Nov. 17, 2016
Andy Demetra | Inside the Chart
Every tackle is a tribute.
To the school that didn’t think he was too small. To the father and uncles who invested in his potential and trained him relentlessly to become a major-conference contributor.
P.J. Davis has made tackling his trademark at Georgia Tech, racking up 281 of them during his career, fifth-most among active ACC players. He and 15 other seniors will take their final curtain call on Grant Field on Saturday when 6-4 Georgia Tech faces 2-8 Virginia on Senior Day (12:30 p.m., Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network).
“I love Georgia Tech. Once I graduate in December, I’ll always come back whenever I have the time,” said Davis, a business administration major.
Built like a mail truck, with arms and calves as thick as his south Georgia accent, Davis made an impression his freshman year when he logged 41 tackles despite only starting one game. He led the Yellow Jackets in tackles during their Orange Bowl year in 2014 and again in 2015.
A lower-body injury forced Davis to miss two games and limited him in several others this year, but he has remained a valuable, dependable presence in Georgia Tech’s defensive front seven.
“P.J. is awfully productive. He’s got a great motor. He’s fun to coach,” said Yellow Jackets defensive coordinator Ted Roof.
“That guy plays with a chip on his shoulder. He gets the whole defense together and gets everybody fired up, even in practice when we’re having a down day. So it’s great playing with a guy like P.J.,” added safety Lawrence Austin.
Senior Day always puts players in a reflective mood. Davis knows he didn’t get here alone. The stats, the chip, the motor — they’re all a product of something. His production, he says, follows a straight line back to Cairo, Ga., the rural, red clay town where he first told his Dad, Paul Sr., that he wanted to play Division I football when he was 11 or 12 years old.
His father and uncles, Kelverrick and Keeven Greene, made a deal with Davis and his cousin T.J. Gurley: Get good grades and we’ll train you. Your goal will become ours.
“We saw a lot of good kids come through Cairo but never had an opportunity to get to this level,” Paul Sr. said. “We told our kids, `Y’all get the grades, we’re going to get you to college.'”
“We would do anything possible to assure ourselves and assure them that they’d have an opportunity,” added Kelverrick.
Their plan started taking shape the summer before Davis’ freshman year at Cairo High School. Three nights a week during the offseason, after Davis and Gurley finished their workouts with the Cairo High Syrupmakers, Davis Sr. and the Greenes took them out for extra training sessions. They’d do cone drills and sled pulls, speed ladders and hill runs, often until past eight o’clock at night. Paul Davis works as a supervisor for the city of Cairo street department; he once brought home a pair of old tractor tires to incorporate into their workout regimen. Anything to make his son and nephew stronger – or scronger, in P.J.’s Cairo patois.
“They never did have an offseason,” Davis Sr. noted. “I was more of the weightlifting coach. Kelverrick focused more on his speed.”
Davis Sr. made sure his son was training academically, too.
“My Dad, he had me taking the ACT my freshman year,” P.J. said. “We took that really serious from the start.”
As P.J. blossomed into an all-region and all-state linebacker, his family took him to showcase camps across the country, some as far away as Oklahoma, hoping to expose him to major-conference programs. Paul Sr. estimates they spent seven-to-eight thousand dollars between travel and enrollment fees. The trips would follow a similar pattern: Davis would compete, while his Dad and uncles picked the brains of other parents about how to better position their kids for recruitment. They’d observe the drills and refine their training methods for the next round of camps.
Yet at each stop, the 5-11, 231-pound Davis heard the same refrain.
“We were going to camps, man. Just camps after camps after camps. [Coaches were like] `Hey man, we like your film, we think you’re a good player, but we think you’re a little too small to play linebacker at the D-1 level. That’s kind of the results I was getting,” he said.
“He said, `They can measure my size, but they can’t measure my heart. I can prove to these guys that I can play on a Division I level,'” Greene recalled.
Those times also inspired the equine nickname that Davis’ family still uses on him today. As a rallying point, his mother, Yolanda, started calling him “Seabiscuit,” after the famous Triple Crown-winning racehorse.
“Everybody looked over him. Some of the horse’s owners didn’t want him because they felt he was too small to be a racehorse. Seabiscuit, he wound up being a champion,” Davis explained.
His first offer, he says, came from FCS member Presbyterian. Coastal Carolina showed some interest. Yet one major program after another passed through Cairo, evaluating Davis but never pulling the trigger. By late January of his senior year, only one FBS school, Temple, had offered him a scholarship. Even though he set a Cairo High record with 138 tackles in a season, he was afraid the “small size, small town” stereotype would be too stubborn to overcome.
“I kept fighting hard. Me and my Dad, we prayed. My Mom, my Grandma…” Davis said.
Their breakthrough finally came from Georgia Tech, which had a scholarship open up in its 2013 recruiting class. Assistant coach Andy McCollum, who years earlier had coached Kelverrick at Middle Tennessee State, had been tracking P.J. for a while. He offered Davis the weekend before National Signing Day.
Davis was determined to not let his family’s sacrifice go for naught.
“I worked hard for this, me and my Dad and my uncles. We worked every day through high school, just doing everything we could to get this opportunity. I just promised them that if I did get this opportunity, I would make the most of it,” he said.
The undersized linebacker has thrown up outsized stats ever since. His cousin, Gurley, also realized his Division I dream, lettering at the University of South Carolina before graduating last spring. On Saturday, Davis will stride on to Grant Field one final time, ready to play for both the family that pushed him and the program that believed in him.
His family will be easy to spot — they usually come to home games wearing shirts with Davis’ number 40 and “Seabiscuit” screened on the back.
“I’m really thankful for Georgia Tech for giving him the opportunity. He made the most out of it. We’re really proud of him. He didn’t let any of us down,” said Paul Sr.
“There are going to be a lot of emotions going into it, my last game at Georgia Tech playing at Bobby Dodd. I’m just going to try and leave with a great impression,” Davis said.
In the waning weeks of his college career, P.J. Davis will look to rack up a few more tributes.