Ball State QB deflated, not defeated
As draft stock falls, Davis hopes stellar career trumps learning disability, subpar finish
BELLAIRE, Ohio -- Molly Feller didn't want to overburden Nate Davis, but she also wanted to light up a little boy's world.
Feller had known Davis, a standout quarterback at Ball State and a current NFL draft prospect, since the days when Davis spent countless hours as a prep helping her class for physically and mentally disabled kids at Bellaire High School. She knew how much Davis loved being around those children then. She also sensed a return visit might give him a nice break from the scrutiny of the pre-draft process.
Nate Davis file
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So Feller called and asked Davis if he'd be willing to attend the birthday party for an autistic boy. Twenty minutes later, Davis strolled into the classroom with a wide grin. Suddenly, there was no reason for him to fret about all the discouraging reports about his declining draft stock. For the next 90 minutes, all Davis cared about was eating cheese pizza and laughing with a child he'd just met.
"You could see it was a release for him," Feller said. "Nate has always been aware of how other people are struggling in the world and being there helped him keep things in perspective. It let him know that whatever is happening in his own life, things really aren't as bad as they might seem."
Davis didn't show up in that classroom last Friday because he wanted to make a celebrity appearance. He went because he felt a bond with those kids. They might have had more severe issues, but Davis also has spent most of his life dealing with a learning disability. And as the draft approaches, he's hoping teams won't hold that against him when deciding whether to invest in his future.
The past four months have been rough for Davis, 21. When he left Ball State following a record-setting junior season, he seemed destined to follow Ben Roethlisberger, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich as the next great Mid-American Conference quarterback to enter the NFL. Now -- thanks to a couple late-season losses, a mediocre combine showing and a pro day that attracted just one team -- Davis' stock has dropped so fast it feels like somebody has latched a Ford F-150 to it. Some reports project Davis -- who as recently as November was forecasted by some draft gurus as a possible first-round pick -- as a mid- to late-round selection, at best.
But what really might be compromising Davis' draft stock is the issue surrounding his smarts. He has a learning disability (often referred to as LD) that makes it harder for him to learn by reading information. It's a problem that has been documented since he was in junior high school.
"I do have a disability, but it's not an issue in football," he said. "I just learn differently than other people. I'm more of a visual learner."
Some teams will rate him as a third- or fourth-rounder but I just didn't like him very much. Plus, I had a guy tell me he isn't smart enough to play in this league.” -- An AFC assistant coach on Ball State QB Nate Davis
The problem, however, is that Davis hasn't done enough in his pre-draft workouts to mitigate concerns. The 6-foot, 1⅜-inch, 226-pound prospect has a powerful right arm and instinctive feel for the game, but there are fears about how he'll process an NFL playbook.
As one AFC assistant coach said: "Some teams will rate him as a third- or fourth-rounder, but I just didn't like him very much. I love his passion, but it's hard to feel good about a guy with his size who's not a quick-twitch athlete. You'd like to see him have better accuracy or touch or some kind of intangible. I really didn't see that in him. Plus, I had a guy tell me he isn't smart enough to play in this league."
That last remark really peeves Davis and his supporters. He can accept the nitpicking of his physical traits, but Davis fails to understand the notion that he might not grasp an NFL offense. The people who know Davis understand that he's spent the past nine years proving that his learning disability never affected his play. So they argue it shouldn't be such a discouraging red flag at this point in his career.
The Davis camp said teams need to watch more film and see how Davis competed during three record-setting seasons at Ball State.
"His learning disability was never mentioned when Ball State was 12-0 last season and it wasn't mentioned when he was throwing 50-yard strikes at places like Nebraska [in 2007]," said Jose Davis, Nate's older brother and a former quarterback in the Canadian Football League and Arena League. "But now it's apparently a problem."
"I know I can throw the football and I know I can play this game," Davis said. "The big thing for me is staying focused on just being myself and not trying to be something that I'm not. I keep saying this, but I just believe that it only takes one team to fall in love with you. That's all I really think about."
The main reason Davis remains so confident in his ability is that he knows full well what it's like to beat down adversity. He's been doing it since the seventh grade, when his junior high teachers suspected his bad grades were merely the result of laziness.
"I had eight classes when I was in the sixth grade and I came home with seven F's one semester," Davis said. "I did pass gym, though."
