FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) Demario Davis pulled into his driveway after another long day of practice and sat quietly in his car.
The veteran linebacker wondered how everything had gotten to this point.
It was around Week 10 of last season and Davis was in the middle of a rough and stressful year in Cleveland, with his body hurting and his mind searching for answers.
So, he closed his eyes and prayed. Then, he began to cry.
“My body kind of felt sore in a lot of spots that had never been sore before,” Davis recalled during an interview with The Associated Press. “I was just like, I’m kind of miserable and don’t want to go to practice – and I love to practice and love getting better – but it was like the drive just wasn’t there. I can’t keep playing this game if I don’t have the drive to be the best.
“I don’t want to just go to work and it’s just another day of going through the motions.”
The 28-year-old from Mississippi is a devout Christian and leans on his faith constantly. That driveway conversation with God was the moment that helped turn Davis from a man on the verge of being a worn-out and washed-up has-been to one of the NFL’s top inside linebackers this season in his return to the New York Jets.
“It was kind of like, that day, I surrendered,” Davis said. “I mean, I just surrendered. God met me there. I could kind of feel like this huge weight was lifted off of me and it was almost like God said: `Thank you for finally surrendering. Now, I can take over and I can handle the rest.'”
Davis spent his first four NFL seasons with the Jets after being a third-round draft pick out of Arkansas State in 2012. He quickly established himself as a leader on and off the field, despite being in a locker room full of veterans.
After the 2015 season, Davis became a free agent and signed with the Browns. He immediately was installed as Cleveland’s middle inside linebacker and was selected a team captain for a young Browns’ defense. But things quickly spiraled en route to a 1-15 finish, and Davis was struggling with the stress of being a leader and then having a suddenly uncertain role after the Browns acquired linebacker Jamie Collins mid-season.
“I was like, man, I’ve been running this race since the fourth grade and trying to be the best player I could be,” Davis said. “I was doing everything I could, but that day, I decided, my race is over. I’m done. I can’t go any farther.”
Davis went into his house and told his wife, Tamela, that he didn’t know how much longer he wanted to play football.
“I was just broken down,” he said.
So, Davis headed for what he calls his prayer closet and asked God for answers – and rejuvenation.
The next day, Davis reported for work and met with defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who began telling the linebacker some things he needed to improve on.
“It was kind of like the light bulb went off,” Davis said. “I just think that God had a hand in that moment, like he said, `This is what he needs to hear to make the light bulb go off.’ God doesn’t just do these random acts from heaven. He uses people and he uses situations to speak to us.”
Davis began critiquing his film differently, with a sharper eye, and vigorously working on aspects of his play.
It carried through the rest of the season, and then into the offseason. Davis called on various trainers to work on specific areas – mobility, coverage, conditioning. He took up jiu-jitsu at the renowned Gracie Academy in Southern California, where he ran up and down sand hills and learned about body leverage and positioning. Davis drastically changed his diet, too, and revamped his sleep patterns.
By the time Davis returned to Cleveland during the offseason, he could feel a difference.
“I was learning all these huge nuggets, piece by piece in this six-month span of this huge amount of growth,” he said, “on top of the spiritual and mental growth that happened for me being over in Cleveland.”
On June 1, the Jets reacquired Davis in exchange for safety Calvin Pryor. It was a move that garnered a lukewarm response from New York fans, with many thinking Davis would merely be a role player after struggling in pass coverage during his first stint with the team.
“I heard that and was like, OK, I understand that,” Davis said. “But, I also said, just wait. It was kind of one of those things where I was playing at one level, but I had understood that in that six-month time that my level as a human being, as a person, and even more so as a player, had gone up tremendously.
“And it was only a matter of time before that was seen on the field.”
And, boy, was he right.
Davis is among the NFL leaders with 148 total tackles and his team-high five sacks are a personal best. He’s in the best shape of his life – physically and mentally – and playing as if he’s a spry, young rookie.
“Demario is out every day before practice a little bit ahead of time of everybody else and he works on his craft,” coach Todd Bowles said. “He studies better, he takes care of his body a lot better. He understands the scheme a lot better after coming back from Cleveland. All of that has attributed to him playing well.”
Davis is scheduled to be a free agent again after this season, and – as he does with everything else – he’ll leave it in God’s hands.
After all, his faith has gotten him through the toughest stretch of his life, and delivered him to one of the best.
“Me alone, I know where I’d be,” Davis said. “I’d be a busted-up 28-year-old, probably on the back end of his career, just ready to hang up the cleats. Like, OK, it was a good run. But this person who’s just now coming into the cusp of his prime with so much room to grow, that’s only because of God.”
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