Leap of faith: Davis found unexpected career

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 5, 2020

By Mike London


SALISBURY— For a generation, from 1988 to 2006,  the North Rowan boys won 18 of 19 Rowan County track and field championships.

The one interruption in that remarkable run of green and gold domination came in 2000 when senior Justin Davis lifted West Rowan to a victory over the Cavaliers. The margin at the North track was razor-thin — Falcons 101, Cavaliers 100.

Davis took first in the long and triple jumps, finished second to South Rowan’s Ernest Wiggins in the 100 and ran on the 4×100 relay team that placed second behind a South team that had Wiggins, who became one of the fastest people in the world, running the anchor leg.

The last event to be completed was the triple jump. West coach Ralph Ellis knew the tally down to the half-point. He informed Davis that the triple jump would make the difference. When Davis rallied to win that event — and South’s Shane Booth placed second ahead of two North Cavaliers — the Falcons celebrated their first county crown since 1981.

Given how he handled the pressure and rose to the occasion for his high school team 20 years ago, it comes as no surprise that Davis now is the indoor and outdoor track and field and cross country coach for Livingstone College.

“That’s three sports, but it’s not as difficult as it sounds,” Davis said. “It’s not like coaching track and also trying to coach football or basketball. Cross country is fall, indoor track is winter, and then indoor track rolls right into outdoor track, and you’re still basically coaching the same people.”

He recruited and helped inspire, among others, sprinter Quanera Hayes, who racked up 12 All-America honors during her dazzling days with the Blue Bears.

“We got Quanera by faith and by chance,” Davis said. “I believe God sent her to us.”

How Davis got to working in a Livingstone office is a winding story. Coaching was never the plan. Not in high school. Not even in college. Davis’ dream was to be an actor. His fallback plan was playing football.

“I’m a football guy who just fell into track,” Davis said. “I guess you could say I failed somewhat at football.”

“Failed” is harsh. Davis never got the college football scholarship he expected, but he still had a high school football career to be proud of. He caught touchdown passes and he performed remarkable feats as a return man.

He explains how it all started for him growing up in Salisbury’s Westcliffe neighborhood.

“We played sports every day in the neighborhood, football, basketball, baseball, even racing each other in the streets,” Davis said. “I was always jumping. Jumping into holes. Jumping into pine needles. Jumping out of trees. Jumping from couch to couch in the house. We had a staircase, about 15 or 17 stairs, and I’d jump all the way down to the bottom. As far as speed, I was only pretty fast, not the fastest. But I could jump.”

He was successful in youth football, where his coaches included Tim Dixon. He would be reunited with Dixon later at West Rowan High.

He collected his first track awards for jumping skills when he was in middle school.

His first basketball dunk happened in a ninth-grade P.E. class. That startled a lot of people, but not Davis. He was confident that he could leap.

When he arrived at West Rowan High, the football Falcons weren’t thriving. Davis began his career as a jayvee safety.

Scott Young was hired as the new head coach prior to Davis’ junior football season.

“Coach Young knew my brother, J.D., who was a strong safety at Catawba College,” Davis said. “So he saw me as potentially a great defensive player like my brother. He put me at cornerback, but it just didn’t work out at corner. I got burned a few times, and after that, I was sitting.”

After a switch to wideout, Davis got helpful tips from receivers coach Chad Correll and became an immediate factor on offense for the 1998 Falcons. His first two receptions came in West’s fourth game. In the Falcons’ fifth game, he had five catches for 85 yards and a touchdown against East Rowan. Against Northwest Cabarrus, his four grabs covered 90 yards. He had two TD receptions against Sun Valley. For the season, he had 28 catches for 473 yards and five scores.

“Not amazing stats,” Davis said. “But we didn’t throw it much.”

The really bad news: West went 3-8.

The Falcons flipped that record around Davis’ senior season to 8-3. The offense in the fall of 1999 started with the churning legs of backs Scooter Dalton and Jonathan Diggs, but quarterback Jared Barnette also threw for 980 yards and 12 touchdowns. Basketball star Scooter Sherrill had four TD catches in West’s first four games, but then he missed almost half the season. Davis had 35 catches for 416 yards and four scores, and found his niche as a returner. He had punt return touchdowns against Salisbury, East Rowan and Concord. He returned a kickoff for a touchdown against South Rowan.

In that wild South Rowan game, four touchdowns were scored in a little over a minute in the third quarter. Barnette threw a long touchdown pass to Sherrill. When West got the ball back quickly,  Dalton broke a scoring run. Keith Garrett brought West’s kickoff back for a touchdown, but then Davis answered with a 100-yard kickoff return of his own.

“That was probably the memorable game for me because of the back-to-back kickoff returns,” Davis said. “I caught the ball around the 2 on that kickoff, but my momentum took me all the way back to the goal line, and I took off from there. I kind of made my mark on returns. We prepared hard on special teams and guys were coached to execute a wall for the returner. Then you just had to use your speed and explode.”

Davis had at least one more return TD called back by penalty that season.

West swept Rowan County in 1999 and got off to a 5-0 start, but then the Falcons lost to South Piedmont Conference foes Northwest Cabarrus, A.L. Brown and Concord in consecutive weeks and settled for 8-3.

“Coach Young and his staff motivated us and molded us into a strong team, but it was tough going 8-3 and still not making the playoffs,” Davis said. ” To win eight and still not make the playoffs? That was a little disheartening.”

He hoped he had done enough to attract scholarship offers, but 5-foot-11 receivers weren’t in great demand, even locally.

Davis remembers working at Chick-fil-A and encountering Catawba head coach David Bennett.

“I told him I was J.D. Davis’ brother and I was a receiver,” Davis said. “He told me he didn’t have a spot for another receiver. I remember that was crushing.”

Davis pieced together highlight tapes in the West coaches’ office— four in all — and sent them off. There was no response for several discouraging months.

That spring his mother drove him to visit schools to meet coaches. Wake Forest didn’t pan out. Neither did Winston-Salem State.

Then the Davises made a trip to Western Carolina University.

“I was like, ‘Mom, where in the world are we going?'” Davis said. “But then you get to this valley in the mountains, and you see this beautiful campus. I liked it. I talked to the football coach, and while I was there I introduced myself to the track coach.”

Davis had a solid track and field season as a senior at West in the spring of 2000. Besides his starring role in that memorable county championship,  Davis placed third in the 3A state outdoor championships in the long jump and triple jump.

“It was May, getting really late to figure something out, and that’s when I got a call from Western Carolina’s track coach,” Davis said. “It was the only offer I had, so it really wasn’t much of a decision. I told him I was coming.”

He wasn’t ready to give up football, however. How could he?

“Football had been my life since fourth grade,” Davis said. “In the sixth grade, I dislocated a thumb and couldn’t play, but other than that I put everything into football. So I walked on at Western Carolina as a freshman. I made the team and I went to practice every day. But I never got into a game.”

Our head track coach (Danny Williamson) called me in to his office after my freshman year and told me that playing football was one thing, but it didn’t make sense to be spending time on it when I wasn’t playing. He advised me to focus on track. I had a brighter future there.”

It was sound advice. At track meets in the Southern Conference, Davis helped Western make up ground on its traditional rival Appalachian State.

Davis became an all-conference performer.

As a junior in 2003, Davis placed second in the long jump in the Southern Conference Indoor Championships.

As a senior captain for the Catamounts in 2004, Davis was the Southern Conference champion indoors in the long jump. He placed third in the triple and long jumps in the SoCon outdoor championships. He was honored as Western’s MVP for field events.

“Everyone assumes it’s really cold at Western for track and field, but it’s not like App State,” Davis said. “Western is located in a valley. There were still some pretty cold days, but I was used to competing in cold weather from the “polar bear” meets we had in Rowan County. A polar bear meet is an indoor track meet held outdoors. And I grew up with great competition in high school from all those North Rowan jumpers. When I was young, I competed against guys like Greg Yeldell, Taivio Davis and Darnell Tillman. I’d been tested long before I got to college.”

A Dean’s List student, Davis received his degree in Communication/Theatre Arts in 2005.

“My college track career had some things in common with my high school football days,” Davis said. “I helped West Rowan make that leap frog from being good to winning championships. West won the conference for the first time (in the fall of 2000) rightafter  I graduated. Western was trying to catch up with Appalachian State while I as, but not long after I graduated, Western was winning conference championships. I like to think I helped spark championships.”

Maybe he did. Western Carolina won the Southern Conference in 2006, 2007 and 2009.

Davis’ acting career didn’t work out as he’d hoped. Not long after graduation, he found himself back in Rowan County.

“I knew some of the Livingstone guys and I knew the track coach Adrian Ferguson,” Davis said. “I was substitute teaching in Rowan County and had some free time and I asked Adrian if he would mind me helping out some with Livingstone’s track team. He said that would be great. So then I was a volunteer coach at Livingstone for two years.”

He moved up from subbing to being a teaching assistant. He expanded his coaching experiences through football and track and field at North Rowan Middle School.

Then Ferguson was leaving Livingstone for Fayetteville State, and a lot of people urged Davis to apply for the track and field job he was vacating.

Davis was only 25 when he was hired, but Livingstone took a chance on him, and it’s worked out. for everyone.

Hired in 2008, he’s still there and still leading three programs.

Hayes provided many of the highlights for his tenure at Livingstone. Davis discovered her in 2010 when he traveled to Fayetteville to watch her conference meet.

“I got a call from a coach out there and he said their kids weren’t being recruited by many track programs, so my wife and I make the trip to Fayetteville,” Davis said. “Then I’m watching this lanky girl (Hayes) from Gray’s Creek High run in the 200 and 400, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ I knew right away this girl was a hidden gem. Then I talked to her after the meet about Livingstone.”

A few weeks later, in the 3A state outdoor championships in Greensboro, Davis was fortunate that Hayes stayed under the radar. Her best individual finish was fourth place in the 400.

“She actually ran the fastest 400 prelim, ran an amazing race, but she was entered in four events that day— the 400, the 200, the 4×400 and the 4×200 (where she anchored a second-place finish),” Davis said.  “So many races. She got exhausted.”

At Livingstone, Hayes developed into one of the nation’s best. She won three Division II championships in the 400 meters and added an NCAA title in the 200 as a senior.

“It was a tag-team effort that pulled all of that out of her,” Davis said. “We had a great sprints coach in Tim Dunlap working with her. I brought her in and together Tim and Quanera created magic. Quanera had the talent and she had the willpower to go with it. The most memorable race for me was when she won the national championship as a sophomore. When she came across that line, I was so overwhelmed that I could not move.”

Hayes, who completed her college career in 2015, kept developing.

She broke records, won national titles, ran world-class times. In 2017, she ran the 400 in 49.72 seconds to win the USA track and field outdoor title. She brought a relay gold medal home from the IAAF World Championships.

The search goes on to find the next Hayes for Livingstone.

Davis says recruiting is going well, and he’s optimistic Livingstone can keep building. St. Augustine’s has been the dominant school in CIAA track and field for generations, but is now without George Williams. Williams coached 39 men’s and women’s track teams to national titles.

“We’ve gotten some good classes in and we can’t wait for the day when we can compete again,” said Davis, who was named Livingstone’s Coach of the Year for 2012 and has coached a host of All-CIAA athletes and academic award winners.

Livingstone has been an integral part of Davis’ life since he was born. Both of his parents went to Livingstone. His mother came to Salisbury from New Bern, while his father was a local product of Dunbar High in East Spencer. They met at a hair salon.

For years after he returned home, Davis continued to compete in semi-pro football for the Rowan Rage and Carolina Eagles. He played eight years. He caught deep balls thrown by former LC Blue Bear D’Andre Hopper, but his specialty always was running back kicks and punts. He took quite a few to the house. He settled in behind a return wall and exploded, just as he did as a teenager.

Davis’ youthful dreams of becoming a Florida State Seminole for coach Bobby Bowden, of becoming the next Warrick Dunn, failed to come true.

But the football guy who “fell into track” has made the most of life’s opportunities.