Every player in the NFL has a unique story about how he got there.
The journey of Dominique “Niko” Davis, however, stands out above the rest because of its sheer unlikeliness.
Davis, a 6-foot-5, 285-pound defensive end and Buffalo native, signed an undrafted free agent contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers shortly after the conclusion of the NFL Draft. He leaves for Pittsburgh on Thursday and will compete in the Steelers’ rookie minicamp beginning Friday.
“What I have to do is go out there and stand out like a sore thumb,” said Davis, who played at Liberty University under former University at Buffalo coach Turner Gill. “Around people here, I’m tall and huge. I won’t be tall and huge there – I’ll be a pipsqueak. I understand that, but I think I have a chance.”
Davis himself wouldn’t have believed that back in 2008, when he graduated from Lafayette High School. He played three years for the Violets – primarily at defensive end and tight end – in addition to swimming for four years and participating on the track and field team for three. College football wasn’t in the cards at that point.
Davis remembers recruiters coming to Lafayette – Syracuse, UB and several Ivy League schools were interested – but the entire process went over his head.
“I remember one guy said to me, ‘OK, the only thing we need now is your film,’ ” Davis said. “I was like, ‘I didn’t know I was supposed to have it.’ I didn’t have one clip of myself.”
So Davis instead pursued a different interest after high school – his faith. He enrolled in the Florida School of Discipleship in Fort Myers, Fla. A faith-based, intense nine-month program, the “core of it is biblical learning and community service,” Davis said.
To make ends meet during school, Davis worked as a street performer at Fort Myers Beach.
“When you street perform, you don’t have to be incredibly talented,” he said. “It’s really tourists. They see you and they’re like, ‘Something’s happening! Here’s a dollar!’ ”
Davis, the third youngest of 12 children born to Charles and Cassandra Davis, went back for a second year at the School of Discipleship, with a focus on becoming a leader for first-year students. It was around that time a friend at school became interested in playing college football.
Davis was intrigued by that idea and agreed to accompany him on a visit to Liberty.
“I was kind of skeptical, because I didn’t know about the school,” he said. “No offense to anybody, but when I heard about a Christian school and football, you’re not talking real football. That’s like the peewee league. I was like, ‘I want to play real football.’ ”
Davis quickly found out he’d get that at Liberty – a private, evangelical school nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Lynchburg, Va.
Drawn to Liberty
The Flames are a Division I program that competes in the Football Championship Subdivision in the Big South Conference. The school has about 14,000 residential students. There is, however, a total enrollment of more than 100,000 when those taking online courses are factored in, which means Liberty is flush with one thing: cash.
That has led to a vast, $500 million makeover of the entire campus, including new athletic facilities for almost all of Liberty’s 20 Division I programs. Williams Stadium, the Flames’ home, has recently expanded to a capacity of nearly 20,000 – and has designs to one day reach 60,000 as the program pursues a spot in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“When I got there for the visit,” in February 2010, “I went to the stadium – which is huge – and there was snow on the ground,” Davis said. “These massive guys are dragging sleds with 90 pounds of weight across the field. That was the moment I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to play here – if I can make the team.’ ”
During a tour of the campus, Davis bumped into current New York Giants running back Rashad Jennings in the weight room.
“He told me all about how great the school is,” Davis said. “I was sold.”
Davis, who weighed about 240 pounds at the time, enrolled at Liberty for the fall semester in 2010, then joined the team for spring practices in 2011. He first tried out as a wide receiver and “didn’t drop a thing,” but the coaching staff under Danny Rocco decided to start him at tight end.
After just two days of training camp, Rocco approached and asked if Davis had played any defensive end.
“In high school I did,” Davis responded. “He’s like, ‘OK, we’re moving you over.’ ”
Davis was intimidated by the fiery personality of his new position coach, Levern Belin.
“I was showing him some things,” Davis said. “He would say to me, ‘You’re raw, you need some work, but you’ve got some ability.’ ”
Davis did not appear in any games during 2011, and after the season, Rocco left to take a job at the University of Richmond. He was replaced by Gill, who had been fired at Kansas after leaving UB.
Being a walk-on at a private school meant money was tight. Davis had some scholarship money from his time working for AmeriCorps in Buffalo, and got the maximum available in financial aid, but still needed to find a way to make ends meet.
So he started donating plasma twice a week – rotating arms each time. That totaled $55.
All the while, Davis was a dedicated gym rat. Liberty’s strength and conditioning coach, Bill Gillespie, became a mentor, as did his new position coach, Vantz Singletary.
“I felt when I was on the field I knew everything,” Davis said. “I knew what the offense was doing. I knew what my job was. I knew what our linebackers and safeties were doing. Why the quarterback was standing like he was, why the running back lined up where he did, all those things started to click. … I had been working out and getting stronger, but the technique and knowledge made all the difference in the world.”
Davis played as a rotational member of the defensive line in 2012, which was his first time on a football field in nearly five full years.
The NFL, though, wasn’t even in his mind at the time.
It wasn’t until spring practices in 2013 that “something clicked” for Davis.
“I felt invincible,” he said. “If I had a day where I got four sacks, I was disappointed. I was dominating.”
Davis was named the team’s most improved defensive player and spring game’s most valuable defensive player. That night, Singletary called with a message: “If you’re not an NFL player, I’ve never seen one.”
“I’ve been around greatness,” said the coach, who spent 2009 and 2010 coaching the San Francisco 49ers’ inside linebackers, including Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. “I know what they look like. I know how they walk. I know how they talk. Niko has all of the tools. … The wingspan, the big hands, the long arms. When you watch him walk around in his Under Armour, I mean he can go pose for any magazine. He has that kind of physique.”
To drill his point home, Singletary brought Davis into his office one day and started calling NFL scouts on speakerphone. He asked each one of them to give an honest assessment of Davis as a player.
“From that moment, he never looked back,” Singletary said. “He really bought in. He hit the iron. He was eating right. … He started studying more film, and I tried to let him talk to a lot of the NFL guys that I was around.”
‘He started wreaking havoc’
After his breakout performance in the spring game, Davis’ 2013 season was slowed by a stress fracture in his foot. He played through it to appear in 11 of 12 games, but the injury didn’t fully heal until after the year.
He graduated last May with a degree as a speech communications studies major. Prior to Davis’ redshirt senior season, Singletary shifted him to the interior of the defensive line.
“When we did that, I’ll tell you what, he just took off and started wreaking havoc,” Singletary said. “He’s a person with unbelievable knowledge.
“He’s like a coach in so many ways. Anything you’d tell him, he’d soak it up like a sponge. He really bought into what it was going to take for him to take that next step.”
Davis finished his final college season starting all 14 games, making 61 tackles (33 solo, 12 for losses), 7.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble.
After the year, he participated in the inaugural College Gridiron Showcase all-star game in Arlington, Texas, where he met with representatives for 11 different NFL teams.
From there, he came home to Buffalo and began training for the pre-draft process at Impact Sports Performance inside HarborCenter.
Davis thought he might have a chance to be drafted in the later rounds, but when that didn’t happen, he sat down with his Buffalo-based agent, Shane Costa, and mapped out the best possible fit as a free agent. They settled on the Steelers.
“I’ve got to make a name for myself, Davis said. “The name of the game in the NFL is making plays.”
Last season, there were 456 undrafted players on season-opening NFL rosters, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Davis knows the odds are long – and his age at the start of next season, 25, doesn’t help, but that’s not deterring him.
“The dream and the goal absolutely is to make the 53-man roster,” he said. “It can definitely be done.”
He’ll have no shortage of people rooting for him as he chases it.
“He’s got a great story,” Singletary said. “I got into coaching to give players like Niko an opportunity. He’s everything you’d ever want in a young man.”