BRANDON, Miss. — Fat drops of rain trickle out of a gray morning sky, cooling off a hundred football players on the fields below without ever turning into a storm that could put an end to today's work.
Out in the middle of Brandon High School's sparkling new multi-million-dollar football field, Demario Davis ignores the rain and the clouds, shouting out highlights from two 7-on-7 games over a microphone.
Davis' energy is remarkable.
Not because of the rigors of running a camp — even though Davis will spend a full day, from breakfast until dinner, on Brandon's fields this Friday in late June. He's pressing on even, after the sun breaks through the clouds and Mississippi's sweltering heat arrives in full force.
Demario Davis hasn't played a game yet for the New Orleans Saints, but he's already made his presence felt off the field.
No, the New Orleans Saints' new linebacker should be tired because he's been on the move all week long.
A committed Christian who is a member of Pro Athletes Outreach and regularly writes for The Increase, a website for professional athletes to discuss their faith, Davis and his wife, Tamela, opened the week in Denver, going through evangelism training.
A spur-of-the-moment decision Davis made Tuesday took him to San Antonio and ended up making national headlines. Frustrated by the stories of thousands of migrant children separated from their families at the border, Davis and Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman decided to do something.
Working with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) in Texas, the two NFL stars flew to San Antonio, spent about $10,000 on supplies and food at Walmart, stayed up until 3 a.m. putting the supplies into backpacks, then headed to a bus station that receives two buses per day coming from ICE detention centers.
Davis flew back to Mississippi in time to host his football camp on a Friday.
Twenty minutes west down Interstate 20, Davis is making an impact without even being present. Forty-five kids sit in a classroom in the fieldhouse at Mission First, a nonprofit organization that consists of two brick buildings and a gym at the back of a lot in a rundown neighborhood in West Jackson.
During the summer, Mission First houses the Devoted Dreamers Academy, the summer program Davis has run for six years that provides underprivileged kids with teaching in everything from reading to finances to vehicle repair.
A week like this is how Davis spends his offseasons.
"I believe life is all about what you do to impact other individuals," Davis said. "It’s not about yourself."
Davis was ticketed for a life of service long before he reached the NFL.
Born in Collins, Mississippi, a tiny town about 25 miles northwest of Hattiesburg, Davis began reading at an early age. His mother, Sue, who sometimes worked two or three jobs after having Davis at age 16, steered her son to books about champions of social justice. While other kids read comic books, Davis learned about real-life heroes.
"My role models were Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, Medgar Evers in Mississippi," Davis said. "People who were influential, influential in society, people who spoke out about wrong happening to people."
Sue also made sure her son saw those lessons in action. When Davis was little, he rode along with his mom on Sundays, taking a part of her day off to deliver meals to the elderly.
From his father, Davis saw another example of service.
Steven Davis has spent 28 years in the Army, a member of special forces and a six-time combat veteran. He fought in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield, fought in Iraq and served two tours of duty in Afghanistan.
When he was home, Steven imparted some of that military bearing to his son.
After a call from Donald Trump for NFL players to give him a list of names for possible pardons, a response in the form of a letter published …
"He learned early on, you’ve got leaders and you’ve got followers," Steven said. "Know how to lead, and know who to follow. I always instilled in him, you’re a leader."
Davis had the foundation — but by his own admission, he strayed.
With his father away in the military, Davis looked up to older men, some of whom had criminal records, in the underserved Ponderosa neighborhood he lived in north of Brandon High School. When he was in elementary school, Davis moved to Brandon, a city that looks like a suburb of Jackson on a map but feels like a small town, separated from the Jackson area by the massive trees that line the area and the feeling that everybody in Brandon knows everybody else.
Davis started smoking marijuana and drinking in his freshman year at Brandon High; he was expelled from Brandon briefly as a sophomore for stealing another student's wallet. The same year, he broke open a car window and opened a vicious gash shaped like a check mark in his right forearm. A little further down, Davis believes, and he could have died. His grades dropped.
He got in trouble again as a freshman at Arkansas State. Davis was arrested for stealing groceries from a Walmart, spent three days in jail before his coaches helped him make the $10,000 bail.
"The only thing that was going good was football," Davis said. "I was a man who was headed one way. My life got transformed by Christ."
Faith sets the foundation for everything Davis does off the field.
After his arrest at Arkansas State, a team chaplain named Chuck McElroy helped Davis find faith, and his Christian faith has set the tone for his outreach and activism ever since.
When he was still in college, Davis and teammates gave away TVs and video games to facilitate spiritual conversations with other students, along with other outreach through Campus Outreach, a network of Christian organizations focused on evangelism.
By the time his wife, Tamela — another Mississippi native who was going to graduate school at Arkansas State after undergraduate studies at Rust College — met her future husband, he was nothing like the freshman who'd been arrested for shoplifting.
"He was a man among boys, as far as doing stuff off the field," Tamela said. "He’s always been a big dreamer, and big on making an impact, giving to his community and those around him."
Davis said God gave him the idea for his first major initiative off the field shortly after he entered the NFL. Davis was in his house, jotting down ideas, when a project jumped into his brain.
A summer camp, focused not on football but on essential skills like reading comprehension, financial literacy, anti-bullying, job applications, ACT prep and others, for low-income students.
The Devoted Dreamers Academy was born.
Working with a search firm, Davis identified Mission First, a community center built into a neglected set of apartments in West Jackson. Working with Willis Bridges, the director of sports ministry, Davis set up a program that brings in kids for seven weeks during the summer and teaches them essential skills.
