'God wasn't done with me': How New Orleans Saints' Demario Davis began to play his best ball in his 30s

METAIRIE, La. – Demario Davis felt like he might be ready to “shut it down” five years ago.

The New Orleans Saints’ All-Pro linebacker, who has defied logic by playing his best football after the age of 30, said he was mentally and physically exhausted five seasons into his career with the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns.

But Davis was conflicted because, as he put it, "God wasn’t done with me.”

Davis has always wanted his career to be about more than football. He has passionately shared his story of turning his life around after spending three days in jail for shoplifting as a freshman at Arkansas State and being expelled for a semester in high school for trying to steal a student’s wallet. And he believed football could provide a platform to inspire others.

“I’ll never forget the day he sat me down on the sofa and said, ‘I think this may be our last stop,’ ” Davis’ wife, Tamela, said of a conversation they had late in the 2016 season in Cleveland. “We had this shoe closet near our garage door that we had turned into a prayer closet and just kind of had our bibles and things amongst the shoes. And he went in that stinky shoe closet and he was just crying out to God. He always says he waved the white flag. ‘OK God, I’m done. But if you’re not finished with me, you have to renew me and give me the strength and the endurance and the mindset.’

“And God did what he did, and here we are.”

Since then, Davis has had the five best seasons of his career -- first after he was traded from the Browns back to the Jets in 2017, and then after he signed with the Saints as a free agent in 2018.

The 32-year-old ranks fourth in the NFL with 555 tackles over that span, and his 21 sacks are by far the most of any off-the-ball linebacker. He was named first-team All-Pro for the first time in 2019, then second-team in 2020. The Saints have had the NFL’s No. 1 run defense since he arrived.

More than that, Davis has emerged as New Orleans’ heart and soul, replacing Drew Brees in the role of directing pregame speeches. And he was the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year selection in 2020 for his efforts on and off the field.

Demario and Tamela have done charitable work through the Devoted Dreamers Foundation they started just one year into his career to provide education and resources to youth. Davis has also joined longtime friend Josh Norman to distribute water in Flint, Michigan, and supplies to migrant families detained on the Southern border.

Davis has been a leader in the NFL Players Coalition working toward social justice and racial equality, and his words made a big impact when a group of players and owners met to discuss the national anthem kneeling controversy in 2017.

He received an “In Pursuit of Justice” award from the Bronx Defenders for his efforts to support criminal justice reform in New York. He and former Saints teammate Benjamin Watson were leaders in the campaign for Louisiana to change its law requiring a unanimous jury for felony convictions.

Davis also turned a punishment into a good cause when he was fined for wearing a “Man of God” headband in pregame warmups. The NFL later rescinded the fine, but Davis used the attention to create a charity fundraiser for a hospital in his home state of Mississippi.

He even went back to school to earn an MBA at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. Oh, and he’s a devoted father of five.

“Of course I’m a little biased, but I’ve never met anybody who’s just as driven and dedicated and passionate about whatever it is that he puts his mind to,” Tamela said. “If you ask him to make a batch of pancakes, he’s gonna put his heart and soul into that as well. He calls them his ‘world famous pancakes.’”

Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and linebackers coach Michael Hodges described Davis exactly the same way.

“He’s all-in with everything he does,” said Hodges, who said their relationship is a two-way street, with Davis influencing him as a person and a father.

Not bitter toward Jets

The Jets will run smack-dab into what seemingly is one of their biggest mistakes Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) when Davis returns to MetLife Stadium for the first time since they made little effort to retain him in 2018.

The only thing more surprising than Davis’ late-career resurgence is that the Jets had him in the building when it started with 135 tackles and five sacks in 2017 – and decided not to keep building around him. Of course that regime, led by general manager Mike Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles, liked Davis -- but they set his market value at much less than the three-year, $24 million deal the Saints offered.

“It’s always tough when you get rid of good football players. When you get rid of good football players and good people, that’s really tough,” said Bowles, who now sees Davis twice a year as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defensive coordinator – and describes him as “one of my favorite players in the league.”

