SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — As Adam Davis walked off the practice field at Scottsdale Community College over the weekend, he stopped for a moment to wipe sweat off his forehead and gaze at the mountain range in the distance.
The longer he stood there, the more surreal the moment felt for him.
Less than three years earlier, the senior Kansas State defensive end was worried a slipped disc and a pinched nerve in his back were going to prevent him from performing basic, everyday tasks. But here he was, soaking up the desert sun as he prepared to play in the Fiesta Bowl as a key starter on the defensive line.
“I wasn’t thinking about none of this when I hurt my back,” Davis said of preparing for his final game. “I was praying that I could walk. I just wanted to walk around and be able to work. That’s all I was worrying about. I wasn’t thinking about football at all.”
Few, if any, active college football players have faced a more daunting journey to a BCS bowl than Davis. When he signed with K-State out of Hutchinson Community College in 2010, he was the Wildcats’ highest-rated recruit. A four-star pass rusher by Rivals.com, he was expected to contribute immediately.
Instead, he fought lingering pain throughout his body, struggled to stand upright and found it difficult to sleep. With surgery, doctors told him he would likely be able to live a normal life, but that wasn’t a given. Returning to football was viewed as a serious risk. At the least, his debut season at K-State would need to be postponed a year with a medical redshirt.
Surgery went perfectly, though, and after months of rehab and a so-so junior season that featured 34 tackles and four sacks, he became one of K-State’s most productive defenders as a senior, making 53 tackles — 12 for loss — with 7 1/2 sacks and four forced fumbles.
Still, at that moment, he felt lost.
“It was very bad,” Davis said. “It got to points where I would wake up and I couldn’t move. My ankle was just throbbing with the pain running down to it. I didn’t know what to do. Doctors told me I should really think about quitting football. They strongly advised against (playing).”
Davis thought it was a good idea at first, too. He even told a newspaper near his hometown of Folkston, Ga, that his time in football was likely finished.
“I felt like, because of the pain I was in, I should quit,” Davis said. “I just hated it. It was going down my leg every day so I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stand straight up. I was bent over all day, every day. It was just miserable. I just felt like I didn’t want to play no more.”
But then his mother, Reacheal, called. He was recovering from surgery at the time and was in a gloomy mood. But she got him to cheer up and start thinking more positively.
“She told me to pray about (playing) and take it day by day, and that she would be there to support me,” Davis said. “So I stuck with it.”
Once Davis regained his endurance and the ability to pivot and move side to side quickly for tackles, and stopped worrying about the consequences of further injury – that was the hardest part — he became a better defender.
Playing on a defensive line full of seniors, he anchored the side opposite Meshak Williams, his former junior-college teammate. Together, they were one of the top pass-rushing duos in the Big 12, combining for 17 sacks.
Davis first made his presence known during a key win at Oklahoma, where his backfield pressure on Landry Jones was a major reason why K-State emerged with a rare victory in Norman.
He smiled and cracked jokes with teammates between plays. He was having fun, and his attitude rubbed off. One thing he learned from being seriously injured: Football can be taken away, so he might as well enjoy it.
“To me, making plays is just about having fun,” Davis said. “I’m goofy on the field. It’s serious out there, but I have fun with my teammates. They know if I’m acting goofy it’s going to be a good game. That’s the way I play, just happy on the field.”
He stayed happy and healthy all season. He kept making big plays, too.
“Knowing that some people didn’t think he was going to be able to play at K-State, he took that challenge and ran with it,” Williams said. “He made the most of it, and that’s why he’s here now. He made big plays when we needed him to. That’s what I’ve always known from him.”
Funny thing is, Davis didn’t have much of a football history before he got to Hutchinson. He was so lightly recruited out of high school that Hutchinson was only interested in him because its coaches thought he could convince one of his teammates, a more highly touted running back, to play there with him.
Davis chuckles now about his recruitment.
“That’s a long story,” Davis said. “They came for a running back at my school, and he wouldn’t go by himself. My high school coach called and asked if I would like to go, just so he would go and make something out of his life. I decided to go, and he ended up not going. I stayed and ended up at K-State.”
K-State coaches pursued him much more aggressively.
Defensive coordinator Tom Hayes wasn’t involved, but he’s glad he coaches Davis now.
“For a smaller defensive end (6-foot, 259 pounds), he is strong against the point of attack,” Hayes said. “He is very strong against the run, too. I am very happy with what Adam has done. He has provided us with leadership through his activity and his practice habits.
“He has had some problems with his back. Certain days it continues to bother him, but he fights through it. He is used to it and he plays well on Saturdays. So he is OK.”
That might be an understatement.
When K-State players met for the annual awards banquet, Davis won the Ken Ochs Courage Award.
“He has worked diligently to overcome some of the difficulties that he had,” K-State coach Bill Snyder said. “He has never been a complainer. He just rolls his sleeves up and goes to work. I’m proud of him for that.”
That attitude, combined with a tireless work ethic in the training room and on the football field guided him here. On Thursday, he will play in the Fiesta Bowl. After that, he will try to convince a NFL team he is worthy of a contract.
That’s a surreal thought, too. It’s almost like he was never hurt.
“The special thing about Adam is I forget he even has a bad back,” Williams said. “He never complains about his back. He plays like there is nothing wrong with it. You watch him play and just notice how great a player he is.”