Not all of the Dreamers are athletes; during the morning, the Dreamers attend classes teaching life skills, and in the afternoon, they have a little fun, as the students were doing last Friday, playing basketball on the red court at Mission First.
Davis is heading into his seventh season in the NFL; Devoted Dreamers is currently on its sixth class.
"I don't know of anything else like this available," said Jakobie Jones, a 14-year-old participating in the program this summer.
Davis does not appear at Devoted Dreamers every day. When he does, though, he leaves an impression.
"You can touch him," Bridges said. "He’s not like this NFL football player who walks around all high and mighty. He’s in here, playing with the kids."
The Saints are headed out for the summer.
Devoted Dreamers is a local labor of love for Davis, along with the Encounter Conference, a Christian conference that will happen July 21 this year.
His involvement with the Players Coalition led Davis into higher-profile activism. The Players Coalition was established by former Saints and current Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and legendary receiver Anquan Boldin in 2017; it is a group of 40 to 50 players intent on bringing about change.
"We focus on criminal justice reform, we focus on equality in education for underserved communities, and we focus on police brutality, police accountability and police and community relations," Davis said. "We have research teams who do a lot of data studies and find areas in the market cities we play in, and we focus on those issues."
Davis served as an intern with the United Way in 2017, and he has used his platform to affect change within the government in the year since then.
Davis spent a day with the public defender's office in the Bronx in November, met with New York governor Andrew Cuomo in February and helped lead a rally for criminal justice reform in March.
Then, in May, Davis and Saints teammate Benjamin Watson wrote a letter in support of House Bill 265, a Louisiana measure that allows people who have been out of prison for five years but remain on probation or parole to register to vote.
Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the bill into law May 31.
For Davis and other Players Coalition members like Watson, the goal is to use their platform to amplify causes near to their hearts.
"We’re just kind of on the outside, playing our role. There are people who are really doing the work day-in, day-out," Watson said. "For us, it’s more about finding out how we can learn and how we can advocate and maybe push the ball a little bit further."
By participating in the political arena, by advocating laws and even by offering gifts to children at the center of a hot-button political argument, Davis' activism could be seen by critics as politically driven.
But Davis says he is motivated by belief in Christ, rather than by party.
In a half-hour speaking to reporters about his activism during a break in the action at Brandon High, Davis never brings up party affiliation or any politician's name.
When Davis talks about his efforts to reduce the effects of mass incarceration, he speaks about fighting the evils of systemic racism. When he talks about partnering with Norman to bring supplies to immigrant children, Davis says there are a lot of ways the United States could handle immigration; he couldn't bear the thought of separating little children from their parents in a foreign country.
"I try to stay away from political issues that are really a matter of opinion," Davis said. "But some stuff is just right, and some stuff is just wrong. When it comes to things that make you compromise basic humanity and make it out to be numb to seeing somebody else’s pain, that’s wrong.
"I don’t care what you call it. I don’t care what side of the fence you call it. Whether it’s left or right, conservative or liberal, whatever you want to call it, right is right, and wrong is wrong."
Davis has taken criticism for some of the positions he supports, but it's impossible to tell from talking to him or by following one of his accounts on social media.
"The thing I admire about him the most: Working as his assistant, I sometimes have to facilitate his social media, and it’s so hard to log into social media and not respond," said Greginald Spencer, a cousin who serves as Davis' assistant in everything from family to charity matters. "Because I know he’s not going to respond, especially to anything negative."
Davis, to put it in biblical terms, turns the other cheek.
"It’s a challenge to log in and see the things people say, and me knowing him on two facets, personally and professionally, it’s like, ‘You have it wrong,’ ” Spencer said. "But at the end of the day, you have to know people are going to have an opinion, whether it’s positive or negative, and you just have to be OK with it. You can’t please everyone, and you can’t even try.”
Despite all his travels, Davis is everywhere at his football camp.
When he's not on the microphone, he's on a golf cart, driving back and forth between practice fields to make sure everything is going smoothly; playing with Roman-Parker, his 3-year-old son, or Elijah Perkins, a first-grader too young to participate in camp but sticking around the fields anyway; making sure everybody in attendance — even if they're only there for a half-hour or so — gets a meal from Kingz Kitchen, the fantastic food truck serving tacos, burgers and hot dogs that Davis hired to provide food for the camp.
And it's evident how big a role his family plays in his life. His father's big frame is on one field, coaching a 7-on-7 team; his mother is at the tent by the entrance, right next to his daughters, Bailey-Grace (4 years old) and Summer-Joy (2), who have set up a lemonade stand for the hot afternoon hours.
Tamela, like her husband, is everywhere, a big smile on her face. Spencer's on the move, in his own golf cart, trying to be everywhere Davis can't be.
Davis' fourth-grade teacher is out here, as well as Tyler Peterson, Brandon's head coach and somebody who has only known Davis for a year or so.
Watching Davis become a man of action has made the community proud.
"With Demario, what you see is what you get," Peterson said. "Demario’s really got a servant’s heart."
And as his activism has grown, the rest of the nation is starting to take notice. Davis — who did not kneel for the anthem with the New York Jets last season but supports the rights of players to fight for social justice — was part of the meeting between NFL owners and players last October to talk about the protests during the anthem.
According to ESPN, after a passionate address by Davis to the 11 owners assembled there, Falcons owner Arthur Blank told the linebacker that he'd "missed his calling" as a public speaker.
Blank was wrong.
Based on what Davis has been doing with his spare time, his life as a humanitarian might only be getting started.