Broken down and ready to retire after five NFL seasons, Demario Davis waved the white flag and asked God to rejuvenate him if he was supposed to continue playing. Since that surrender, the 33-year-old has become one of the best linebackers in the NFL, with sights set on leading the Saints back to the Super Bowl.
Demario Davis knows what it’s like to play on bad teams. He was on the 2014 New York Jets who went 4-12. He was on the 2016 Cleveland Browns who went 1-15. The inside linebacker didn’t experience the playoffs until 2018, his seventh season in the NFL, after he’d signed as a free agent with New Orleans. So he was stumped as to what was wrong with the 2021 Saints, who appeared to be one of the better teams in the NFL at 5-2 after a Week 8 victory over the defending-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but then dropped their next five games.
At one point during that losing streak, Davis called out to God. “Why are we going through this?” he asked. “What is it that You’re doing? I haven’t been in a struggle like this during the season since I was in New York, in Cleveland.” On the Sports Spectrum Podcast recently, Davis said the accumulation of losses felt familiar to his Jets and Browns teams, which was “really scary” considering he thought the Saints were a playoff team.
“I remember asking God, ‘Why am I going through this again?’ Because at least in my relationship with God, if I feel like I’m going through the same thing, there’s something I didn’t learn the first time,” he said. “So was there something I didn’t learn in my year in Cleveland or something I didn’t learn in my years in New York?”
Davis has learned plenty in his 10 years in the league. Entering the 2022 season, he’s already played in 165 career games, starting 151, and boasts 1,027 career tackles. That’s a phenomenal NFL career. But what’s even more impressive: His best years have come in the past five years. While most players from the 2012 NFL Draft are out of the league and onto second careers, the 77th overall pick from that year is coming off five consecutive seasons of 100-plus tackles, and three straight years of All-Pro recognition (first team in 2019, second team in ‘20 and ‘21).
Not only is he leading one of the best defensive units in the NFL (fourth in points allowed in ‘21, fifth in ‘20), Davis is the emotional leader of the Saints as well. Former quarterback Drew Brees became well known for his pregame speeches on the field surrounded by teammates, but when he missed time in 2019 due to injury, he asked Davis to hype up the squad in his stead. When Brees came back, he opted to share the space with Davis. And when Brees retired after the 2020 season, the honor became solely the linebacker’s.
Davis quickly became known for those pregame speeches after he was shown wearing a “Man of God’’ headband, for which the NFL fined him, citing a uniform violation. When the reason for the fine was made public, an uproar from fans criticized the league, which eventually rescinded the fine. Noticing the publicity, Davis started selling “Man of God” headbands online, and donated the proceeds — more than $300,000 — to St. Dominic Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi, where his mother once worked.
That Davis became well-known as a man of God is only fitting. He’s among the most bold followers of Christ in the NFL, and the clear spiritual leader of the Saints in addition to his other leadership roles. So when last year’s Saints were mired in the slump, and Davis reflexively turned to God, the Lord responded. He brought to Davis’ mind the well-known Serenity Prayer, which says in part, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.”
“What He showed me was, ‘You kind of have two of the three. You have the courage to change the things you can control and you have the wisdom to know the difference, but you don’t have peace when things aren’t in your control, and we need to work on that,” Davis said. “And I was like, ‘Wow, here I am in a situation that’s outside my control (the losing streak) and I need to have peace and faith in You. Really there’s nothing I can do. I’m playing as best as I can play; I feel like I’m leading the defense as best I can. But there’s injuries going on, there’s front-office decisions — things that are outside my control, that I can do nothing about — when I felt like we were going to have a great season.’ And I was like, ‘OK, I can feel the anxiety that’s there.’”
Davis thanked the Lord for revealing this lack of peace, and asked for Him to “come into my heart and change it.” As he waited for the Lord’s response, the Saints finally scored a road victory in Week 14 over the Jets. That led to one of the most impressive defensive performances of the season the next week, when Davis and the Saints ended Tom Brady’s streak of 255 consecutive starts without being shut out (the second-longest streak in NFL history). The Bucs owned the NFL’s No. 1 passing and scoring offense, but the 9-0 Saints win marked the first time Brady lost to an opponent that didn’t even manage a touchdown. The big win moved the Saints to 7-7 on the season, giving them hope for the postseason with three games remaining.
That hope was dashed within days, though, as 21 Saints players and four coaches tested positive for COVID-19 prior to their Week 16 Monday night game against Miami. Among the sidelined was Davis. At the time, he held the NFL’s longest active streak for consecutive games played (among non-specialists) — 158. But for the first time in his NFL career, Davis would miss a game.
“When I say the word ‘peace,’ it was almost like God just gave me the revelation in that moment. He was like, ‘I want you to go back seven weeks and remember when something wasn’t in your control, how little peace you had. And here you are in this moment, when it is all the way outside your control, and look how much peace you have. You prayed for Me to do a work in your heart, now look at your heart.” — Demario Davis
“You know, it was like, ‘God, I feel real calm about this.’ It was kind of unsettling how calm I was,” Davis said.
