By David Shaw
Go ahead and scratch his name off the endangered species list.
Justin Davis ó the speedster who ran like he was mad at the grass a few years back for West Rowan High ó has re-emerged as a thrill-a-minute wideout and kick returner for the semi-pro Rowan Rampage.
“I’m still here,” the 24-year old was chirping Saturday at Knox Middle School, shortly before a preseason game with the Carolina Bulldogs ó one of 12 teams comprising the beefed-up Central Carolinas Football League. “And guess what? I’m not going anywhere.”
That’s good news for Rampage fans and anyone looking for inspiration. Davis, who returned five punts and a kickoff for touchdowns as a WR senior in 1999, has a story worth hearing. It begins two seasons later when, forced to face his football mortality, he realized his days as a competitive player may be over.
“I went to Western Carolina (University) on a track scholarship,” he explains. “But I played football for the scout team my first year. The next year my track coach told me to give up football and concentrate on track.”
For Davis, that was easier said than done. He went on to win a Southern Conference championship as a long jumper and placed third in the triple jump. But deep in his heart ó where the truth never hides ó he missed extending his chiseled, 6-foot, 190-pound body for leaping catches and weaving through kick return traffic like a Porsche on an L.A. freeway.
“I never lost my love for football,” Davis says, flashing an illuminating smile. “Even in college, the track team always had a flag football team. And we were pretty good. But every year we made it to the finals and always lost to the same team.”
Football seemed like a pipe dream after Davis graduated with a degree in theatre in 2005. He returned to Salisbury and took a job as Adrian Ferguson’s assistant with the Livingstone College track team. That’s when he heard about the expansion Rampage ó who just happened to be coached by former West Rowan teammate Scott Roby.
“He threw some great blocks for me in high school,” recalls Davis, an accelerator who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds. “At least twice he sprung me for touchdowns. And since he knew me from then and knew what kind of player I was, he welcomed me with open arms.”
Roby welcomed Davis like an open-field block.
“The guy is smart. He listens. He’s athletic,” Roby gushes. “I don’t think you’ll find a more coachable player. But it’s funny how things have come full circle. In high school I was always behind him on the depth charts. Now I’m coaching him.”
And coaching very well. Behind Davis and the 12 touchdowns he scored a year ago, the Rampage shook off an 0-4 start to finish 5-6. They lost their only playoff game ó 7-6 to the Catawba County Hornets ó despite a Davis TD reception.
“There isn’t much (Davis) can’t do,” says D.J. Lyles, a 2003 West Rowan graduate who quarterbacked the Rampage last season. “Not only with the ball but without it. He’s always trying to make other people better. Football is first with him. It’s all about the team and winning.”
For his exploits, Davis was named the team’s offensive MVP.
“What’s important,” Davis says, “is that we saw what we could become.”
As for what this year’s team can do, Roby said the jury is still out. But Davis ó who once returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score against South Rowan ó has already impressed a few of his newest teammates.
“He’s got speed and agility,” says former Livingstone quarterback D’Andre Hopper, the man given the keys to this year’s offense. “He may be only 6-foot, but he plays like a big-time receiver.”
Adds first-year wideout Curtis Blackwell: “He’s a true leader. When you’re down, he’ll bring you back up, no matter what. Even if he’s hurt, he’ll keep going. That’s how hungry he is. That’s how determined he is to help the team.”
Football remains Priority One for Davis these days ó but acting checks in at 1-A. He’ll play Johnny Sellers in the play Mahalia ó about 1940s gospel singer Mahalia Jackson ó beginning Aug. 2 in Winston-Salem. The NFL won’t likely come calling anytime soon, but the big screen just might.
“I have a couple of true passions ó acting and playing football,” Davis says with conviction. “Those are things I never want to give up. I’m gonna pretty much do both of them for as long as I can. Football’s a dream, but acting, I think I’ve got a chance ó for real.”
Keep his name on that list.
Contact David Shaw at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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