Davis' parents, Charles and Linda, eventually discovered that their youngest son didn't have a problem with effort; his reading skills were an issue. Nate would become so frustrated during a test that either time would run out or he would just give up midway through the exam. Charles Davis blames himself for not discovering the issue sooner.
"I was so absorbed with getting him out of [Bellaire] through sports that I didn't realize what needed to be done," Charles said. "I take the blame for that one."
One of the first things Davis' parents did after uncovering the problem was find Nate a tutor named Chris Sampson, a learning disabilities professor who worked at nearby Wheeling Jesuit University. After performing a series of diagnostic tests, Sampson discovered a few key issues: Davis read at a slower rate than average students, struggled with multisyllabic words and needed to improve his writing skills. In other words, the issue wasn't intelligence; it was the way Davis processed information.
Davis had the kind of problem that affects up to 5 percent of the U.S. population (according to studies cited by Sampson) and she created valuable strategies to help him cope. They read books together to improve his vocabulary. They decoded multisyllabic words that gave Davis trouble and broke them down into components that were easier for him to understand. They started out working together twice a week that summer and then continued their sessions -- for at least an hour a week -- as Davis progressed into high school.
"Nate knew he learned differently and that he had to find different methods to learn," said Sampson, who now teaches at Bethany College. "He was always very open to that."
"As soon as I started working with her, I saw that I could do this," Davis said. "It only took a few weeks for me to see the difference."
Davis eventually became a more confident student. He also reached out to other kids as he became a three-time all-state quarterback at Bellaire. Throughout his high school career, he made a point of spending at least a few minutes a day in Feller's class for disabled kids, many of whom dealt with issues like autism. When Davis wasn't in the classroom, he'd slap high-fives with the students in the hallways and eat lunch with them in the school cafeteria.
One day, Feller told a child who was causing problems in class that she was going to tell Nate about the trouble. Once Davis spoke to the boy, the issues never came up again.
"Most high school kids look at kids like these and only see the differences," Feller said. "It scares them and they don't know how to react to the [disabled kids]. Nate was the total opposite. He made it cool to hang around with these kids."
Said Davis: "I just liked working with handicapped kids. My belief is that you shouldn't be ashamed of the gifts God gave you. Some people were born with an ability to read better than me. I was given a gift to throw a football. But I also know that if I have to work harder at something I'm not good at, then I'm willing to do whatever it takes."
Davis had that same attitude when he became a freshman starter at Ball State. The Cardinals' coaches say that Davis never struggled to pick up the offense during his freshman season. Stan Parrish -- then the Cardinals' offensive coordinator and now Ball State's head coach -- simply spent more time explaining his system through film and diagramming plays on a board. Senior quarterback Joey Lynch helped fill in the blanks whenever Davis seemed confused.
Davis does admit that it wasn't until early in his sophomore season that he felt completely comfortable in the system -- "I was just playing backyard football as a freshman," he said. Still, he managed to impress people as he learned.
As a true freshman in 2006 against Eastern Michigan, Davis threw three touchdown passes as a backup in his first game. He made his first start in the fifth game of the season, throwing for four scores against Northern Illinois. On Nov. 4 in the Big House, Davis led the five-touchdown underdog Cardinals to within a hair of upsetting then No. 2-ranked Michigan. The Wolverines escaped with a 34-26 victory, but only after Davis failed to complete a fourth-and-goal pass from the Michigan 7 in the final three minutes.
As a sophomore, Davis set school records with 3,667 passing yards and 30 touchdown passes while remaining just as focused off the field. He had tutors for every class, extra time for tests and he often had his course work tape-recorded so he could listen to it at home.
"It was important for him to succeed," said former Ball State head coach Brady Hoke, who now coaches at San Diego State. "He had the same competitiveness on the field that he had in the classroom."
Davis' 2008 season was so magical -- he led Ball State to a 12-0 start while also earning MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors -- that it still baffles people as to why he seemingly has regressed the past four months.
Davis' problems started against Buffalo in the MAC Championship game, Hoke's last game before he left for his current job at San Diego State (Parrish replaced Hoke as head coach).
A flu-ridden Davis played poorly in that 42-24 loss Dec. 5 to the Bulls. A month later in the GMAC Bowl against Tulsa, Davis was less than stellar in a 45-13 loss. In the span of those contests, Davis fumbled an astounding eight times. Davis dismisses the showings as merely rare instances of poor performance.
