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Former Wisconsin RB Anthony Davis’s perspective fuels success

Davis maximized his time at UW to launch a successful career in student affairs.

Ohio State v Wisconsin Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In the summer of 2000, you could hear the loud cracks of pads and helmets ringing from that old, retired seminary in rural Wisconsin. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday were two-a-days. Wednesday and Saturday were scrimmage days. Sunday was a day of rest, and then they were back at the grueling task of preparing for another college football season as the hills echoed the pops of nine-on-seven drills.

Davis, then a freshman tailback out of New Jersey, was struggling to find his place on the Wisconsin football team. Davis felt under-prepared from his high school experience, as his alma mater didn’t offer a complex playbook, a power-lifting program, or strength-and-conditioning.

“I can remember coaches thinking I was a recruiting mistake,” Davis told B5Q by phone last month. “I was eighth-string, ready to transfer. I thought I was never going to play here.”

Davis turned to his uncle, who raised him, for guidance.

“He just told me, ‘You need to stick this out. This is the decision that you made. You need to stand by it and see what happens.’”

Davis did more than stick it out. He earned a spot on Wisconsin’s scout team imitating T.J. Duckett, Anthony Thomas, and other Big Ten running backs. When he started performing well against the starting defense, the coaches could not help but recognize that Davis was a serious ball player.

As a reward for Davis’s persistence, he earned a spot on the traveling roster during his redshirt year and flew to Hawaii with the team. During the trip, he visited Pearl Harbor.

“That was something I’ll never forget,” Davis said. “Those are the things that changed who I was as a man.”

Davis reflects on those early years as a time when he gained perspective and purpose.

“I got to see what it was like to be at the bottom,” he said. “None of this stuff is a given; everything has to be earned. They’re going to get 100 percent effort out of me. I’m going to get my degree; that’s the least I’m going to get from this.”

It’s this perspective that was instrumental in both overcoming adversity and achieving excellence on the field and in the classroom. The next season, Davis would break Tony Dorsett’s record for the most hundred-yard games by a freshman, be named Big Ten newcomer of the year, and earn a spot on the Freshman All-American team.

UW got 100 percent out of Davis, whose 4,676 career rushing yards remain fourth-most in program history, but what did Davis get out of UW?

“Especially when I was at UW, there were a lot of people who poured into me,” Davis said. “Professors, I can remember Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Craig Werner was a great professor for me, a great mentor.”

Dr. Werner, a faculty member in UW-Madison’s department of Afro-American studies, reflected on one classroom experience where Davis made the most of his experience. Dr. Werner was teaching a course about Miles Davis and Billie Holiday. The class demographics were roughly split down the middle with 20 black students and 20 non-black students. Dr. Werner noticed that the discourse in the class was becoming siloed between the black and non-black students.

“Anthony played a crucial role in making sure that people talked to each other rather than around each other,” Dr. Warner said. “It would have been fairly easy for [the students] to withdraw from some difficult, but important, conversations. In part because Anthony had respect from the whole room, he turned what could have been a difficult situation into a real community.”

In addition to Davis’s leadership in the classroom, Dr. Werner was blown away by Davis’s ability to analyze modern hip-hip and rap artists in the context of jazz from the early to mid-20th century. Particularly, Dr. Werner remembers Davis methodically and precisely dispelling the miscategorization of Lil Jon as simply a gangster.

“That is the smartest thing I’ve ever heard an undergraduate say in my class,” Dr. Werner said.

After Davis’s time at UW as an undergrad, he went to play professional football in Canada, and he also taught middle school in the off-season. That is when Davis realized that elementary education was not exactly for him, and he began looking into how to work with student athletes in higher education.

“They are like bigger versions of middle-schoolers,” Davis said with a laugh.

Davis got in touch with Dr. Ladson-Billings and Dr. Werner, who helped fund Davis in grad school at UW with a teaching assistantship and a project assistantship. He also worked part-time with UW athletics and participated in a diversity internship with the Big Ten conference. Through these experiences, Davis’s interests expanded to include both student athlete development and student affairs for non-athletes.

Davis channels what he learned as a student athlete into his career in higher education.

“I tell athletes all the time that we do have a great advantage in terms of discipline and in terms of, most cases, work ethic and in terms of having a team mentality. Those are great skills that get transferred to the workplace.”

That said, there is one thing that Davis had to unlearn, and that is how to communicate in student affairs.

“I had a couple rough moments early on in my student-affairs career where my supervisor, bless her soul, called me into her office,” Davis said. “‘Heeeeeeeyyyyyy, Anthony, I don’t think you can say that to the students. There’s probably a better way to say the same thing.’ That was a transition for sure. I was used to coaches being kind of direct. They didn’t really censor much.”

Reflecting on the state of college football, Davis is glad that wellness is becoming more of a priority around college sports. Davis recalls his redshirt year and the brutal conditions he endured. He also remembers getting concussions and being put right back into the field of play. The only concussion protocol was remembering your name.

Davis is also encouraged that UW is focused on providing better mental-health care for student athletes.

“People are trained to not get help, especially [in] some of the male sports. Male-dominated sports, especially football. Guys are trained to not get help. Getting help is a sign of weakness. Or there is no one equipped to help them. I think one of the things I would love to see is athletic departments build a better relationship with student affairs to the point where coaches could make referrals to the counseling center or mental-health professionals on campus. ‘I got a guy who’s dealing with depression.’

I mean, there are things that can really sink a guy. You’re a three-year starter and a freshman comes in and bumps you; that’s a lot to deal with. We’re all differently equipped to handle those types of situations. I think that they’re moving in the right direction, but I can tell you they’ve come a long way.”

Davis also is a bit wary of the expansion of transfers; he doesn’t want to see the sport lose its amateurism, but he also wants to respect that players have a choice about what will be in their best interests. However, he also is much more bothered by the coaches who leave their teams. The first such situation that bothered him was Brian Kelly leaving Cincinnati.

“He told those players left and right he wasn’t going anywhere,” Davis said. “Lo and behold, he left and went to Notre Dame and didn’t coach them in the bowl game. What type of message does that send to a student athlete? For four years, you’re selling people on your philosophy and what it means to be a part of a team and what it means to contribute. Just like that, you’re gone.”

Right now, Davis is the assistant dean of students and director of student conduct at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. He meets with students when they have made bad life decisions or violated policy, and he works with them and redirects them toward compliance and being a better citizen. As he was gearing up for Halloween and its aftermath, which he endearingly calls “job security weekend,” Davis drew on the same level of perspective he relied on to be successful at UW.

“It’s really a lot of coaching, a lot of mentoring,” Davis said. “You really hold students’ future in your hand. It requires a high level of responsibility; a great deal of perspective is very helpful.”

Davis is also working on his Ph.D. and hopes to be a dean of students and work his way up to a vice president’s role. He hopes to return to working with student athletes, as he sees that as one of his major callings.

“I would like to say that I maximized my undergrad experience,” Davis said.