New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis says the final impetus in his commitment to a life of faith came before his second year at Arkansas State.
He was arrested for shoplifting and spent three days in jail.
In a series of subsequent lunch meetings with the college team chaplain, Chuck McElroy, Davis was introduced to the Bible verse that reads: A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.
"He broke that down for me," Davis said. "What it's talking about is the tree is your heart and the fruit are your actions. Your actions come from a place, come from your heart. I started thinking of all the actions I was doing."
The message hit Davis like a load.
"A lot of times we like to say we have a good heart, or God knows my heart," Davis said. "Well, what mean is we have good intentions. The fact of the matter is, God does know our heart. A lot of times our heart naturally is set against him. Until the transformation happens, where the Bible talks about a heart of stone is taken out and replaced with a heart of flesh, we can't come into a right relationship with God."
Davis' actions on and off the field over his six-year NFL career earned him the 17th Athletes in Action Call to Courage Award, handed out Saturday by Frank Reich, the former Bills quarterback and current Indianapolis head coach.
The 29-year-old Davis had his best season in 2017, making 135 tackles and five sacks for the New York Jets. He parlayed that career year last month into a three-year, $24 million free-agent contract with the New Orleans Saints.
The Call to Courage Award honors a player who displays exemplary character and leadership and a strong commitment to his Christian faith. Davis joins a list of winners that includes Hall-of-Famers Curtis Martin and Kurt Warner, along with current Bills Kyle Williams and Lorenzo Alexander and past Bills London Fletcher and Scott Chandler.
"This is a huge honor, especially when you do the research and realize the guys who have come before you and won it," Davis said. "A lot of my good friends have won it: Thomas Davis, Ben Watson, Jon Kitna and Kurt Warner, guys I really admire. What I think about those men, and to be in the same conversation with those guys, it's a huge honor."
"The consistency of the character, that's really what this award is about: Bringing out the best in other people, on and off the field," Reich said. "That is very evident in Demario's life. We don't just talk about how do they play on Sunday or are they in church or chapel service? It's are they the kind of person that is representing themselves the way you want to day in and day out. Demario certainly fit that to a T."
Davis has been recognized as a natural leader and great teammate since his early days with the Jets. Davis runs a summer camp for children in Jackson, Miss., called the Devoted Dreamers Academy. He's also a strong supporter of the United Way.
"We're all called to look at the people that are beside us and look to ways we can encourage them, uplift them, change them and magnify their life," Davis told a crowd of more than 700 at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.
Davis said his career-best season last year came after a trying season in 2016 in Cleveland, where he played 70 percent of the snaps but wanted to play 100 percent.
"When you see yourself in a certain light and maybe a coach doesn't see you in that light or doesn’t give you the role you think you deserve," Davis said of the challenge. "In that moment, you have to not cast blame at somebody else. You have to look inward and figure out what can I do to change my situation?"
"Sometimes that requires great sacrifice," Davis said. "You have to look at your game. . . . I could sit there and blame my coach. Instead I went and asked my coach what could I do to make corrections in my game. He told me. I spent time changing the way I played the game, looking at film and critiquing myself a lot harder. That's what allowed me to change my productivity on the field."
Davis played every snap of the 2017 season, all 1,117, the most of any defensive player in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
Da'Ron Bellan, a 17-year-old receiver and cornerback for Medina, won the High School Call to Courage Award. Lancaster's Alec Tamburri, 18, was the runner-up. Both received $500 college scholarships.