he talking about right now?'
"So I asked coach McMichael, 'How do you think I look in blue?' Davis recalled. "And I added, 'Yeah, I'm probably going to be in this for the next four years because I committed last night.' And they all started laughing, and coach Hughes and coach McMichael gave me a hug, and my high school head coach started laughing."
It would be that way for much of the next four years. After expecting to redshirt when he arrived on campus in August 2004, he was pleasantly surprised to see that he had moved into the two-deep after the completion of fall camp. He played in his first game that season against Army, recording two tackles, and slowly began to show the emotion on and off the field that has shaped him today.
"He was like that as soon as he got up," said senior linebacker Danny Lansanah, one of the players Davis considers amongst his closest friends on the team. "He was born a leader, and that's what kind of guy he is. It's show throughout his career. Guys follow him and he led them in the right way."
Before the 2007 season, Davis, by now a captain, promised the Huskies would "spoil the fans" with a successful season. He admitted that while he wasn't sure just how successful the team would be, the 8-2 record UConn currently holds was entirely a possibility.
"One thing about Danny is that when he loses, he will not call us," Daniel Sr. said. "He will not call. When he loses, he's down for two or three days. I've got to keep calling him and tell him and say, 'Look … when you lose, you've got to appreciate that you won a games. When you win some games, enjoy it, but there will come a time when you've got to lose.' And he hates to lose."
That leadership has made him a valuable member of the team. Not only does he excite the rest of his teammates during the game, leading them on in an emotional capacity, he has proven to be a model teammate off the field as well.
"He'll do the little stuff, like pick a guy up from class if he doesn't have a ride," Lansanah said. "Dan Davis is the first person they call to come get him, and he'll be right there to come get him."
"He's a guy that I think is probably the emotional leader of this football team," Edsall said. "I think he's a natural leader. He's a guy that has a lot of passion and a lot of love for the game and a lot of love for this program."
He'll receive plenty of love this afternoon when joins his father and nine other seniors on the field for annual Senior Day ceremonies.
"It will be an emotional game," Olga said. "His father is very inspired to come and see him play. I'll be there watching on TV, and his brother – he's very excited when he sees him [on TV]."
During his career, Davis had led the Huskies on the field to a 25-20 record, the most successful four-year stretch for a UConn player in the team's Division I-A history. But he will also be remembered for his contributions off the field.
"[He's] one of the greatest celebrators I've ever played with in my entire life," Lansanah said. "He's out there celebrating even if he doesn't play, and that gets the crowd pumped up."
"He's played a lot of football and played darn good football for us," Edsall said. "He's very unselfish."
"I think Daniel is a very strong person. Whatever he intends to do, he will do," Daniel Sr. said. "We're going to love him. That's my first born. And everything that I try to get out of him, he will try to do his best to get what I think I want out of him."
As far as how Davis himself wishes to be remembered, that's hard for him to decide.
"I'm interested to find out. That's one thing I will admit," Davis said. "If you're remembered as a good person, I think that will probably stick with you more. Anybody can be a good player but end up being an asshole behind the scenes or whatever. I think this is probably why I've had the success I've had in my career so far – I've had a good personality."
As far as the future holds, Davis said he's not concerned with playing professionally at this time and only with the current team, a fact his parents have refuted.
"His main thing is to go pro, which we are praying will happen, but we don't know yet," Olga said. "He talks a lot about how he wants to go pro."
Edsall, who has anointed several players in past years as top NFL prospects, has refused to do so this year, saying it's something "for the scouts to decide."
Now, it's up to Davis to decide. He surely wasn't dreaming of a professional football career on that August morning when he hesitated waking up for practice. But after seven years of hard work, it's a dream that's much closer to reality than had he simply rolled over, pulled the blankets over his head and settled back into a deep sleep.
Zac Boyer covers UConn sports for Rivals.com. He can now be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.