“He was always a leader who rallied everybody around. He always played 100%. And he’s one of the most genuine guys you’re probably ever gonna meet, from a leadership standpoint, from helping out a teammate off the field, from a family man, from just a God-fearing man, the guy checks all the boxes,” Bowles said. “And besides that, he’s a heck of a football player. ... There’s nothing he can’t do. He takes a lot of pride in that, and you can see that in his play still.”

ESPN analyst Rex Ryan, who was a big reason why the Jets drafted Davis in the third round in 2012, said, "I don't have any idea" why the Jets let him go in both 2016 and 2018, or why the Browns traded him in 2017.

"Because he played his ass off when I was there,” said Ryan, who coached Davis from 2012-2014. “You know, you can look back at some of those organizations’ decisions to let guys go – and there’s a reason why those [decision makers] aren’t there also.

“Now, doing this at 32 years old, I don’t know if I saw that. But what I do know is that I saw a guy that was a natural leader, even when he was young. I remember thinking, ‘Well, I’ll never see another Ray Lewis.’ And he might not be Ray Lewis, but to me I saw that type of leadership in him. And obviously the Saints are seeing it every day.”

Davis said he was never mad or bitter toward the Jets because, “I’m a big believer in everything happens for a reason.”

“When the Jets let me go the first time, I think it was justly. I was a decent player, but I wasn’t doing anything spectacular,” said Davis, who became a full-time starter in his second season and had a combined 312 tackles and 6.5 sacks from 2013-2015.

“And then Cleveland, I had just gotten there a year,” said Davis, who said he really started to feel the major turnaround beginning in his workouts and OTA practices in 2017 before he was traded on June 1. “If they had just been watching the practices, there was no reason to let me go. And then certainly there was no reason for the Jets [a year later].

“But obviously God had a bigger and better plan, and it’s worked out.”

Seeing the ‘light’ in Davis

Davis devoted himself to God soon after his short stint in jail – a frightening wake-up call that led to dramatic change. He got busted for joining his friends in a scheme to pay for only a small portion of goods in the self-checkout line at Walmart. But it was part of a larger pattern of poor behavior, drug and alcohol use.

Eventually, he became one of Arkansas State’s most valued players and leaders. And now he is passionate about sharing his story, “because I want people to realize that God likes to use you as you are.”

“Look at this person who was here in jail, this kid who was expelled from school, this kid who was raised by a single mom. Look at this kid who the statistics would have said his life was gonna be wasted. And look what he’s accomplishing,” Davis said. “If [my football accomplishments] get your attention, that’s good. But what do you see when you look at me?

“And hopefully it’s a light or something that you’re like, ‘I want to know what that is.’”

The Jets saw Davis’ transformation as a positive. Although he first appeared on their radar because Ryan and linebackers coach Bob Sutton were enamored by what they saw on tape and at the scouting combine, Davis only grew in their esteem when he came for a visit.

“He’s a gregarious, glass-is-half-full, problem-solving guy,” said ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum, who was the Jets’ GM when they drafted him. “There’s two types of people in the world. Some give energy when they walk into the room, and some take it. He’s a force multiplier. He’s someone that you just want to root for. I’m really happy for his success.”

The Saints admit they weren’t expecting quite this caliber of player and leader when they signed the 6-foot-2, 248-pounder.

“I had a chance to see firsthand the way he practices and the way he watches film and works, the way he approaches just every little meticulous detail,” Brees said. “And what you see on Sunday with him making every play and reading that run or getting past that blocker, getting in the backfield or anticipating that run or beating somebody with a pass-rush move, I sat there on the sideline and watched him do it in practice. It doesn’t happen by accident.”

Saints coach Sean Payton, Allen, Hodges and Brees all described a tenacious level of work ethic, film study, physical maintenance and desire that is … well, downright Brees-like.

“I see a young player when I watch him, and that's a credit to him,” Payton said. “No. 1, he's extremely diligent in his preparation, how he takes care of himself.

“And No. 2, his thirst and his desire to be outstanding and be part of a great defense, it's contagious.”

ESPN’s Jenna Laine contributed to this story.