by KATIE EUBANKS
Demario and Tamela Davis
The New Orleans Saints linebacker and his ‘pillar’
are on a mission, from Mississippi to the NFL
Earlier this year, Demario and Tamela Davis noticed something strange in their daughter Carly-Faith’s left eye. She was not yet a year old. During MCL’s phone interview with the Davises, Tamela tells the story:
“We noticed that she had like a glare, or like a white film over her pupil.”
Carly-Faith’s pediatrician said “for us to just to kind of watch it and make sure it wasn’t growing,” Tamela says. Then they started noticing the glare more and more. The Mississippi natives had just moved to Nashville, so their pediatrician connected them with Vanderbilt University. That was in May.
Within three days, Carly-Faith’s left eye was removed.
She’d had a tumor, a rare form of eye cancer affecting children, and had gone blind in her left eye. But the cancer hadn’t quite reached her right eye, and she was just shy of needing chemotherapy.
Carly-Faith now has a prosthetic eye, which you wouldn’t notice unless you knew about it, and is still under observation every three months. Otherwise, she carries on like any lively 1-year-old.
“(God) has definitely sustained us and her,” Tamela says.
In a year like 2020, the Davises are grateful — for their health, their family, and most of all, their relationship with Christ.
“Every year is different (but) our mission is always the same,” Demario says. “We wake up every day trying to know God more — and trying to make Him known as much as possible.”
‘I need a new heart’
Demario’s first football uniform had the Saints logo on the front.
“Me and my cousins used to play tag football in the streets, just one on one,” he recalls. “So my uncle … bought me my first uniform, for me and my cousin, and they were Saints uniforms. So we suited up and went out in the yard (in) kindergarten or first grade.”
Several years later, Demario’s eighth-grade football team in Brandon went undefeated. He started to realize this sport could take him places.
Then he started high school. His father was rarely home, and his mother couldn’t be everywhere at once. Demario idolized local drug dealers, and he started having sex and using marijuana and alcohol at 14. A couple of petty crimes landed him in alternative school and, later, the ER.
He cleaned up his act as an upperclassman and received a full scholarship to Arkansas State University — then went back to his “bad boy” lifestyle. He wound up in jail for stealing junk food from Walmart. (He had grocery money, which his mother sent him every week. He was simply trying once again to prove himself.)
Instead of revoking his scholarship, Coach Steve Roberts gave Demario lots and lots of hill sprints. Team chaplain Chuck McElroy started to spend time with him in scripture.
God began to convict Demario of his sin. He saw the truth of Jesus’ words that a good tree can’t bear bad fruit, and vice versa. Eventually he cried out to the Lord in what he calls the “most sincere prayer I had ever prayed”: “God, I need a new heart.”
God gave him one. Then his actions started to follow suit. In time, God removed Demario’s taste for drugs and alcohol, and broke off a sexually active relationship he’d been in for five years.
He was being prepared for many things. One of them was Tamela.
‘You definitely did too much’
Tamela was born and raised in Walnut Grove, less than an hour from Brandon, but didn’t cross paths with Demario till she was pursuing a master’s in English literature at Arkansas State.
She’d already taken a medieval literature class, but she had to take it again. Demario didn’t want to take medieval literature, but the class he wanted was not available.
“She said she didn’t notice me, but I think she did. I think she was timing up leaving the classroom at the same time,” he says with a laugh. They started walking to their cars together after class, and he told her about some campus ministries he participated in.
“God had been dealing with me on entering a deeper relationship with Him, but I didn’t know exactly what that looked like,” Tamela says.
“(We’d say) ‘I want my spouse to be like this,’ or ‘I want this many kids,’” Demario recalls. “And we were just talking like friends — or I was. Maybe Tamela was lining it up.
“(One day) the lightbulb kind of clicked: ‘This is your wife.’ So at that point, we had probably been friends for like a month and a half …. I invited her out to be my date for Valentine’s. I really wanted to just gauge and see if there was something there.”
See if this sounds like someone who’s just gauging interest:
“I had to agree to be his Valentine for the whole weekend,” Tamela says. Though she was unsure of his intentions, he was a perfect gentleman. The multi-day date involved dinner out, events on campus, a couple’s massage, a “sing-a-gram,” roses and a letter.