He called his wife, Tamela, and together they came up with a game plan to isolate him from her and their five children at home. He picked out a spare room to hunker down in, “and my wife was incredible during that time,” he said. “She was bringing me three meals a day, dropping it off at the door.” He had his phone, a tablet, his Bible and a whole lot of time.
He thanked the Lord that he didn’t feel sick, but then asked, “Why did You pull me to the side? I want to learn the lesson. Why did You slow me down? Am I not slowing down enough? Is there something I need to hear from You?” One day went by. Then two, three, four. Finally on Day 5, as he was talking to one of his psychologist friends, he began to tell them how much peace he’d had during isolation.
“When I say the word ‘peace,’ it was almost like God just gave me the revelation in that moment. He was like, ‘I want you to go back seven weeks and remember when something wasn’t in your control, how little peace you had. And here you are in this moment, when it is all the way outside your control, and look how much peace you have. You prayed for Me to do a work in your heart, now look at your heart. You didn’t even realize how much peace you had.’
“And then the magnitude of everything [just hit me]. Like, I played my entire career and never missed a game, and I’m missing a game when I [don’t feel sick] because of a COVID policy. And literally the game is coming and I can’t do anything to help my teammates — knowing I’m the leader, and knowing I lead the chant for the [pregame] huddle and all these things. It’s like, ‘This is crazy outside my control, and I have peace.’
“This is God showing me the work He’s able to do inside your heart. And at that point I was really good. It was just a moment with God where I was like, ‘Wow, God. You did a work in my heart that required no work on my part, except just faith and obedience.”
Davis was blown away that in the midst of a challenging season, God was not concerned with Davis’ happiness or his streak of consecutive games played. God was concerned with “changing that little spot in my heart.” So when people ask Davis if he’s disappointed with missing the first game of his career, he says, “No, I had this magical moment with God.”
At 33, Davis isn’t supposed to be one of the most elite linebackers in the league. As with any player in his 30s, he’s “old” by football standards. But he’s been better than ever because he approaches his craft smarter than ever.
He didn’t start out elite. A third-round pick out of Arkansas State in 2012 by the Jets, Davis played in all 16 games as a rookie but only started three. He became a full-time starter the next season and maintained that status the next two years, before becoming a free agent, when he signed a two-year contract with the Browns in 2016.
That season in Cleveland paved the way for another magical moment with God. It was during 2016 that Davis lost his spot in the starting lineup. He was second on the team in tackles, but one of his coaches wanted him to rotate snaps with another player. Davis obviously didn’t like that, and was ready to confront his coach. But something in him — “I think it was kind of God leading me” — prompted him to just ask a question instead.
“I went and asked him, ‘How can I get better?’ And he proceeded to bring up some clips showing me plays that I was missing in the game. And he said, ‘I think if you can fix this, it’s gonna make a big difference in your game,’” Davis says.
First, Davis had to decide if he wanted to stay in the game. After five NFL seasons, including 15 losses in that fifth one, he was exhausted physically and mentally. He was broken down and ready to retire. So he went into his closet for a prayer session.
“I’m like, ‘God, OK. I surrender. I wave the white flag. … If You want me to go forward, You have to rejuvenate my mind. You have to rejuvenate my body,’” he said, to which Davis says God responded, “Thank you for getting out of My way. The one thing I don’t want you to do is forget that you waved the white flag.”
Davis quickly came to realize anything that took place after that prayer — win a Super Bowl, become an All-Pro, get inducted into a Hall of Fame, anything inside the game — he couldn’t take credit for. “God was like, ‘Anything that happens after this point, it’s Me. It’s not you,’” Davis says.
Tamela noticed a difference in her husband right away.
“He’s just been intentional with how he goes about training,” she says. “He pretty much trains year round where you see some players, they may take the offseason off and they start back up at training camp, but he essentially trains year round. He’ll take a few little breaks, but he’s still either working out or lifting weights or something like that.
“The way he takes care of his body — he gets body treatment every day, from massage therapy to chiropractor, to acupuncture, to brain training. He’s doing something that’s recovering his body on a daily basis, like IV. He puts a lot into his craft as far as just how he goes about executing a plan to really have it transfer from off the field to on the field.”
He also does a ton of film study, around four hours a day. And he talks with coaches throughout the year who also break down his film, critique it and tell him ways to improve. Hearing the feedback from his coach in Cleveland started a snowball effect where he thought, “If my coach saw this blind spot in my game, and I obviously didn’t see it, how many more blind spots do I have in my game?” As Davis began to watch more film in a much more critical way, he started to identify more aspects of his game that needed to change.
In the process, God rejuvenated him. Davis found he was willing to make the adjustments…
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