Dec. 5, 2013
Phillip Lolley, left, congratulates Auburn cornerback Chris Davis after his game-winning kick return (Associated Press photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. – As the football season of 2009 neared its end at Woodlawn High School, Chris Davis was doing everything one man could do. He was playing quarterback. He was playing defense. He was returning punts and kicks.
Yet, even as he ran around and through opponents, Davis’ mailbox was strangely empty, his telephone strangely quiet. Davis’ coach, Bruce Breland, called him “the most gifted athlete I’ve ever coached,” but college recruiters weren’t paying attention.
That began to change because a local high school official was impressed and made a telephone call. He called Jeff Holland, a former high school coach whose son, Jake, was a Pelham linebacker who had been Auburn’s first defensive commitment.
“He said he’d found a player who in all his years about as good a football player as he had ever seen,” Holland says. “He wanted me to try to get Auburn to evaluate him.”
Holland had developed a close relationship with Tommy Thigpen, who recruited his son. He had played for cornerbacks coach Phillip Lolley at Demopolis High School. Before he called either of them he wanted to see for himself.
“I went down there to practice one day and didn’t know a soul,” Holland says. “I didn’t talk to anybody. I watched Chris Davis practice for about an hour. Another high school coach was able to get me some game film. I was so impressed with him playing quarterback, returning kicks and playing defense. He did everything. It was like he had eyes in the back of his head. He was just a great football player.”
Holland called Thigpen and then Lolley to tell them what he had seen, and Davis’ journey to Auburn began.
It was a week shy of four years ago when Davis announced he would sign with Auburn. He would play cornerback. His decision merited little more than a mention in recruiting circles.
Davis was, no doubt, tired when he got the word Saturday night to drop back into the end zone in case a 57-yard Alabama field goal attempt with one second left was short. He’d played every snap at cornerback against the nation’s No. 1 team. Auburn and Alabama, locked in an epic confrontation at Jordan-Hare Stadium, were tied 28-28 and seemed headed for overtime.
Instead, the kick was indeed short. And Davis took it 109 yards to the winning touchdown on a play that has already become one of the more famous in college football history. And the Tigers (11-1, 6-1) moved up to No. 3 in the nation marched on to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game at. They’ll play No. 5 Missouri (11-1, 7-1) on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
Senior safety Ryan Smith was told first to drop back, but after a timeout, head coach Gus Malzahn suggested Davis, Auburn’s regular punt returner, take his place. Davis and Smith are roommates. Smith made a key block.
“We didn’t know each other before we came here, but now we’re just like brothers,” Smith says. “I love him like a brother. He’s a great role model on and off the field. He tries to do the right things. It’s paying off for him. Everything he’s getting, he deserves.”
Davis’ father died when he was young. He was raised by his mother, Janice Brown. He says he is driven to take care of his family.
“I play for a whole lot of people than just me,” Davis said earlier in the season. “I've got to provide for my family, and through this game, I've got a good chance of doing that. That's why I go out every Saturday and play like I do."
The historic kick return was Davis’ last contribution to an Auburn victory for the ages. It was far from the first. He shared the team lead in tackles with 10. He covered dangerous receivers. He was, as he has been throughout the season when healthy, a centerpiece in Auburn’s defensive scheme.
Lolley knew from the first time he watched tape of Davis that he wanted to sign him. He passed that on to Thigpen, who recruited Birmingham. And they went to work.
“Jeff called me from Birmingham and said ‘You need to take a look at him,’” says Lolley, who now serves as director of external relations for Auburn football. “He’d called Thigpen as well. Sure enough, when we got the proper tape on him, there wasn’t any doubt. “
Once Davis arrived on campus, Lolley knew the decision to sign him had been a good one.
“He had some adjusting to do like they all do, but I knew he was a special player,” Lolley says. “The things I noticed on the film were the things he did the other night. He returned punts, kickoffs. He was the quarterback. He was just a playmaker. When you coach my position, that’s what you look for because every game is a pressure situation.”
A month, give or take a few days, remains in Davis’ college career. When it’s done, he’ll pursue his dream of playing in the NFL. And Lolley says there is no doubt he can do it.
“Oh, yes,” Lolley says. “He’ll definitely play. I really knew that the first year he was here. The second year there was no doubt in my mind.”
But first there is a senior season to be finished and a championship to be sought.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: