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Mike Davis reflects on the places that shaped him 
Davis and Kris Rhim drove through Davis' neighborhood in West Atlanta, stopping at the places that impacted Davis before recognizing him as the Falcons' Walter Payton Man of the Year.
By Kris Rhim Dec 07, 2021

Mike Davis still remembers the championships he won while playing at English Park and Grove Park as a member of the Bankhead Jaguars youth football team. He's excited to show a photo of a trophy, which he somehow still has, from when he was named the MVP of one of those championships. Davis remembers walking each day from where he lived at the Hollywood Court Developments to W.J. Scott Elementary School. He made some of his best memories in the school's cafeteria, library, and gymnasium.

But he also remembers the violence that surrounded him.

On his first day moving into the Hollywood Court Developments, there was a drive-by shooting. Instead of orange peels and energy drinks following his youth football games, there were routine shootings and arguments between spectators betting on games.

Davis smiles, and even laughs, when he talks about those things now, seemingly as a way to distance himself from the pain that comes with reliving those traumatic moments. The ever-present violence served as a daily reminder for Davis of who he didn't want to be.

"It made me want to be different," Davis said. "I used to tell myself, 'I don't want to be another statistic.' I wanted to live better. Not just for myself, but for my family. I wanted everything to be different. I didn't want to be a typical person on the block. I wanted to be somebody different. I wanted everything to change."

Now in his seventh NFL season, things have certainly changed for Davis. Money is no longer an issue for him and his family, his daughter does not have to worry about constant violence as he did, and he is playing for his hometown team.

While Davis is living the life he always dreamed about, he hasn't forgotten about his community.

Through his charity, the Mike Davis Foundation of Hope, Davis has hosted a free youth football camp each summer since 2018 at Frederick Douglass High School in West Atlanta. In Davis' first camp as a Falcon, over 200 kids participated. Davis also hosted a back-to-school shopping event at Walmart for local students in need of school supplies.

Davis is committed to helping in the community because he wants to be the person he never had growing up.

Not just someone who donates money or shows up every once in a while. Davis wants to be a resource for kids growing up like he did. A living example that kids can see, ask for advice and understand that their circumstance does not determine who they can be.

"I want to impact them life-wise and let them know, 'Your life matters,'" Davis said. "'What you do can determine the future, so think outside the box. You don't have to live in a small box because of where you grew up and how things are going in life. Never give up."

Because of his efforts serving the community, Davis was selected as the Falcons representative for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award. The award recognizes an NFL player for his excellence on and off the field. The winner receives $250,000 donated to the charity of their choice, and all 31 nominees receive up to $40,000 donated to their charity.

Ron Gartrell, Davis' coach for his final three years of high school, gave Davis the news that he was the Falcons nominee.

"Growing up here, man, I would have never thought I would be up for this award," Davis said while wiping tears from his face. "It means a lot, man. It just makes me want to continue to give back to the community."

Before receiving the news of his nomination, Davis and I spent the day together driving around the Westside of Atlanta, where he grew up. We visited places Davis had not seen in years, from the football fields and people that shaped him into the player he is today, to his elementary school and first high school.

Davis got distracted multiple times during our conversation. Constantly turning his head as far right as humanly possible to see out of the Mercedes passenger window as we pass places that Davis had not seen in over a decade.

"Wait, what!? They changed the name of it?" Davis said, confused, not even aware of the question I asked, as we passed by his favorite Chinese food restaurant that had a new name. "You see that? That's crazy! Wait, I forgot what was we talking about?"

Many things look different from what Davis remembers.

The Hollywood Court apartments where he grew up are gone, demolished in 2009, with no evidence of them ever being there. The barbecue restaurant he remembered frequenting is gone. Even the place he calls home on Sundays, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, was not around when he grew up.

Other things haven't changed much. That includes W.J. Scott Elementary, where Davis spent the third through fifth grades. As we enter the school, Davis heads straight to a yellow bulletin board in the hallway. It is designed just as he remembers when he walked the halls almost 20 years ago. Decorated with lists of students' names with perfect attendance, on the honor roll, and on the principal's list, designated for students with straight A's.

Davis remembers always wanting to be on that wall.

"[being on the wall] was the most important thing," Davis recalled, "so you could brag to your friends about having your name on the board. That's what you wanted. You wanted your name to be on the board."

At W.J. Scott, Davis did not yet have dreams of becoming a professional football player. He always knew he wanted to help people. He admired firefighters' work in saving lives, so he figured he would do that. But more than anything else, Davis' loved video games – he still does – and the only way his parents allowed him to play was by staying on the honor roll at school, so he was always on the board.

"Mom's couldn't say nothing to me if I had honor roll!" Davis said with a smile. "No C's. Can't bring them in the house."

The book fair at W.J. Scott was Davis' Super Bowl. There was almost nothing he was more excited for. He still remembered where the library was in the school and even that the numbers on the bookshelves were similar. Davis would come to the book fair and get as many books as he could, specifically the Captain Underpants series, with money that he got from his mom.

Though, she did not always know about the purchases.

"Mom, I'm sorry," Davis says, now looking at the camera, "but when we lived in Hollywood Court, I definitely stole money out your purse to buy books, but it paid off."

As we walk through the hallways, Davis is shocked to see television screens with 3-D technology to aid the students' learning and classrooms with computers and tablets at each desk. He remembers sitting in those chairs, eager to learn and make the honor roll so he could brag to his friends — and play video games, of course.

For Davis, W.J. Scott set the foundation for him academically. It taught him the importance of school and maintaining great grades — an approach that he relied on at each level and he still falls back on today.


Davis and I are standing on the field at Frederick Douglass High School. Davis spent just his freshman year at Frederick Douglass before transferring to Stephenson High School in DeKalb County, Ga. Still, Douglass will always have a special place in his heart, because it is where he realized his potential in football.

"This is where I started thinking I could probably go really far with [football]," Davis said. "This is one of the places where I first started out and realized a lot of my friends didn't want to play football. And I did, so a lot of us went our separate ways."

Davis still remembers the yellow lockers in the Frederick Douglass locker room and the feelings of frustration when he played there. Davis split time between junior varsity and varsity and did not get the playing time he thought he deserved.

The green, yellow, and white turf field looks much different from the grass field laden with dirt patches that he played on. His favorite memory at the field was in a game against Tri-Cities High School when he scored a touchdown. Davis points to the 30-yard line where he juked and got into the end zone right in front of his parents.

As he is taking me through his best plays on the field, Davis pauses and turns his head in the same way he did when we were in the car. It was not because of an old food place he saw or a place he lived, but his high school coach for his final three years at Stephenson, Ron Gartrell, was walking down steps onto the field.

"What are you doing here, man!?" Davis said as the two embraced.

Gartrell is like a father figure for Davis, a person he always wanted to make proud. Gartrell was hard on Davis and the other players at Stephenson in a loving way. He demanded excellence on and off the field. Players could not practice if they did not perform well in the classroom, and through his after-school "Study Table" program, students could not go to practice if their homework was not complete.

Even back then, Gartrell remembers Davis as a giving person.

"I think if somebody needed shoes, he would give them his shoes," Gartrell, who retired after the 2020 season, said. "Somebody needed a helmet. He's the first one to say, 'You can use mine.' He's just a giving guy. A team guy."

So when Gartrell presented Davis with the news that he was the Falcons' Walter Payton Man of the Year, it was a full-circle moment.

"A kid from Bankhead, it just makes me think, who can be the next Mike Davis? Who can be that next person? "Davis said. "My goal is always for kids to know I've been in their shoes and made it out, so you can make it too."

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