“Then he took me to (a rooftop) and we danced to some of my favorite songs that he had heard me talk about,” she says, laughing.
“It was very overwhelming. … I was very shocked, very overwhelmed with how much of a gentleman he really was.”
That’s when Demario noticed his shirt getting wet.
“(I asked) ‘Why are you crying?’” he recalls. “It wasn’t just tears. She was sobbing. (She said) ‘I’m just really happy.’”
She was also afraid, she says. Afraid this dream-come-true would end, and that he would be “someone else’s prince.”
Demario consulted some of his “spiritual sisters on campus” afterward, he says. They told him, “You definitely did too much.”
Lesson learned. But he was still pursuing Tamela, or Tam, as he calls her. He just needed confirmation that her relationship with God was authentic. That didn’t take long.
Later that month, while attending a conference that Demario had told her about, Tamela says, “I just feel like the scales were just kind of removed from my eyes.
“(God told me) ‘You’ve been living a life for yourself … you’ve been extremely religious and looked down on other people. … but you have not lived your life just sold-out completely for Me. … Do you want to love Me and serve Me and be My disciple, or do you want to have one foot in and one foot out?’”
She chose surrender.
Tamela and Demario kept dating, and in May he asked her to be his girlfriend. On Christmas Eve, he proposed. The following July, they were married, just a few months after he was drafted into the NFL.
‘The F Word’
The New York Jets picked Demario in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft. After playing five seasons with the Jets and one with the Cleveland Browns, the linebacker became a free agent and signed a three-year contract with the Saints in March 2018.
Along the way, he and Tamela have had four children: Bailey-Grace, 7; Roman-Parker, 5; Summer-Joy, 4; and Carly-Faith, 1.
While living on mission as an NFL wife, Tamela has learned not to rely on her own strength.
“I think one of the hardest parts for me was realizing that I can’t save anybody,” she says. “You can do all of these things, and you can get them to come to Bible study, to go do these community service projects … but until they make a conscious choice … “
While being a witness and letting the Holy Spirit do the rest, Tamela also writes about four “F”s — faith, family, football and food — on her blog, “The F Word,” which she launched just under a year ago.
She blogs about everything from cooking to homeschooling, and offers a transparent look at her walk with God, “to display just who I am in Christ and all that He’s showing me, through my faithfulness and my unfaithfulness,” she says.
Before this reporter can ask the next question, Demario interjects:
“Well let me brag on her a little bit, because she’s being extra modest.” He praises Tamela’s maturity, organizational skills, and definitely her cooking. More importantly, he says she’s not only a blogger, but “a pillar for women” — and men, too.
“A lot of times my friends get to talking to Tam and they forget I’m even in the room. And it comes really because of her faith. Her prayer life is so deep,” he says.
“If she prays for something, it’s going to happen. Something will change in me and I’ll be like, ‘You’ve been praying for me, haven’t you?’”
‘Hey coach, can we talk about this?’
The Davises know they are fortunate. Not every kid from Walnut Grove gets a master’s. Not every errant athlete is given grace.
“If my coaches didn’t pay my bail, because I was in a prosperous football program — $10,000 bail, I didn’t have that money, my mom didn’t have that money — I could’ve been locked in jail for months, which could’ve really changed the trajectory of my life, when you really look at the psychology of what happens to people (behind bars),” Demario says.
With that in mind, and with a shared passion for discipleship, mentorship, entrepreneurship and education, Demario and Tamela run the Devoted Dreamers Foundation in metro Jackson, focusing mostly on 7th- through 12th-graders.
“Our goal in Devoted Dreamers is — why did it have to be that I got to college (before) I had that mentor (who led me to Christ)? Why couldn’t it happen in middle school or high school?” Demario says.
“You can know how to manage your resources and be an entrepreneur, but then if you don’t have that intimate relationship with Christ, then it still changes the trajectory of your life,” Tamela says.
