COLUMBIA — Gunshots disturbed the late-night peace inside Mike Davis’ bedroom. He counted them as he lay in bed, trying to fall asleep. There were eight fired in rapid succession. From outside his window, Davis heard somebody scream for help. He saw the body lying outside, motionless.
It was the kind of scene that brings nightmares to life. Davis quelled his fear, went back to bed. In Bankhead, located west of downtown Atlanta, close calls were frequent. Once, in the middle of a pick-up basketball game, an argument broke out on a nearby court. The fight was over someone’s sister. Davis, a fifth-grader, watched a man grab a gun, pull the trigger and take off running.
“Stuff like that will have you scarred for life,” Davis said. “But, you know, it teaches you a lesson. It makes you want to get out of that type of environment. It makes you hungry. It will keep you on the right track, that, hey, I can’t lose focus. I don’t want to end up like this type of person.”
Davis said most of his childhood friends didn’t make it to college. Some are in prison. Others are dead. His path was different.
Before his sophomore year in high school, the Cleveland Browns drafted Davis’ brother in the sixth round. James Davis, the former Clemson running back, put a $25,000 down payment on a house for his mother and two brothers. It was more than a quarter of his signing bonus, money well spent. The family moved 45 minutes across town. It felt like a different world, a suburban utopia with “nice houses” and no boarded-up windows.
For Davis, it was the perfect change of scenery. He flourished, overcoming his rough childhood to star at powerhouse Stephenson High before earning a scholarship at South Carolina. In his first season as a full-time starter with the Gamecocks, he’s emerging as one of the SEC’s top running backs. Davis averages 152.3 all-purpose yards per game. He has six 20-yard plays from scrimmage. Both lead the league at his position.
Now, Davis counts his blessings. He can’t forget the violence. It keeps him motivated. Davis knows there’s nothing good where he grew up. Better keep moving forward.
Davis wasn’t born with a football in his hands. His introduction to the game had to be arranged. James, 7 years older, wanted his brother to quit wasting days playing video games. Their mother, Teresa Davis, worried what else her son would find to fill his time.
“I just didn’t want them to run around the neighborhood,” Teresa said of her three boys. “They needed to have something to do, play some kind of sports. So I kept them playing all kinds of sports, every season — baseball season, basketball season, football season. I kept them doing something.”
Davis joined Grove Park’s little league team when he was 10 years old. He played left tackle during his first season of organized football. It was a logical position for the biggest player on the field, even if his No. 28 jersey looked odd on the offensive line.
Problem was, Davis couldn’t score touchdowns as a blocker. And Grove Park needed touchdowns.
Against the No. 1 seed, Grove Park trailed 14-0 at halftime in its first playoff game. Davis remembers the opponent only by its red uniforms; his team wore baby blue. James Davis approached the coach at halftime, pitching an idea.
“Put Mike at running back,” he said.
By then, James was a star halfback at Douglass High. His reputation was unquestioned. The little league coach wasn’t going to argue.
He chose wisely.
Mike scored four touchdowns in the second half. Grove Park won 28-21, the league’s worst team knocking out its best. The red team was so shocked, blindsided by the big left tackle’s prodigious ability to run over and past defenders, it protested after the game. Mike had to prove he was under the league’s weight limit for ball carriers. By a few pounds, he passed.
The coach thanked James afterward. Mike never played left tackle again.
“You talk about making somebody miss,” James said. “That was his thing in little league.”
In the backfield, Davis kept the toughness of an offensive lineman. When he got to Stephenson High, he was one of three running backs who would play college football. He soon emerged as the star, like his brother.
Davis had too many memorable Friday nights for Stephenson coach Corey Johnson to pick one. There were the back-to-back games Davis rushed more than 200 yards his senior season. Touchdowns blended together, one continuous highlight reel. Put on the spot, Johnson mentioned one game — perhaps the gutsiest he’s ever seen.
As a junior, Davis pulled his hamstring one week before the playoffs. He played the next week anyway, once again shocking everybody in a first-round win.
“You talk about a kid who couldn’t walk on Wednesday, and then all the sudden he’s out there making plays, going for 130 yards and leading our team,” Johnson said. “That’s kind of when I knew Mike was really going to be special.”
By his senior season, a full-ride scholarship was in Davis’ future. The only question was which college. Recruiting letters came every day, from all over the country.
Everywhere except his home-state team.
Even today, Davis admits Georgia’s hesitancy to offer a scholarship stings. The Bulldogs had a good class of running backs in 2012, with sophomores Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall forming perhaps the nation’s best backfield.