"He had a nice reputation until the end of last year," said an AFC personnel director of Davis. "But that conference championship game and that bowl game probably left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths. When you have those kinds of problems on a big stage, it can create a lot of doubts in people's minds."
After declaring himself eligible for the draft -- a decision prompted by Hoke's decision to accept the San Diego State job -- Davis then ran into more trouble at the NFL combine. He spent five weeks training in Tampa and bulked up to the point that he was 226 pounds in Indianapolis, roughly nine pounds more than he weighed in college. That extra weight contributed to Davis' running an uninspiring 40-yard dash in 4.95 seconds at the combine.
He also struggled with his passing. After playing his entire college career with a glove on his throwing hand, he tried to show scouts that he could pass just as easily without that accessory.
Still, as difficult as those moments were, Davis felt optimistic about his pro prospects.
"I didn't lose my confidence," said Davis, who said he took the Wonderlic test without any special accomodations. "I just knew I had to prove myself to people again."
Unfortunately, that opportunity didn't come on Ball State's pro day. Nobody associated with Davis -- not his family, his agent Joel Segal, Parrish or anyone else at Ball State -- can explain why only one scout attended the Cardinals' showcase for Davis and other prospects. At least 10 league personnel experts were expected to be on the Muncie, Ind., campus to see Davis, whom several NFL talent hunters were touting as a possible first-round pick in November 2008.
Indianapolis Colts quarterbacks coach Frank Reich was the only scout to see Davis during the March 20 pro day, and that's likely because of Muncie's proximity to Indianapolis.
To his credit, Davis didn't let that embarrassment distract him as he threw 70 passes to his former Cardinals teammates that afternoon.
"I wasn't disappointed even though I was expecting more people. I just needed to stay focused," Davis said.
But after the event, Davis walked over to his father with a confused look in his eyes.
"Dad," he said, "I can't believe only one team showed up for this."
"That hurt me," said Charles Davis. "Because I know if he was thinking that after it was over, he had to be thinking that when it started."
Now I realize Ball State isn't the NFL but I haven't been around a quarterback with better pocket presence than Nate. And I recruited Tom Brady to Michigan when I was there.” -- Brady Hoke, former Ball State head coach now at San Diego State, on Nate Davis
The hard part for Davis now is that he has no other opportunities to impress scouts on the field. If he had shown them the kind of athleticism and refined passing he displayed during much of his career at Ball State, he might have been considered in the same company as more highly touted quarterbacks like Georgia's Matt Stafford, USC's Mark Sanchez and Kansas State's Josh Freeman. Instead, he gave teams more reason to start wondering about his mental acumen.
It hasn't been easy for Davis' family and friends to hear that talk questioning his ability to grasp an NFL offense.
Said Hoke: "If you put anybody on the right team and in the right system, they're going to be successful. I'm sure there have been other quarterbacks who've played in the NFL with the same kind of disability that Nate has. But the kid learns visually as well as anybody. That matters as a quarterback because once you take the snap, it's all vision and feel after that point. Now I realize Ball State isn't the NFL but I haven't been around a quarterback with better pocket presence than Nate. And I recruited Tom Brady to Michigan when I was there."
Added Parrish: "Nate is a quick learner. I've had guys who were straight-A students who've had a hard time learning this system because it's a pro offense with pro terminology. It's just a matter of getting on the same page with him. That's why we haven't swept anything under the rug with this. Not everybody who comes into that league is going to be like the kid from Boston College [Atlanta Falcons quarterback and NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Matt Ryan]. But Nate has a great upside as a passer. He can do some things you can't teach."
The key thing that Davis keeps hearing from his supporters is how important it is for him to stay focused on what might happen next. That, by the way, doesn't appear to be a hard task for him. He's both highly optimistic and competitive. He doesn't dwell on adversity.
"The biggest thing Nate has going for him is his ability to throw the football," said former NFL quarterback Steve DeBerg, who worked with Davis in Tampa, Fla. "He can throw the ball as well as anybody. And all I know is that it's easier to teach somebody who to throw the ball to than to teach them how to throw it."
Plus, Davis already knows he's beaten tougher obstacles in the past. That's why he's still looking forward to having family and friends over for a little party on draft weekend April 25-26. Regardless of how long it takes for the phone to ring that weekend, he expects to celebrate one thing: an opportunity to play at the next level.
"I'm willing to do whatever it takes," Davis said. "I don't care if I'm a first-round guy or if I have to come in as a free agent. All I want is a chance."
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
2009 NFL Draft