BERKELEY, Calif. – Rulon Davis knows the drill – it's as much a part of his draft preparation as lifting weights and shuttling between cones. More than perhaps any other current NFL prospect, the former Cal defensive end gets quizzed by potential employers about his time on the front lines. In his case, the phrasing is non-metaphorical.
"I've been asked about going to war countless times, and I pretty much have the whole spiel prepared by now," says Davis, a probable second-day selection who served more than three years in the Marines, including a six-month tour in and around Fallujah, before playing college football. "People ask, 'How was Iraq?' I'm thinking, 'What do you think it was like? It was the greatest place on earth.'
"I mean, it was hot and miserable … the closest thing to being in captivity that I can imagine, only with people shooting at you."
In a sport in which the word toughness is used as the ultimate compliment, Davis, 25, has proven his on a scale much grander than the gridiron. Not only did he emerge unscathed from Iraq, where he says he routinely dodged gunfire on helicopter missions, but he also proved to be insanely sturdy in the scariest of non-combat settings.
In 2005, less than a year after returning from Iraq, where he served as an avionics technician, Davis was thrown from his motorcycle and run over by a truck on a Los Angeles freeway. "That's the closest to death I've ever gotten," recalls Davis, who scurried underneath a semi on Interstate 10 and felt the rear tires pass over his legs. "I wish that kind of pain on no man. I thought the bones in my legs were shattered."
Amazingly, none of his bones were broken, nor had he torn any tendons or ligaments. Viewed in this context, Davis seems like football's answer to David Dunn, Bruce Willis' indestructible character in M. Night Shyamalan's 2000 film "Unbreakable."
Yet NFL talent evaluators are far less romantic, and the 6-foot-5, 281-pounder's steady list of ailments is surely hurting his stock. Projected to go somewhere between the fourth and seventh rounds, Davis held up to the scrutiny of the NFL scouting combine, working out for team officials and enduring a lengthy battery of medical tests.
Davis was not called back for a medical re-check at the combine, which seemed to indicate that the bone he broke in his left foot last fall has fully healed. On his doctor's orders, Davis nonetheless took the following month off (declining to work out at Cal's pro day in March) to ensure that he wouldn't put undue stress on the foot. That injury cost him five games of his senior season; knee, foot and leg ailments swallowed up half of his sophomore and junior campaigns.
"The biggest question with the kid is his health," one NFL player personnel director says of Davis. "He's what you're looking for physically – a big, strong, intense guy – and he does have some talent. He ran five-flat in the 40, which is pretty good for a big guy, and he has 36½-inch arms – that's just unbelievable. But he's been hurt every year, and that's definitely a consideration."
Among the teams thought to be considering drafting Davis are the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants, New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers. (Davis' agent, Steve Caric, says 20 teams in all have called to express interest.) With experience playing as an end in both 4-3 and 3-4 schemes, Davis has shown an ability to be stout at the point of attack while mixing in the occasional spectacular play. He had four sacks, two forced fumbles and 5½ tackles for loss in nine games last season.
Davis thoroughly enjoyed his time in Berkeley, where he double-majored in sociology and African-American studies, but the nastiness he displayed on the field sometimes carried over to interactions with teammates and coaches. "I get human, man," he says. "When the situation deems necessary, I'm pretty much a straight shooter. I have to watch myself. I can be really intimidating to people because of my size."
The defensive end had a somewhat chilly relationship with coach Jeff Tedford. He also bristled when players asked if the team's hot summer training camp was as grueling as a Marine boot camp.
"It sounded ridiculous to me," Davis says. "I just got annoyed. Guys were complaining about two-a-days – I get it, it's mentally draining – but trust me, man, there's no comparison."
Teammates still marvel at the tantrum Davis threw last September at an Oakland hotel the night before the Bears traveled east for a game at Maryland, a tirade which required the intervention of one of Tedford's assistants to calm him down.
"All of us were really hungry after practice," Davis explains, "and the [caterer] ran out of burgers. About 20 or 25 of us were standing around for 30 minutes, and they brought out about six or seven more. It was all bad."
Then again, it's all relative, as Davis would be the first to concede. He learned that lesson from his father, Lorenzo, a Marine who had his own brush with death before Rulon was born.
"The day before he was supposed to leave for Vietnam, he was shot in the neck by his sister's husband at the time," Rulon says. "It was a fluke situation. The bullet's still in his neck a centimeter from his spine. Then again, if he would've gone to Vietnam, I probably wouldn't be here."
Rulon, who attended military school in the eighth and ninth grade, tried to join the Marines out of high school but was turned away because he was under 18. He waited until his birthday and was in boot camp when the world changed on Sept. 11, 2001. "We heard the news about the attacks, and our drill sergeant was telling us, 'You're gonna die. You're gonna die,' " Davis recalls. "It was crazy. All of us were scared 18-year-olds."
Davis wasn't deployed in Iraq until March of 2004, serving in Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 775. "My world just kind of came apart when I got that call that I was going over," he says. "We got over there and it was 135 [degrees] in the shade, and the MREs [meals, ready to eat] were just horrible; that stuff makes you constipated. I was running around scared like a little girl, ducking and dodging. I didn't have to discharge [my weapon], thank God. But I came way too close to getting shot, and when I got sent home I was very grateful."
Now Davis, on a recent weekday morning, is enjoying a hearty breakfast at Rick and Ann's, a bustling eatery near Berkeley's famed Claremont Hotel. As Caric plots out his client's itinerary for the day, the former soldier looks ahead to what he hopes will be a fulfilling NFL future.
"I'm excited about what I can do," Davis says. "One thing the Marine Corps has given me is mental toughness. I've been in situations where a lot of people would probably give up, and I just keep going and going. I don't know my own limitations. That's what I've been trained to do – adapt and overcome. I don't understand, 'I can't.'
"All I want is a chance. I know I'll make the most of it."
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"There's this guy named Jay Cutler. He was sort of traded to the Bears from Denver. You should look into that because the Bears no longer have the 18th pick in the first round. It must be hard to keep up with all these moves, huh?"
There's this guy named Matt Mustain. He was sort of warned that the Ultimate Mock Draft would follow the original draft order. You should look into that because you no longer can avoid embarrassment on a grand scale. It must be hard to keep up with … well, everything, huh?
"The Bears traded the No. 18, so you need to at least put a Broncos logo next to that pick."
I should put a Patrick Star logo next to this email.
"The article says it was written April 17th, is there any reason why you still have the Bears picking 18th?"
Uh huh …
"Did the Bears get the 18th pick back and still get to keep Cutler! Wake up!"
Joe, when you listen to Nirvana's "In Utero" CD, do you immediately skip to the sixth track?
"Christ, you've topped yourself with that 'Off the Wall'/NAACP crack about McNabb – hilarious! Thanks as always for the laughs – it's so fun to furrow my brow in exasperation at some of your UMD choices and then realize, 'Hey dumbass, it's just a fantasy draft, don't take it so seriously.' Yes, I work at home [editor], so I can say things like that aloud to myself. And also, I don't care how old he is, I'm always picking Dan Marino first. Best."
Thanks for setting yourself straight.
"I think you may have spent too much time at Cal. The fumes from the rest of the hippies has gotten you high. No way any team would draft Jay Cutler before Philip Rivers. Better win percentage and higher QB rating. Stop smoking the lawn."
I think what you really mean is, "Stop talking to personnel people who think Jay Cutler is more valuable than Philip Rivers." For what it's worth, I'm a fan of both quarterbacks. And I don't think those fumes emanating from the hippies are what you think they are – it might just be old-fashioned b.o.
"Did you really put Mark Sanchez in the first round of a mock super draft! Let's be honest, he would have a tough time even starting on two-thirds of the NFL teams right now. The list of better and more qualified players is long and staggering. Pick any team and I could name at least three more deserving. Your draft has many flaws. Maybe you should start over and try to use some commen sense this time. Wow, did you really. They'll let anybody have a voice these days. Mock draft, more like mocked up draft."
Really? I should try to use some COMMEN sense? How about common sense? Just a thought.
"This is the worst format i have ever read in my life. Are you 10 years old? Stop wasting peoples time with this non sens!! please!!"
From "commen" sense to "non sens" … that's how we roll here at Trippin' headquarters.
"I cant beleive that you put Mark Sanchez on this list what a idiot."
Hi, I'm Johnny from Washington. I'm going to write a 14-word email calling a writer an idiot. And I'm going to spell 11 of them correctly. Thanks for listening …
"I refuse to believe that Andre Johnson wouldn't even be drafted while Larry Fitzgerald goes No. 1. No injury concerns in the world would push him out of the top 10 if Fitz is going first. You have a crush on the Cardinals. Loser."
Actually, since it's my Ultimate Mock Draft and you're getting all hot and bothered about a hypothetical exercise, I'd say that I'm looking a bit more like the winner in this equation. As for your complaint: Johnson and Steve Smith were the other receivers I considered putting in the top 32, but receiver, in general, isn't a position on which teams would place a premium in such a scenario – Fitzgerald being an obvious exception.
"Chicago doesn't pick 18th! Kidding. I can agree that Larry Fitzgerald is arguably the best receiver in the NFL, but undeniably? I don't see how you can leave Andre Johnson out of that conversation. They had similar numbers (outside of TDs, I'd say AJ's were better), but Mr. Johnson didn't have a hall of fame quarterback throwing to him. Yes, I understand that Fitzgerald had to share catches with [Anquan] Boldin and [Steve] Breaston while Johnson was competing with Kevin Walter, but I'm still not buying the 'undeniably' part of what you're selling. As a bonus, they both seem to possess excellent character. I'd call it a push at best. And yes – although my heart belongs to the Cleveland Browns, I have a huge man-crush on Andre Johnson. By the way, liking Pearl Jam doesn't make you a geek. It makes you correct. And not liking the Dave Matthews Band just confirms that you have fully functioning earholes. Love your stuff, keep up the good work."
U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo.
My earholes are fully functioning, but after reading some of the "non sens" in some of these other emails, my eyes are rolling back in my head.
"Re: Ultimate Mock Draft I realize there are lots of great players in the NFL, and that you only included one WR in the draft, but how can you not include Calvin Johnson? It would be understandable for most people to have overlooked a Lion last year, but as a sports writer you must have noticed the way he dominated secondaries. even with five QBs throwing him passes on the season. To top it off he is the anti-diva, he's a great kid who works hard and lets his game film do the talking. The idea that not one team in the league would build around him is ludicrous. It is your draft, but I strongly object! (and yes, I am a lowly Lions fan)"
I think Johnson has a chance to be a huge star, but it's tough to confer that status upon anyone associated with the stench of 0-16. If things go the way I expect them to in '09, I suspect Johnson will be in next year's UMD.
"Mr. Silver, it's the fifth year of your mock draft and I still do not understand the rules you set for yourself in making the picks. Are the current rosters intact? If so then why do you have the Saints and the Vikings picking players they already have? Is this some sort of protective move that stops later teams from choosing those players? Or is your opinion of the Vikes front office so low that you envision that after losing their all-star RB [Adrian Peterson] and DE [Jared Allen] they would respond by picking a player already on the team? I wouldn't put it past them myself."
Yes, it's some sort of a protective move (as rosters are still intact), and no, my opinion of the Vikes' front office isn't that low. But it's not that high, either.
"The absence of James Harrison in ur ultimate draft was a tremendous gaffe, Michael. In absolutely no way possible can so many DEs and LBs be preferable than the DPOY/best SB Defense play ever made James Harrison. By also analyzing ur downgrade to Big Ben and Polamalu, I'm wondering if you have personal issues with the Steelers."
Sao Paulo, Brazil
I'm wondering if you have eyesight issues: Take a look at who I had the Patriots picking at No. 23. Might be time to take a refresher Evelyn Wood course.
"Thanks for the ode to John Madden. I so love that song, and I have so loved watching and listening to John Madden since long before I was a sweet young thang all those years ago. He loves food without pretense. He loves football likewise. He never wanted to be regarded as the all-knowing football authority, the sage, the smartest guy on the network or in the booth. He loved the game and sharing it with his audience. Bless that man!"
Fort Collins, Colo.
