Retired P.E. teacher and coach Rhonda Mathiebe recently got a call from a former student. He tried to make her guess who he was. After a 25-year career at Lafayette High School in Buffalo, New York, there were lots of possibilities, but this time the voice on the other end of the line was Niko Davis.
Mathiebe recounted, "I said, 'Let me get this straight. You are officially a Pittsburgh Steeler? I'm talking to an NFL player?"
Davis's road to the NFL was unusual. He never aspired to be a professional athlete when he was younger. In fact, he didn't even want to play football as a kid. One of his older brothers once tried to get him involved in competitive football, taking him to a little league game and asking him if he was interested in trying it. "I saw the kids running around," he said. "I wasn't interested at all. I said 'no.'"
Davis had enough to keep him entertained without organized sports. He is one of twelve children and recalled fond memories of a childhood full of outdoor fun. "We spent most of our time outside playing tag, running down the sidewalk finding coins to buy candy from the corner store. It was cool growing up in a big family. There were always kids around."
Mrs. Davis also remembered a lot of fun moments when the kids were younger. "I liked the rain. I wanted my kids to grow up to like it too. I'd put their galoshes and raincoats on, and we'd go outside and splash around. We had a ball."
Davis did not play organized sports until high school, and his first sport wasn't football. "My freshman year they made an announcement over the intercom saying they needed people on the swim team. They seemed really desperate. Basically, they said they'd take anyone who could stay above water." Davis spent plenty of time in the ocean on regular family trips to Florida throughout his childhood. "I knew how to swim, so I joined the team," he said.
As for why he didn't go out for football his freshman year, the now 6'5" 285 athlete admitted, "I was scared."
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He did, however, enjoy the competition that came with participating on the swim team and track and field, which he also joined. "I experienced winning and losing and then getting better and winning again. It was a thrill," he said.
By his sophomore year, he decided try out for football and made the varsity team, saying the impetus for the decision was his competitive nature that was awakened on the swim team." He wasn't an immediate star. "When it came to football," he said, "I don't know if I did one thing right, but somehow I made it on to the field every now and again." Davis stuck with football his junior and senior years as well, but didn't consider playing in college as his 2008 graduation approached.
"If anything," he said, "I was going to swim in college. That was the sport I was best at. I did it all four years." Football didn't even seem like an option. He explained, "I really didn't understand the recruitment monster. It is a monster, you really have to work it. College coaches would ask for film, and I had no clue. I didn't even have clips of myself playing."
After high school, Davis ended up attending the Florida School of Discipleship in Fort Myers, Florida. A devout Christian, Davis spent nine months taking both ministerial and academic courses to develop himself both spiritually and academically. Faith is a cornerstone of the Davis family. "Both of my parents love the Lord, put their faith above all else and allow that to govern all their interactions," he said.
It was a fulfilling, but expensive year for Davis. He found a way to earn money in a way that echoed his playful upbringing and years on a church dance squad. "I started off with the robot. I could do that well," he shared. And if you're wondering where he did the robot, it was on the beach entertaining families who came down to Fort Myers on vacation. Later, he enhanced his performance by wearing a tin-man costume. "I took a bunch of things I had around the house, bought a mask, and spray painted everything silver. The turnout was so much better. I was a big giant metal man. Money was much better too that way." He also watched YouTube videos to improve his pantomime skills. "The kids loved it," he shared, laughing. (In college, he would sell plasma to make extra money, not nearly as fun as miming.)
While in Florida, a friend introduced him to Liberty University and broached the topic of college football. Davis was sold on the idea after visiting the school, impressed with the facilities. He made the team as a walk-on. Though he tried out as a wide receiver, he was later moved to tight end and then defensive end. Davis went from liking football to loving it, especially when he began to see playing time in 2012, nearly five years after he had last played football as a member of his high school team. "Things finally clicked for me," he shared.
"Things clicked" to the extent that he was named his team's most improved defensive player in 2013. His position coach and mentor Vantz Singletary, a former coach for the 49ers, saw NFL potential in Davis. Vantz contacted NFL scouts, encouraging Davis to seriously consider an NFL career. His final season, Davis tallied 61 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and two fumble recoveries in 14 games.
