Demetrius Davis began his pro football career as Mr. Irrelevant, the last guy taken in the 1990 NFL Draft, by the Oakland Raiders, out of Nevada. He came along about 15 years too soon: a basketball-first, 6-4 220lb tight end, he would have fit in better with today's passing games. As it was, he never played a down in the NFL, but he had a great run in the World League of American Football, aka NFL Europe, with the Barcelona Dragons, playing in 1991 and 92, and then coming back for two seasons in 1995 when the league was reborn. Not only was he a fine player, the tight end when I picked my all-time NFLE team when the league finally shut down for good in 2007, but he was also one of my favourite players to talk to. The great thing about covering the league was the openness; you could approach players and coaches, film during practices, and get some fairly straight poop if they trusted you. Players who played multiple seasons recognised you, like you were part of a club, and most of those kind of players were back in the league not just because they were good players, maybe great AAA level players, but also because their coaches saw them as positive influences.
That's the way Jack Bicknell saw Demetrius. He was constantly bringing back players, and guys like Eric Lindstrom, Tyree Davis, Eric Naposki all told me they would not have come back were it not for him. Although good attitude couldn't win a league title for you, leadership and team spirit could really help, and the reality was just a couple of bad apples could kill a season stone dead. In a league where some people were assigned by teams with the understanding they would get playing time, where you had to put a new team together each season, and keep them happy for ten weeks in what for most of them was terra incognito, playing for not much money, sharing rooms, and eating the same meals over and over again, guys like Demetrius, who were fighting to keep their football dream alive, playing in part for the love of the game, and willing to do what it took to make the experience work stood out. It was no coincidence that these players were great interviews; Demetrius was probably the best, honest, smart, and above all funny. He projected warmth that is rare to encounter in those situations.
Demetrius was clearly one of the league's best players in 1991, when the Dragons went all the way to the World Bowl, which they lost to the Monarchs before 61,000 fans at Wembley. He was quick, ran routes precisely, had great hands, and was a very good blocker. But at 225 he was just too small to play tight end in the NFL. Ten years later, he might have had the kind of career Bryan Fletcher had with the Bears and Colts. When he came back in 1995-6 he had obviously built himself up, but it affected his quickness, and in retrospect I now wonder if it might have had some bearing on the burst heart that took his life a week ago after a pick-up basketball game. He was realistic in '96 that it was his final go-around; his knees would not get better, he needed to give it one last shot and then get on with his life. I regretted that he hadn't stayed around for one more season; the 1997 Dragons, led by Jon Kitna, and with probably the best trio of receivers the league ever saw (Alfonso Browning, Shedrick Wilson, and the return of Tyree Davis) would have been perfect for him, and of course that was the year the Dragons won the World Bowl. Their tight end, Bryce Burnett, was another returning player, very similar to the 1991 Demetrius, though not as talented.
I have to admit I was shocked to hear of his death. He was only 46; he'd been working on workman comp claims. His cousin, CC Sabathia, the Yankees' pitcher, was apparently going to take care of his funeral expenses. Chris Ault, Davis' coach at Nevada, who still coaches there, sent along his number 88 jersey. Ault was credited by Davis' Nevada teammate and best friend, Lucky Witherspoon, for helping to keep teammates together, and I find that encouraging as I sometimes ponder what football means to me and what the sport is about. It's sad that there is no NFL Europe, so sad that there are no longer any Barcelona Dragons to send another jersey along.
One of the thing I loved about the World League/NFL Europe was following the progress of the guys I met into what they called 'the league', and sometimes elsewhere (Canada, Arena). It was a chance for lots of us to find niches in the game, and make a living doing something we loved. But I often failed to follow what happened after football, after dreams dried up, and the 'real' world took over. I don't flatter myself to think I knew Demetrius well, but from what I did know of him, I'm sure he made the most of what the world presented him.