Dec. 17, 2013
Chris Davis breaks into the clear en route to the winning touchdown against Alabama (Lauren Barnard photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. – Auburn cornerback Chris Davis’ plays football for the father he never knew. He plays for his mother, who raised four children on her own. He plays for his grandmother, who made it through the celebrating masses at Jordan-Hare Stadium to find her grandson on the biggest night of his football life.
And most of all he plays for 3-year-old Chris Davis III.
“He’s a big boy,” Davis says with a proud father’s smile. “He likes to play video games. I try to keep him around me a lot, with me not having a father growing up. He loves football already, and basketball. It’s an honor just to see my child grow up in front of my eyes. He’s growing up and I’m still growing as a father.”
Davis, a senior and the heartbeat of Auburn’s secondary, will wear an Auburn jersey for the last time when the Tigers play Florida State in the BCS Championship Game at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 6. But no matter what happens in Pasadena, no matter where he goes or what he does, Davis will always have the night of Nov. 30, 2013.
The story has been told and retold. Davis’ 109-yard return of a missed Alabama field goal attempt lifted Auburn to a 34-28 victory that brought fans storming onto the field and sent Auburn on to the Southeastern Conference championship a week later. It was a play that will live in Auburn lore and in the history of the game itself.
“It’s been great,” Davis says. “It’s what I expected growing up. That one play kind of changed my life. They said I’ll always be remembered in Auburn. I think that’s an honor.”
Even amid the celebration of a victory for the ages, Davis thought about his family. He thought about his father, who died a violent death when Davis was but a baby. He thought about his mother, Janice Brown. He thought about his little boy. And then there was Jewel Mae Davis, his grandmother who came from the Jordan-Hare stands to find him.
“My family is the reason I do what I’m doing right now,” Davis says. “I asked her how she made it through all those people on the field. It’s great to know I had my family behind me. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Davis knows his father only through pictures and stories, and he is driven to give his son a better life and to be there as he grows up.
“My mama didn’t really talk about it,” Davis says. “I used to hear about it from my grandma. That used to bring tears to my eyes from me never getting a chance to meet him. I never got to see him face-to-face where I can visually see now how he looked. I just try to be a great father to my son. That’s what I look forward to doing in my life.”
Sitting high above Pat Dye Field, Bruce Breland immediately noticed that Davis had dropped back into the end zone as Alabama lined up for the fateful kick. Breland, now the head coach at Alma Bryant High School, coached Davis and Auburn linebacker Cassanova McKinzy at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham.
“I thought he had a lot of space with a lot of linemen trying to cover,” Breland says. “I certainly wasn’t envisioning that, but I knew from high school what he could do. Cassanova threw the first block, which was pretty neat.”
For three years, Breland wondered why Davis wasn’t returning punts for Auburn. He told former head coach Gene Chizik that Davis was as good a returner as he had seen in his career.
“We told him over and over that he’s a great return guy,” Breland says. “When the football is in his hands you better look out. Coach Chizik would always say ‘I know, I know,’ but he would never put him back there.”
When Gus Malzahn arrived as head coach, he and his assistants saw it differently. And Davis leads the SEC with an average 20.1 yards per return. He has an 85-yarder for touchdown to his credit.
“He always had the flair for making big plays,” Breland says. “He always expected that out of himself. You could see him get disappointed in himself when he didn’t do something that was outstanding. He didn’t want to gain 10 or 15 yards. He was always upset that he didn’t take it to the house. He’s always had that drive it takes to be great.”
At Woodlawn, Breland watched Davis grow as a football player and overcome difficult circumstances to earn a scholarship offer from Auburn and put himself in position to change his family’s circumstances.
“He came from a school that was a tough environment, for sure,” Breland says. “There weren’t a lot of things in place to help him be successful academically, athletically or just in life. He stayed to himself. He did the kinds of things it took academically. He was very conscientious about his grades.
“I think, through that desire to better himself, he probably took the weight of his family on his shoulders and said ‘I’m going to do something special.’”
Even before his return sent the Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd into a frenzy, Davis’ senior season had been something special. After playing on a national championship team as a freshman in 2010, he’d bounced through an up-and-down season in 2011 and a dreadful 3-9 season in 2012.
“It’s real different,” Davis says. “Last year was our first time being done around this time. We tried to put last year behind us, and I think everybody did a good job of doing that. Everybody bought in to what Coach Malzahn brought to the table. One thing Coach Malzahn preaches is together. He always tells us if we give our all when we go out and play the game, if a team beats us they were just better than us that night.”
That’s only happened once, on a rainy night at LSU. Since that night, Auburn has won nine straight. Davis’ return took down No. 1 Alabama. A week later, the Tigers whipped No. 5 Missouri 59-42 to win the SEC championship. And for the second time, Davis will be on the game’s biggest stage.
“It’s an honor to be in this situation,” Davis says. “During the offseason, that’s what every team in college football prepares for, to be at this point. We are just thankful to be in this position, to get a chance to play for another national championship.”
Malzahn kept a promise he made to Davis when they met for the first time. That was the start, Davis says, of one of the bigger turnarounds in college football history.
“When I met with Coach Malzahn when he first got the job, he said he was going to hire the best coaching staff in college football, not just coaching-wise but as men,” Davis says. “I think he did that. You can look at every coach on the staff as a father figure. For some people, like me, who’ve never had a father, I look at Coach (Melvin) Smith and Coach Cheese (Harbison) as father figures. They are great men, they are men of God and they really care about us.”
Davis celebrated with his teammates in 2010 in Glendale, Ariz., but he was injured on the opening kickoff and did not play again. Another opportunity is rushing closer.
“Hopefully that won’t occur in this one,” Davis says. “God has a plan for me. I’m just following His lead. I know He has better things in store for me in life.”
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: