By Grace Ostendorf
A group of high school-aged youth sat in an auditorium this past winter and looked up to a brightly lit stage donned with some of New Orleans' most prominent figures. In just six months they would again be sitting there, as graduates of the first class of the Devoted Dreamers Academy.
What started in 2013 as a one-week camp has blossomed into a year-round tutoring program and elite 7v7 football team. The Davises have even bigger plans to turn it into a fully operating school aimed to serve as a place for young men and women to develop not just physically, but also mentally and academically, in order to thrive in any environment.
The program has already seen many successes since its beginnings, with the past four years seeing a 100% rate of matriculation to college with more than 50 young men on scholarship and over 25 on a Division I football team. It's a program founded on a decade of research done by Saints linebacker Demario Davis and his wife, Tamela, but also built on a dream.
"I feel like in my story I didn't make the right decisions; that's not why I made it. Devoted Dreamers was actually birthed out of my story and wanting to do something different for kids, to reach kids that were like myself," Demario Davis said.
Davis' story begins in his hometown of Brandon, Mississippi.
He attributes his love of football to his athletic family, with cousins who were the best on their teams, like former NFL standout quarterback Steve McNair. As soon as Davis stepped on the field for his first competitive game in organized football, he knew he too had something special inside of him.
"I was playing running back and the first game I might've scored four touchdowns and by the end of the season I had scored 43, 44-some touchdowns," he said. He recalls thinking to himself, "You know what? I think I'm pretty good at this."
Of course, Davis isn't just pretty good at football. He was an Associated Press first-team All-Pro in 2019, a three-time second-team All-Pro, and in 2022, he was selected to the Pro Bowl as the only linebacker in the NFL to play every single defensive snap. Davis is one of the greats at the most elite level of football.
He knows his career could have not ended up this way – that it could've easily never taken off.
There is one night in particular that sticks in his mind. The sky was dark as Davis and his friends were running around exploring abandoned buildings. All of a sudden, a sharp shard of glass pierced his skin in the forearm just above his wrist and he started bleeding. Nearly blacking out as he ran home, he began to wash the wound with water but the water cut straight to the bone. That night ended with Davis in the hospital and he was lucky that the injury didn't happen only inches away or the story would have ended much differently.
That's when he heard The Voice for the first time. "That was strike two," it said.
Davis knew at that moment that the voice was God intervening. For the rest of high school, he focused on school and football, making straight A's his junior and senior years while graduating with an athletic scholarship to play football at Arkansas State.
But during his freshman year of college, he found himself falling back into old habits and ended up spending the night in a jail after shoplifting snacks from a Wal-Mart. As he looked around, he saw his teammates doing a lot of the same things. That's when he knew he had to change for good this time to make it to where he wanted to be, not just for himself, but for his teammates and community.
"Your test just becomes your testimony. So everything I went through prepared me for how I lead now," said Davis. "I needed to go through what I went through for my own life and my own journey, but also to be able to help others."
Since entering the NFL as a third round pick of the New York Jets in 2012, Devoted Dreamers has become Davis' outlet to help others, especially the youth in communities like his hometown.
"Football is what I do but it's not who I am," Davis says. "I think who I am on top of being a servant of God and what he's given me the ability to do is lead young men and women to be the future leaders of the world and that's where I derive a lot of passion from is pouring into them."
On that Saturday in late July, as the first class of Devoted Dreamers graduated, Davis felt pride. He said that as he looks at them, he sees in each young man and woman in his academy a future leader, whether it be on their athletic team or in their community.
New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis presided over the first graduation ceremony of his Devoted Dreamers Academy held at the Southern University auditorium in New Orleans, LA on Saturday, July 15, 2023.
At the same time, football can't be forgotten for a minute. Six-time defensive team captain, four-time All-Pro, 1,234 career tackles, 37 sacks, three interceptions, 51 passes defensed, three forced fumbles and seven recoveries. In 2022, leading his team in tackles for the fifth consecutive season and adding a career-high 6.5 sacks earned him his first Pro Bowl berth. This is some of the past.
The present was victoriously on display on Sunday, Sept. 10, at the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans' 16-15 season-opening win over the Tennessee Titans. It started in pregame with a rousing sermon to his teammates pregame, telling his teammates to "Think About The Now."
It continued for three hours and 17 minutes throughout the contest, when Davis and his teammates only allowed Titans RB Derrick Henry to gain 63 yards rushing, Davis leading the charge with a team-leading 10 tackles, often bottling up the three-time Pro Bowler.
After the game, Davis, who places an emphasis on faith, family and football, met with the media, but to discuss the first two. He clearly connected the concepts of faith in God and family, recounting in detail how his daughter, Carly-Faith, had an epileptic seizure at the family's house during a children's gathering over the weekend. Davis went in-depth about he and Tamela, having to bring Carly-Faith to the hospital, relied on a combination of the medical professionals, care and prayer.
Prayers were answered with a full recovery in process, as was explained by Davis at the podium, not saying a word about football, yet painting a picture of his weekend and his priorities. He was still able to concentrate and provide inspiration and production to his teammates and team once his daughter's condition improved, none of them knowing about his family's crisis.
"He's a great leader for our team and honestly, we didn't know that he was going through that with his daughter this week," Saints Executive Vice President/General Manager Mickey Loomis said on his radio show two days later. "And so for him to come out and focus and play great football, it's a testament to just his character, the kind of person he is. We're so proud of him, not just on the field but off the field. Just praying for him and his daughter and his family … He's a spectacular individual and a spectacular representative of the New Orleans Saints."
Exemplary leadership and production are what has come to be expected from Davis and that will continue to be the standard in 2023.