FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – It was the summer of his freshman year at Arkansas State, what should have been the happiest time of his life. Instead, linebacker Demario Davis was at a Walmart near campus, hungry and with no money in his wallet, slipping food into his pockets.
Moments later, store security was on him and quickly thereafter the police arrived at the store. Davis was arrested and on his way to jail, an incident that would change his life.
Now one of the voices of the Jets' locker room, a passionate speaker with a fiery side and a true love for football, Davis seems nothing like the type of man who would ever be arrested. His Twitter feed is filled with verses from the New Testament and he dutifully walks around midweek during the season, reminding his teammates of the Bible study that afternoon. A Bible sits in his locker – he pulls it out often after practice. He doesn't curse, a rarity in NFL locker rooms. His firstborn son, born this summer, was named, "Roman" after Davis' favorite portion of the Bible, "Paul's Letter to the Romans."
But there was a time, as hard as it is to believe now when one looks at a man as squeaky clean as this preacher, that Davis had a criminal record and was behind bars.
It is a hot day and training camp is now officially over for the day. Davis wants to talk, out from the late afternoon sun that is beginning to set but is still beating down on the practice fields. He walks a few feet over to lean against a plexiglass wall at the team's facility where the shade gives some respite. There is a post-practice performance drink in his hand to give him much needed hydration and electrolytes. The sweat is pouring off of him.
His past is something that made him the man he is today, a man of integrity and authenticity. But it is a path that he doesn't want to see others go down. It is a past he is willing to talk about only because it points to the change that occurred in his life.
He was 19-years-old at the time and had just completed his freshman season at Arkansas State. Davis was on campus, working out and taking classes. His meal plan didn't cover his needs during the summer, so he went with a teammate to Walmart. But there was no cash or credit card to get a few items for their dorm room. So he went to the store to steal some groceries. Davis and his teammate were caught and arrested.
Davis spent three days in jail, along with his teammate.
“I was able to get back on the right path when I got right with the Lord," Davis told Metro. "I feel like I led [my teammate] down the wrong path. That was kind of like a wake-up call. Every time I take a step forward, I take two steps back. I get in my own way.
“That year was a turning point. The things I used to do, I didn't do them anymore. My teammates would ask me to go to parties, do things, and I'd say no. My heart wasn't there, I didn't desire it anymore. I have college teammates who knew me before the change, who hit me up and tell me how happy they are with me and how I've changed. I give the glory to God that my life is changed.”
Davis sprinkles in a bit more of his born-again faith - “But I'm just a man in the process of sanctification” - the Christian belief that an individual should become more holy and God-like as life progresses.
It is hard to think of Davis as a troublemaker. Growing up, his father never used to accept excuses when his son got into mischief. His father would look at him and tell his son - in no uncertain terms - that he was to always be a leader, never a follower.
But Davis admits now that all too often, much like that day at Walmart, he led others to make wrong choices.
Now, Davis leads by example. His teammates on the Jets note his work ethic, the way he plays on the practice field and the effort in the weight room.
This Jets team has had a rough few weeks, with news breaking that defensive end Sheldon Richardson was arrested this summer. Then there was the incident where a former player broke quarterback Geno Smith's jaw in a locker room fight, and then, this past week - the suspension of offensive lineman Oday Aboushi for marijuana possession.
It isn't a locker room run in chaos but certainly Davis can relate to his teammates who have found trouble.
The turning point in his life came shortly after his arrest. Jail isn't a fun place, he recalls, and it is also a place that is humbling. He remembers being there and feeling humiliation for his situation and anger at himself.
Davis vowed to come back from his arrest a better person, a better man. That is when his Christian faith became more vibrant and his leadership abilities began to blossom. That season, after the arrest, the seeds of the man he would become were planted.
“He exhibited a different level of maturity and really began taking responsibility for his life,” said Chuck McElroy, a former college football player who was the team chaplain at Arkansas State. “He also became very serious about grounding his life on the Bible and not his emotions or what his friends were doing. He understood he had a greater purpose than just playing football.”
When the Jets drafted Davis four seasons ago, former head coach Rex Ryan praised Davis and his leadership abilities, invoking the name of Ray Lewis when describing his rookie. The former Baltimore Ravens linebacker, of course, had his own issues with the law but was later the spiritual and emotional voice of one of the better teams in the NFL. Lewis was legendary for how he would lead the Ravens on the field with his emotional pep talks.
Davis speaks with a similar clarity and understanding as Lewis and while he is still in the early part of his career, he realizes that certain teammates will look up to him. He, in turn, looks at many of the Jets veterans such as center Nick Mangold as well as fellow linebackers David Harris and Calvin Pace among others as leaders he chooses to emulate.
“Though the victories haven't shown it, I'm in a blessed situation, we have some tremendous leaders in this locker room," Davis said. "And if you keep that, keep going that way – the way those guys are going – the tide will eventually turn. Certain guys are watching me, but I'm watching them.
“True leadership doesn't waver. That's if your leadership is false," he added. "We all get fatigued. But if you love what you do, it is a joy to come to work every day. Good season, bad season, it is still a joy, still a love for you. Your body may be beat up but in your mind, [but] in your heart you have to keep going because you want to keep going. Going on, going up.”