Why you should care
Because this budding star could be the connection between the Chargers and Hispanic fans.
Heading into what could be his breakout season in the National Football League, Los Angeles Chargers cornerback Michael Davis has already set some lofty personal goals. He wants to haul in at least four interceptions this season, and one for a touchdown, despite not recording a pick in his first two seasons. He’s looking to secure his place in the league, after earning a starting cornerback spot last year.
But with the Chargers training camp starting this month and Davis on the verge of a signature campaign that could make him one of the league’s few Mexican American role models, he has one very specific goal in mind: “I’m trying to get rid of the underdog thing this year.”
That seems fair. After all, it’s hard to call yourself an underdog when you’re an established starter on one of the NFL’s contenders heading into the season. But Davis, 24, remains one of the most unlikely tales in the league.
The ball is money, so this year I plan to grab the money.
“This kid is not going to make it. He’s struggling.”
That’s what Trevor Wilson, Brigham Young University’s associate dean of students, told the school’s athletic director mere weeks after an 18-year-old Davis arrived on campus. Coming from Los Angeles to play football at the Mormon institution in Provo, Utah, he was naturally going to experience culture shock. And his considerable California swagger made freshman orientation a major hurdle.
“Michael went from a young man who was on track to fail out of BYU to a young man that suddenly was on track to not just make it at BYU but [to] really thrive academically,” Wilson says. “I always think about Michael when I’m looking at another young man across my desk, saying, ‘I’m not sure you’re going to make it.’”
Davis found his place and his voice at BYU once he decided to major in theater and media arts, drawing him into a group of students with vastly different backgrounds. When it came to football, then head coach Bronco Mendenhall found the perfect way to get Davis’ attention: He threatened to pull the player’s scholarship unless Davis handed over the keys to his Toyota Camry. “I was not about to lose my scholarship over a car,” Davis says.
Davis found his footing at BYU (and got the car back), becoming a defensive fixture for three years on a Cougars team that went 9-4 and beat Wyoming in the Poinsettia Bowl during his senior season. Based on projections relayed to him via agents and scouts, he expected to hear his name called in the middle rounds of the 2017 NFL draft.
But as BYU had already taught him, life isn’t always that easy.
Watching the draft with his mother, Ana Martinez, at their home in LA, Davis watched the third round go by. Then the fourth. By the time the fifth round was about to wrap up, he’d stopped paying attention. Still, he had little time to lick his wounds at going undrafted when multiple teams came calling. He signed with the Chargers and was assigned to their practice squad following training camp.
The speedy and aggressive Davis would have to make a name for himself all over again.
Within the first week of the 2017 season, he was promoted to the game-day roster as a special teams player and notched four tackles on the year. Coaches were always impressed by his speed and raw athleticism, but he piqued their interest even more when he asked to use game film to break down his tackling technique. Midway through last season, Davis’ moment arrived and he was named a starter over struggling teammate Trevor Williams — and the team posted a 7-2 regular-season record with Davis as a starting cornerback, before bowing out to eventual champion New England Patriots in the playoffs.
In Davis’ first start, he led the Chargers with eight solo tackles in a road win against the Seattle Seahawks. He’s further established himself as a fearless hitter since then, finishing the season with 40 solo tackles.
Davis has improved his tackling and shown the ability to keep pace with many of the NFL’s speediest receivers. But any chances at stardom will hinge on his ability to snag interceptions. “Just make more plays on the ball — your ball skills,” Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley says when asked about Davis. “Not just to get a breakup but to turn those opportunities into takeaways.” Davis is well aware of his shortcomings. “Last year I dropped four picks,” he says. “The ball is money, so this year I plan to grab the money.”
That’s not all Davis is looking for this season. Now that he’s been afforded a major platform, he also wants to share his pride in his Mexican heritage.
Born to an African-American father and a Mexican mother, Davis was raised by his mom in Hollywood. She encouraged him to excel at football, stay on top of his homework — and hold on to his Mexican lineage. Bilingual from an early age, Davis went on annual trips with his mother to visit family in Tizapan el Alto, Mexico, where he was immersed in the culture.
“When people look at me they just see my [dark] skin color,” he says. Instagram followers will message him asking, “Are you really Mexican?” But on a recent cruise south of the border, Davis says, some Mexicans did recognize him and told him, “It’s cool to have you in the league representing us.”
Recounting this story brings a huge smile to Davis’ face, a rare moment considering his poise. But talking about his heritage momentarily washes away that stoicism.
With Hispanics constituting California’s largest ethnic group, the Chargers — who have struggled to attract fans after moving from San Diego to LA two years ago — haven’t lost sight of the opportunity a player like Davis affords. Only 0.8 percent of NFL players (18 in all) self-identified as Latino in 2016, the most recent data available, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.
For years, most Hispanic NFL players were former soccer players who became place-kickers. Some players of Mexican descent manages to defy this stereotype, such as Hall of Fame offensive tackle Anthony Muñoz, quarterback Mark Sanchez and quarterback-turned-broadcaster Tony Romo.
During April’s NFL draft, Davis led a team delegation to Mexico, where he announced some of the Chargers’ picks. And he is likely to play a central role in how the Chargers market their Nov. 18 game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Mexico City.
“It’s thrilling but also a little bit scary sometimes,” he says, referring to the fact that Hispanics are watching him and know he’s representing the culture.
Read more: How one player helped Angelenos and the Dodgers bridge their divide.