Emanuel Davis was afraid to unpack his bags: there was no way this could last.
The house was huge, the neighbourhood safe. Not only did he have his own room, he had a bathroom as well. The Owens family, who had taken him in when everything else was falling apart, were so warm and welcoming, it made him suspicious: What could they want from him, a 16-year-old black kid with nothing?
He crept around the house at odd hours, almost in hiding.: If they saw him, they’d realize their mistake and he’d be out on the street again. No more football, no more school, no more life.
Finally, Julie Owens — Mama Jules — took him aside. Emanuel, she said, you live here now. Put your stuff away. Give me your laundry so I can wash it with the rest of the family’s clothes. Take what you need from the kitchen. Ask for help when you need it. We’re here for you.
It nearly moved him to tears. But then another thought took over: These white people must be crazy.
They were driving in Burlington, N.C. — Emanuel, his dad and his brother — when the little two-door was crushed by a transport truck passing through town. The kids survived but Emanuel Davis Sr. passed away right there in the car, his head resting on his namesake’s lap.
It was another blow to an already struggling family. Davis’ mother was in jail for drug offences, the end result of a long battle with addiction. Now the children were sent to live with a grandfather in a neighbouring town.
It was the first of several moves over the course of the next decade for Davis and his siblings; a succession of family members and temporary situations. Their mother came back into the picture for a while, bringing along a boyfriend she met in prison, and they moved to Manteo, N.C., a few hours away. Then she was a gone again, first in pursuit of drugs, then back to prison. When the boyfriend kicked them out, Davis ended up in the home of a local deacon. He died of a stroke while Davis frantically called 9-1-1.
By this time, Davis was a junior at Manteo High, a star two-way player on the football team. The game gave him purpose and hope, the possibility of making it on his own — colleges were already calling. But without a place to live, Davis faced the prospect of going back to Burlington, several hours away, to live with family. Football would be over.
Robert (R.V.) Owens was a volunteer assistant coach at Manteo where Davis played. His son Beau was on the team and he knew Davis as a nice kid in a tough situation. But R.V. was shocked when Davis asked, in a moment of desperation, if he could stay with them.
The Owens’ held a family meeting to discuss it. If we do this, R.V. told them, there’s no turning back — we’re making a commitment that we’ll have to stand by the rest of our lives. They were all in favour.
“My wife and kids said this wasn’t something that we should do, it was something we had to do,” R.V. says.
He adds that many in the community questioned his motives, including his predominantly affluent, white neighbours and the black community, who were convinced that he was looking to exploit Davis for personal gain. But this wasn’t “The Blind Side” — the story of current NFL player Michael Oher, who was adopted by a white couple — and Davis was anything but a surefire pro prospect. He was an undersized kid playing football at a small North Carolina school. But the whole town was talking about it.
“I never even stopped to ask myself ‘why?’ or paid any attention to what other people had to say,” says Mama Jules. “Emanuel is such a good person, he just needed somebody to love him.”
True to their word, the Owens’ treated Davis as their son. When R.V., a former restaurateur who now runs a successful real estate and insurance business, bought Beau and daughter Shannon each a car, he bought Davis one too — even though he didn’t have a driver’s licence.
“These people had already done so much for me, then they go and buy me a car, too?” Davis recalls. “I couldn’t believe it: everything was equal.”
Davis played his senior season at Manteo, leading them to the state championship game and securing a scholarship at East Carolina, about a 90-minute drive away. R.V. hounded him relentlessly to stay focused on school and stay out of trouble, with mixed results. There were some close calls academically, a few fights and one arrest, for public intoxication.
“He was still very much a kid, trying to do the right thing most of the time, but still angry at the things that had happened to him,” Owens said. “He went through a lot and put us through a lot, too.”
Davis graduated with a degree in communications and the football thing went pretty well, too. He played 49 games over four seasons for East Carolina, recording 230 defensive tackles and nine interceptions. But listed — generously — at 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, Davis was undersized by NFL standards. He got an invite to training camp with the Cleveland Browns but was cut. A couple of other teams called but nothing came of it. Soon he was at home and unemployed, a former small-town star having to answer uncomfortable questions about his football future.
R.V. encouraged him to keep going, roused him out of bed and into the gym. He became Davis’ de facto agent, calling teams and surfing websites, including a list of open tryouts on CFL.ca. Davis went to a half-dozen, all across the south, Owens putting up the $80 to $100 entry fees. Nobody called back.
In the spring of 2013, R.V., Mama Jules and Davis sat at the kitchen table to talk about a future without football. R.V. believed Davis still needed the kind of structure and discipline the game provided: he suggested enlisting in the armed forces. Davis and Mama Jules started to cry.
“I couldn’t believe football was over, that I wasn’t ever going to get a chance to play pro. I didn’t want to go to the army but I had to do something,” Davis says. “And Mama Jules didn’t want me to die.”
The next day, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats called.
Davis was a late addition to the training camp roster in June 2013 and was among the final cuts three weeks later. But after a series of injuries, they re-signed him in July and he went on to start 15 games, including the Grey Cup loss in Saskatchewan. Last year, he played in eight games, starting in six.
This year, however, Davis has been a starter since week one and has blossomed into a reliable — and sometimes spectacular — defender. He has three interceptions this season and has returned every single one of them for a touchdown, including two in an August game against Winnipeg.
“The thing that’s great is that he’s taken advantage of an opportunity and persevered,” said Ticats’ head coach Kent Austin. “It’s great to see players that are committed like that have another opportunity and take advantage of it.”
Davis is comfortable in Hamilton and is an integral part of a close-knit locker-room. But given the uncertain nature of pro football — and his life experience — he’s unlikely to become complacent.
“I still don’t feel like I’ve made it. I think the coaches know I would do anything they asked me to do, play any role on this team they wanted,” Davis said. “I’ll do anything to stay.”
The Owens family has been to several games, including a road trip to Montreal earlier this season. They’ll be back for next week’s post-Labour Day rematch in Toronto.
There are, however, still challenges for Davis. His biological mother re-established contact but then made repeated requests for money. His younger brother, who went back to Burlington when Davis was taken in by the Owens family, was released from prison this week.
Davis says he’ll help his brother any way he can but has come to accept that his relationship with his biological mother will never be what he wanted. He respects her for bringing him into this world but says the guidance he needed came exclusively from R.V. and Mama Jules. They are, in every sense of the word, his parents.
He calls them “Mom” and “Dad” now.
“I think Emanuel is much more at peace these days. He’s come to accept what’s happened to him and to see the positives,” R.V. says. “He’s learned that he can overcome life’s setbacks and that there are people who will help him.”
For Mama Jules, football has always been a secondary consideration. It’s always been about the scared 16-year-old who hid candy bars under his pillow in those early days, afraid there wouldn’t be enough food.
“I think we are all better for what we’ve done, our entire family. I’m sure there are people that thought we are crazy for taking him in but I think we did a good job, all five of us together,” she says. “For a mother, that’s the most rewarding thing.”
Three years into a pro career, Davis has also come to understand the value of work ethic and discipline, the importance of spending extra time in the gym and the film. Those skills are transferable to real world, he figures.
“I don’t need to be rich, I just need a good job and a happy life,” Davis says. “I want to be in a position where, when the time comes, I can do for someone what R.V. and Mama Jules did for me. They saved my life and I have a responsibility to do the same for someone else.
“It’s what my family taught me.”