Loves food without pretense – I like the way you write (though I'm a little confused as to whether you're still a "sweet young thang.")
"Once again spot-on writing. Thank you for being maybe the only NFL writer who actually admits that the schedule means little as the unpredictability of the NFL is outrageous. I happened to catch some of ESPN's finest getting 'wood' over all these potentially great matchups last night. Pathetic. Please never sell out to ESPN if you have the chance, you are better than that."
If all goes well, I'll be locked up in the Y! Sports party mansion for a long, long time.
"Enjoyed the article about the release of the NFL schedule being way over blown. As with anything that ESPN is involved it, that is ALWAYS the case. Keep up the good work!"
If you people think I'm going to stand by while you bash ESPN incessantly … well, you're probably right.
"O, the irony … some right-wing nitwit whines about the ongoing Bush-bashing, in the middle of his email, descends into Carter bashing. Of course, you can bet that guy regularly – probably even daily – engages in constant Clinton bashing. I don't like Obama's policies, but I'm a Libertarian, so I can't be expected to. But as a national leader, I think he's currently head-shoulders over the incompetent GOP clowns we just turned out."
San Jose, Calif.
If you people think I'm going to stand by while you … .
"Hey Mike, I love the column, particularly weekly proof of da Golden Bears' awesomeness, but I want to make sure you throw out some love to the Cal Bears men's rowing team that defeated [previously No. 1 ranked] UW, Stanford, and other perennial rowing powers this past weekend at the San Diego Crew Classic. Keep up the good work!"
The Bears definitely have it going on in both men's and women's crew, and I expect that to continue into June.
"This is possibly the best marching band show I've ever seen, you know, outside of my high school band's rendition of Cats!"
Coincidentally, my friends and I are often in "Old School" mode at football games.
" 'That sucks, dude' in response to the Colorado College player losing his team and the chance to go to another? Pitiful, completely irresponsible, and illiterate. You're a bloody writer, for criminey's sake. There were acceptable minor swear words before 'sucks' become popular vernacular. Yes, it is your fault all that was before your time or readings! Beyond that, he wrote you for help from his love of his active sport and the best you could reply with was, and I quote from memory [to quote Mark Steyn], 'Oh suck it up, at least you're not a Bronco.' So, if you're a highly paid Bronco getting paid to play, even if for a badly run team, you are worthy of concern, but if you are a Div. III player tossed over and out of the game by an uncaring Admin, what's you're problem? I'd say you are one for SI's 'The Apocalypse is Upon Us' but I think they are too far over the edge to catch you on their radar. Shame."
Here I thought I was doing something nice – drawing attention to a subject that most readers of this column otherwise probably wouldn't know about – and suddenly I'm shameful for not writing a more elaborate response? Wow. Look, I'm happy to field and answer many of your emails, but please don't confuse me with Dr. Phil. You're reading way too much into a response that was pretty cut-and-dry, and you'll be happy to know that the person for whom it was intended seems to have taken it in its proper spirit …
"Hey Michael, Thanks for posting my email in your article last week. Really means a lot! I've already had some people reach out to me with their sympathies and offers to help. Recently we've begun fundraising and we've reached the goal of $750,000 that was requested of us, but since we reached that goal the president of our school has informed us that we need to raise $20 million! Needless to say, it's obvious this is a fight they do not want us to win, and it has become obvious that this is just as much about us being the only real blue-collar guys on a very white-collar campus. So as we continue the fight, it seems we are fighting a battle that we are not destined to win, but we will continue to apply what we have learned on the field in this battle. Regardless, I wanna thank you again for your support. Again, keep up the great work, and I will continue to follow your column."
Colorado Springs, Colo.
Thanks, and I'm sorry to hear that you were told to come up with another $19.25 million after the fact. I'm sure it is very, very frustrating, and I hope you folks get to take it out on various opponents at some point in the near future.
" 'Reading Football Club, you are really starting to annoy me.' You are now officially a soccer fan, doesn't count until you start to build a real love/hate relationship with your team. Glad to have you on board."
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Thanks. As a Cal fan, I've had years of training. And don't get me started on my kids' soccer teams …
- Rulon Davis