“(Devoted Dreamers is) almost a one-stop shop, where you’re able to get (education and character development), but also you’re able to have that exposure to what it looks like to pursue Christ, and you get to see that from us, and we have a chaplain in all our departments.
“We’re just spitting it to them raw in ways that we didn’t experience (at that age),” she says. “Some of the kids don’t always have the best home environment, or the best environment at school. (At Devoted Dreamers) you will be loved unconditionally, but you will also be challenged … in ways that you might not be (otherwise).”
Devoted Dreamers typically holds a mentorship program from January to June, a summer camp, a spiritual conference, a one-day football camp, and a fundraising gala. Due to COVID, everything they did this year was virtual, Tamela says, including the conference, a back-to-school event, and monthly video chats with the kids.
“We’re checking on grades, things that they have going on. And then the kids have kind of developed those kind of relationships (with us) where they can just call Demario and say, ‘Hey coach, can we talk about this?’”
Yes, it’s that personal.
“We believe that you will see the most impact where they’re able to see our lives firsthand,” she says.
Man of God
In September 2019, the NFL fined Demario just over $7,000 for wearing a headband displaying the words “MAN OF GOD” during a game. Actually, he’d been wearing it since pre-season, and didn’t fully understand the rule prohibiting it.
Surprised by the fine, he posted on Instagram and asked fans whether he should keep wearing the headband. They rallied to his defense, and the NFL rescinded the penalty.
Demario gave the money he would’ve paid the league — plus proceeds from sales of the headbands, which he made available to buy online — to St. Dominic Hospital in Jackson, where his mother worked for more than 20 years as a cytotechnologist. That money added up to $150,000 — which was then matched, for a total of $300,000 for St. Dominic’s new emergency program.
Now he’s taking the Man of God brand in a new direction.
“We’re doing Man of God, Woman of God (and) Child of God masks (for COVID), and those proceeds will go to the families of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd,” he says. He believes approximately $50,000 had been raised at last count.
This is just one way Demario has poured out his time, talents and resources to address racial and criminal injustice. He is also a member of the Players’ Coalition, which exists to end social injustices and racial inequality. While the Devoted Dreamers Foundation reaches kids themselves, the Players’ Coalition works to create a more equitable world for those kids.
“The system has to be fixed,” he says.
Victory in adversity (and a really weird year)
In January, Demario released a book called “The Unsuccessful Champion.”
If the title makes you do a double-take, he explains: “My life has been marked by almost getting there a lot of times, and then falling short.”
From playing on an undefeated Little League team, then losing the championship, to making the playoffs twice with the Saints, but not the Super Bowl, that theme of “almost” runs throughout Demario’s sports career.
“If you know you can’t achieve something, it’s kind of easier to accept. But when you know you can, and you get close and you don’t, that can be devastating,” he says.
“But once I found my relationship with Christ, I realized I was a champion before I ever started. I could have that (worldly) success … and still be a loser, and still feel like a failure, because I’m looking for that stuff to gratify. But no, I’m a champion … in Him. Once my day is done on this planet, I’ll hear, ‘Well done, My good and faithful servant.’”
The book’s subtitle, “Finding Victory in Adversity,” is especially apt for this year. COVID-19 has brought plenty of adversity, along with circumstances that are less traumatic but just plain irritating — like seeing fewer fans in the stadiums, and not being able to stand too close to your teammates for too long at practice.
“Football and COVID don’t go together,” Demario says with a laugh, after detailing the many (many!) protocols the Saints have in place. But he is trusting God to keep him focused, and seeking His wisdom to keep him and his family healthy.
Whether it’s a pandemic, a uniform violation, or the much more personal trial of handing his baby girl over to a surgeon, Demario knows God will work all things together for his good. One of his favorite scriptures is Romans 8:28, which says just that.
For Tamela, John 15:5 is especially important. That’s when Jesus tells the disciples to abide in Him as branches in a vine — a fitting picture of how she and her husband have sought to live their lives. Her explanation is a good reminder for all of us:
“In order for me to bear fruit, I must abide in the vine. Apart from God, I’m incapable, I cannot do anything. So I’m just constantly reminding myself of why I should always be humble and sitting at His feet.”