In May, Davis went undrafted, but got a call afterwards from his agent that he had an offer from the Pittsburgh Steelers. "I went inside and told my brother Ali and mother the news. They were ecstatic. I was lower key. I just wanted to get over to my agent's office and sign the contract before they changed their mind. My brother was the one who was like, 'Whoa, slow down, I want to take some pictures.'"
Since that call, Mrs. Davis has been embracing life as a Steelers mom. "I'm so proud of him," she said. "And I am a queen bee in Steelers gear no matter what environment I am in. I wore my Steelers t-shirt to Wegman's the other day. It is Bills country, so I got some funny looks, but I walked through the store like I owned it."
From the day he signed his contract, Davis has taken his new career very seriously. He was in the film room with position coach John Mitchell within fifteen minutes of arriving at rookie minicamp. It has been non-stop learning and hard work since then.
"I'm looking over my shoulder constantly. I think, 'What if someone else ran more sprints than I did today? What if someone else studied the playbook longer than I did today.' They don't have to keep you around, and they will not keep you around unless you are a proven asset," he said.
Davis is doing everything he can to position himself as an asset. A big piece of that is learning the playbook. "If you don't know the playbook, you can't display the athleticism you have. You can't enjoy practice if you don't know the playbook. It's not even worth it. I'm using every study habit I've ever picked up in school to use when it comes to learning the plays." Davis has a lot of study strategies. He was ranked sixth in his high school class at Lafayette.
His coaches and mentors within the Steelers organization are showing him the Steelers way. "Coach Mike Tomlin is so brutally honest. I think it is amazing. You always know where you stand," he shared. Defensive Line coach John Mitchell has also made an impression. Davis shared, "He repeats verbatim what Coach Tomlin says to us every day. They are on the same page. He is a great coach. Very technical and specific, a straight shooter. If you are sucking that day, you will know it."
In addition to the coaching staff, veteran players are helping with Davis' transition to the NFL. They lead by example. "Guys like Cam Heyward, Steve McLendon, and Stephon Tuitt didn't just show up and become who they are. They work hard to be who they are. If I want to be good, I've just got to put my head down and just work. Work, work work."
As Davis puts in hard work to make the team, his family is one of his biggest sources of motivation. "I am striving to be like my mother and father." They have provided quite the example for Davis as well.
I asked Mrs. Davis about the core Davis family values. She replied, "Be the best you can be. Maintain integrity. Don't behave inappropriately. Always believe in God." Then she repeated, "Maintain integrity. Do NOT behave inappropriately based on your mother's standards." From the way she said it, I seriously doubt any of her children would consider anything remotely inappropriate.
Davis said of his mother, "She is someone who is so intentional about who she is from her character to the way she affects people. She tries to leave something positive every time she interacts with someone."
Mr. Davis passed away in 2013 and is not here to share the NFL experience with his son. "Not having him around is disappointing," Davis disclosed. "He is somebody I would have wanted to share this with." A lawyer who studied in Buffalo and Brussels, Mr. Davis instilled the value of education and a strong work ethic in all of his children. "He was a disciplinarian who always taught us to take our grades in school seriously," Davis shared. Mr. Davis also took pride in his son's prowess on the football field. Davis recalled, "He was always so proud and happy that I was a football player."
With twelve children, Mr. and Mrs. Davis could not both be at all of their kids' activities, so Mr. Davis was the one who attended his son's swim meets and football games in high school. Mrs. Mathiebe recalled, "His mom and dad never missed a parent night. They came for all of their kids. His dad came to all the football games. With support like that, it is not a surprise that Niko has done so well."
For a kid who didn't even want to play little league football, Davis is certainly enjoying his NFL opportunity. He said, "To wake up every day and still be playing, that is amazing. I'm just thankful for every day I get to play football." Davis' long term goals, however, transcend football. "In everything I do, I want my character to become more than I am now," he shared.