To Davis, it doesn’t matter.
“You start getting all these other offers from Florida, Florida State, Oklahoma, Miami, and you’re in Georgia wondering when the UGA offer is going to come,” Davis said. “It never came until a month before signing day. So, I was like, it’s kind of too late now.”
James didn’t mind Georgia’s absence. He wanted his little brother to sign with Clemson. He envisioned his brother in that orange No. 28 jersey, the one backfield partner and Heisman Trophy finalist C.J. Spiller wore. (The number has since been retired.)
Davis rooted for Clemson when he visited James on game weekends. With his brother playing for the Tigers, it felt natural. He stopped short of giving Clemson serious consideration.
“I don’t think people understand how important that first offer is,” Davis said. “South Carolina was the first team to offer me a scholarship, besides Tennessee. South Carolina was always in the back of my mind.”
James doesn’t hide from the irony. He attends every game inside Williams-Brice Stadium, wearing his old Clemson key chain and absolutely no garnet and black. He’ll root for the Gamecocks, though there are exceptions. James hopes his brother has a good game against Clemson, but he wants his Tigers to win Nov. 30 when they visit Columbia.
On enemy soil, fans still recognize the former Clemson halfback.
“There are people still wanting my autograph,” James said. “They’ll be like, ‘Hey, we hate Clemson, but you were a great running back.’ There’s definitely a lot of respect.”
As for Georgia, respect is still being earned.
During a casual chat, Johnson said he warned Georgia defensive line coach Chris Wilson a couple days before South Carolina’s trip to Athens earlier this month. Davis was about to put 200 yards on the Bulldogs defense, Johnson told Wilson. He said Wilson just laughed.
Davis didn’t reach 200 yards. He had 198, 149 rushing — including a 75-yard run at the end of the third quarter.
“I would say I ran very angry that game, because it was Georgia,” Davis said the next week. “… Of course I run with a chip on my shoulder. I run with a chip on my shoulder because I like to eliminate things. I like to prove people wrong.”
Ronald Patrick has the best view in the stadium. South Carolina’s senior guard helps plow the path, just like he did for former USC tailback Marcus Lattimore. He drives his blocks to the whistle, at least most of the time.
Occasionally, Patrick said, he can’t help but stop and watch.
“I find myself during plays — after he breaks long runs — I find myself watching him,” Patrick said. “It’s amazing. He has some wheels on him.”
It’s an unenviable position, being the guy who follows a legend. In the offseason, fans fretted how USC would replace Lattimore. So far, Davis has handled it with remarkable ease, establishing himself as the workhorse in USC’s offense.
Davis may be the best big-play running back in the SEC, opening the season with 75-yard runs in his first two games. His goal is to have more than 100 all-purpose yards every game. He hasn’t missed that mark yet. His 341 rushing yards rank fifth in the conference, and he’s added three touchdowns in three games.
“I knew coming into the season that Mike was going to be a good running back,” USC running backs coach Everette Sands said. “I knew he’d be productive. He has good quickness, excellent acceleration, but I’ve got to admit that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by his big-play ability. I didn’t think he’d have two 75-yard runs in his first two games. And when you think about it, those runs came against quality opponents.
“The game has slowed down for Mike since last season. The light has really come on for Mike, and you can see his confidence level is much higher than it was when he was a freshman.”
Davis may be the Gamecocks’ biggest surprise, to everyone but his brother. James, out of the NFL but hoping for one last shot, knew his brother was capable of a breakout season when they worked out together this spring.
“I didn’t see it as a the team taking a big step back as far as losing Marcus Lattimore,” James said. “I figured he could come right in and do the things that he’s done so far.”
Of course, Davis hasn’t been chasing Lattimore’s legacy his whole life. He doesn’t compare himself to other great SEC running backs, like Gurley or Marshall. To him, the standard is the same person who moved him out of Bankhead.
Davis’ reputation has always been wrapped in his older brother’s shadow. His name gave way to a title — James Davis’ Little Brother. Slowly, with each passing game, that’s changing. Davis can sense fans in this state recognizing him for what he does on the football field.
“I want to eliminate people calling me James Davis’ little brother,” Davis said. “I kind of eliminated it in high school, and now in college people are knowing me as just Mike Davis. I don’t think I’ve arrived yet. I’m never going to hear the end of it, ‘That’s James Davis’ little brother, Clemson’s star running back.’ I know I’m not gonna, you know, never hear about it. I just want to make a name for myself.”