(USA Today)- When the New Orleans Saints signed linebacker Demario Davis, they were looking to bolster their defense.
“Obviously, he is one of those guys that (is) experienced,” Saints coach Sean Payton said after a minicamp practice last month. “I think when you talk about a front player like him, you get to find so much more when you put shoulder pads on (in training camp). But he’s smart, he’s picked things up right away, he’s got good leadership, he’s done well.”
The organization, though, has gotten so much more than just a linebacker who will play well on Sunday.
Davis has been an advocate and a philanthropist since signing with the Saints last spring. He has put his faith — and values — into action.
In the spring, Davis and Saints tight end Ben Watson wrote a letter to state Sen. Karen Carter-Peterson endorsing Louisiana House Bill 265.
The bill eventually gained legislative approval and was signed into law last month by Gov. John Bel Edwards. The measure allows people who have been out of prison for five years, but remain on probation or parole, to register to vote.
Then, last month, he helped immigrant children separated from their families at the border. He teamed with Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman to spend more than $10,000 on supplies and food.
Davis’ wife, Tamela, encouraged him to get involved with helping in the treatment of immigrants.
“She said, ‘If you feel strongly about it, find a way to do something about it,’” Davis told USA Today. “She really encouraged me. So, when I got the call from Josh, we went.”
Davis and Norman partnered with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services Texas, a San Antonio non-profit.
They arrived in San Antonio and went to a Wal-Mart where they bought six shopping carts full of items for children — everything from toys to coloring books, soccer balls to toiletries.
“The people started hugging us,” Davis told USA Today. “The most genuine smiles and hugs. They didn’t know us, didn’t know how to speak the language. But it just showed that a little bit of love can go a long way. It was just special, special to see.”
Davis’ work with children didn’t stop in San Antonio.
He hosted a football camp for kids in his hometown of Brandon, Mississippi, late last month.
He’s also worked with adults. He served as a coach in a military flag football game while with the New York Jets. He has deep military connections with his father serving in the Army.
“I’ll always be involved with the military because it is a big part of my life,” Davis said.
His humanitarian side has developed through the years. It is the result of being given a second chance himself.
He told Cleveland.com he was “into all the wrong stuff” growing up and a pothead by the ninth grade. On a video on his Facebook page, he talked of getting into trouble for trying to steal another student’s wallet and cutting his arm breaking into cars.
But he was good in sports.
And that helped him land at Arkansas State.
Still, he had some growing up to do. He would miss breakfast checks and be late to class. Those infractions would inevitably bring about running hills as punishment.
A more serious offense and punishment was still ahead.
He landed in jail for three days, accused of stealing groceries at Wal-Mart.
“Here you are thinking, I done lost my scholarship,” he told Cleveland.com. “I’m in Arkansas. I’m a long way from home. … I’m about to lose my scholarship and head back home and my career is going to be over before it even started.
“My mom had to come because she had to go to court with me. She was a nervous wreck because I was making bad decisions on top of bad decisions and she was like, ‘Here my child is. I taught him right. He knows what right vs. wrong is but he’s making all the bad decisions.’ ”
Davis was suspended, but he remained on the team. There was running and more running of the hills as punishment. But his football career wasn’t over.
After the arrest he found a mentor in Arkansas State team chaplain Chuck McElroy.
“My life was spiraling out of control, he kind of saw me and spent time with me,” Davis told Cleveland.com, “and introduced me to the Lord and that was a life change.”
McElroy began meeting regularly with Davis and the athlete’s faith began to grow and his life began to change.
Following his Arkansas State career, the New York Jets drafted Davis in the third round in 2012. He played four seasons with the Jets before spending the 2016 season in Cleveland with the Browns before returning to the Jets last season.
He has played all 96 games of his six-year career. Last season, he had a career-high 97 tackles and a career-best five sacks.
“I’ve always been known for my speed,” Davis said in a teleconference this spring. “I think it is a huge part of what I bring to the game. The blitzing, I’m able to get to the quarterback and affect him.”
As a free agent, Davis said he had a half dozen teams interested in him. His choices eventually came down to the Saints and an unnamed team.
Eventually, his agent worked out a three-year $24 million deal with the Saints.
“The Saints stood out for a number of reasons,” Davis said. “No. 1, they were extremely close to home. No. 2, (there is) a championship culture of winning year in and year out. And lastly, having one of the best quarterbacks in the game (Drew Brees). You can’t pass up on that opportunity.”
He is learning that you can’t pass on opportunities — whether on the football field or to help others.
“We can all sit on social media and comment,” Davis told USA Today. “But stop commenting behind screens. Take action.”