By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
When linebacker DeMario Davis first arrived in the NFL in 2012 as the New York Jets’ third-round Draft pick, he was focused only on his immediate next steps. Although he had majored in communications at Arkansas State University, with the thought of one day going into film production, football was job one.
The Mississippi native adjusted quickly to life in the NFL and immediately realized the broader scope of opportunities that were available. In fact, early on, he was introduced to several programs by Jets Director of Player Development, Dave Szott.
“I didn’t come in thinking I had to have an exit plan, but so much was emphasized about having a plan for after (playing) and the transition so, I started thinking about things I like. I like coaching so, I thought maybe high school level coaching. We had a couple of seven-on-seven camps (for children) at the Jets facility and I was able to intern with coaches.”
Davis kept building from there, starting his own summer camp for sixth through eighth graders back in his hometown of Brandon, Mississippi. The camp goes beyond a traditional summer program, combining not only athletics, but educational and character-building elements as well. Each Friday for seven weeks, local children participate in the various events and resources offered by the camp, including a strong emphasis on reading.
Davis explained how the idea of the camp came about.
“I didn’t want to host just regular football camp, I wanted to be able to offer something to kids that are falling through the cracks,” he said. “I remember coming up, there were some many of my friends and teammates who I roll with, who are just as talented or more talented than me, but they fell through the cracks either because of education or because they had the wrong attitude, or just life. I wanted to be able to be a mentor to kids to keep them from falling through the cracks.
“Mississippi is 50th in education and a big part of that is reading comprehension,” he added. “Kids in the fifth and sixth grade are reading on a first and second-grade level. We realized a big part of that is summer learning loss. Some kids are reading during the summer and maintaining what they learned during the year, but some kids are losing drastically over the summer when they’re not doing anything and not engaging their brain.”
So, Davis’ camp has a reading program, which has teachers each week and which requires participants to follow their school’s summer reading list, providing incentives and rewards for completion of each requirement.
Davis admitted he didn’t always follow his own summer reading programs, and credits his mother, who raised him alone, with pushing him forward to learn what he needed to and made sure he stayed up on his studies.
“My mom always encouraged me to read,” Davis said. “If I asked her what something meant, she would make me go look it up in the dictionary. Then, she would make me write an essay on the word, so I stopped asking her what stuff meant,” he laughed, “because she would make me write an essay instead of just telling me what it meant. I think that helped me a lot.”
This past offseason, his commitment to the work he does through his camp dovetailed perfectly with the opportunity to do an NFLPA externship with United Way. Davis, (who spent the 2016 season with the Cleveland Browns before returning to the Jets for 2017), along with his teammates, received an email from their Player Engagement director outlining several externships available during the offseason. Davis was immediately intrigued by United Way, which was already a partner in his camp, and signed on for the two-and-a-half-week program at the organization’s headquarters in Washington, D.C, where the experience exceeded all his expectations.
“I got to learn more about what the United Way is, as a whole, as far as focusing [things like] education, and sustainability. These are some of the same things I focus on with my summer camps. And I also thought there were some opportunities to engage players better.
“We’re professionals at football, but that doesn’t make us professionals at philanthropy. At United Way, that’s what they do and they understand. So being able to partner with them, they can help match you with someone [in your area of interest]. So, if I want to educate youth, there may already be initiatives happening locally that I can join, versus starting my own program which can take so many resources.
Davis continued, “It’s about going deep, rather than just putting your name on something. Philanthropy and foundations can very tricky; they can be huge potholes for players who have good intentions but don’t have the right people around them. It can get them in a lot of tax trouble and end up not having the impact they want and we want to prevent that. I saw how they helped me so I want to be able to create that for other players.”
For Davis, all his individual efforts are deeply important to him because of the importance he places on helping others and paying it forward.
“[Football] is a fun game to play but there are so many resources, so many opportunities that are available to us. So, for me, it’s about maximizing those opportunities and create a pathway for other people to have those same opportunities. I always feel like blessings don’t come to you, blessings flow through you so, if something comes into my life I always make sure I’m cycling down to those who may not have that same opportunity.”
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.