TAKES UNLIKELY ROUTE TO PRIMETIME
Football “Nerd” from New Paltz a True Student of the Game
Tune your television to College Football on FOX on Saturday nights this season and you’ll see a prepared, confident and knowledgeable lead game analyst in Charles Davis. What you won’t see, though, is how the former University of Tennessee defensive back from a tiny New York town found his way to center stage.
Born in Elizabethton, Tenn., Davis was two years old when his family relocated to New Paltz, N.Y., a dot on the map about 80 miles north of New York City. He traces his initial interest in football to his father, Franklin, a high school football and basketball coach, and the weekly college showdown piped through his family television set.
“There was no cable back then, so we watched whatever appeared on our three channels, be it the college football game of the week, the NFL game or whatever else came across,” Davis recalled. “But I became really hooked on the game more through reading about it and devouring every article I could get my hands on. Although I was a jock in school, I also was a bit of a nerd — a strange dichotomy.”
Childhood inspiration came early and effortlessly for the high school football, basketball and baseball standout, who points to one history-making player as the lone reason he pledged his allegiance to the Tennessee Volunteers early in life.
“I became a Tennessee fan from watching their black quarterback, Condredge Holloway,” Davis recalled. “Not only was he the first black starting quarterback at UT; he was the first in the SEC, as well. Even at age eight, I knew how highly unusual that was.”
Equally rare was a player of Davis’ athletic aptitude in sleepy New Paltz, population 3,000 at the time. Davis says his formative years never invoked dreams of playing in college because “we didn’t even know what a Division I player looked like in my hometown.” That is, of course, until Davis began smashing records and garnering headlines of his own.
“My aspirations were local in the beginning; my goals were ‘New Paltz goals’,” he explained. “Although we saw all the college players on TV, for me it was about the legends from my school. I wanted to be those upperclassmen my dad had coached who let me carry their helmets or round up basketballs after a game. I knew there was a bigger world out there because I had read all about it, but I couldn’t talk to or reach out and touch those guys.”
Davis, however, reached out to Tennessee with a letter asking for an evaluation, which was granted. He graduated high school in 1982 and went on to become a four-year starter at defensive back at Tennessee, earning a political science degree and subsequently a master’s in history. In 1986, he was named to the Academic All-SEC team.
Unfortunately, commencement exercises and the optimism they invoke also marked the culmination of Davis’ playing days. Every college player aspires to the pro level, but the NFL draft came and went for Davis, and with it his dreams of playing with the big boys.
“You watch guys you competed against get drafted, and whether we want to admit it or not, we all have our own internal evaluation systems by which we judge our talent versus theirs,” Davis confessed. “That devastation and then getting cut after signing a free-agent contract with the Dallas Cowboys was a real blow to my ego.”
It was a blow that left him not only hurt but bitter and unmotivated.
“When I didn’t get drafted, it threw me for such a loop that I didn’t prepare to succeed as a free agent,” he expounded. “It zapped my will to ready myself for the next step and left me with a big chip on my shoulder. ‘Well, if I’m not good enough to be drafted, I must not be all that good after all,’ I thought. I tell guys all the time now that instead of fostering doubt about themselves, they should channel that experience into proving the pro teams wrong about them and hopefully earning a second chance.
“I wasn’t fully committed to proving them wrong, so I didn’t push it to the limit,” he added. “That’s a mistake I share with my children and anyone who will listen. It’s extremely embarrassing, but I hope it serves as a cautionary tale for others. When they lower me into the ground, that’s the biggest regret I’ll take with me.”
What Davis never laments in his broadcasting career nowadays are the countless hours of preparation he devotes each week. Once again, however, that lesson was learned in the school of hard knocks at a spring game in 1987 alongside John Ward, the “Voice of the Volunteers,” in the UT spring game he was asked to call.
“I arrived with no notes and no spotting boards,” the Orlando resident stated. “John said, ‘Where’s your stuff?’ to which I replied, “What do I need stuff for?’ He, however, already had made a board for me because he knew I’d be woefully unprepared. John taught me a big lesson and did so without embarrassing me. But I knew immediately that is not how this works.”
“How it does work, though, is through days of research, reading and prepping for the next game, a practice Davis has employed since calling his first college game in 1997, an opportunity he claims arose from FOX Sports South’s desperation when no one else was available.
If you see me on a plane, don’t be surprised to see me taping depth charts and articles on the tray table in front of me,” the father of two said. “Then I’ll pull out the school’s media guide and study every single player. Some people probably think I’m doing it just for show, but it’s about efficiency. On the plane after that game, the process begins anew for the next one.”
All those years of avid reading as a child have allowed the bookworm to blend his lifelong passion for books and history with his affinity for the game and the broadcasting career he has cultivated.
“I was always the kid they told to ‘shut up’ in school, so now I’m the guy who always has something to add or a historical reference to insert on-air, although I’m sure that drives everyone crazy,” Davis said. “Little did I know the mounds of books and articles I consumed as a kid would help me in TV.”
The self-described gabber, however, was rendered nearly speechless upon encountering a childhood hero after calling his second game ever.
“The single most impactful moment in my life was meeting Johnny Unitas moments after calling the University of Central Florida/South Carolina game,” Davis recounted. “His son was a walk-on at South Carolina. I bumped into him at the elevators and somehow managed to respond to his questions about whether or not I enjoyed my TV job. He then told me a story that has stayed with me forever, that after working for CBS for three years, his contract wasn’t renewed. Johnny told the president of CBS Sports he didn’t understand because everyone always heaped praise on him after each game. The president sheepishly said they weren’t telling him the truth because of who he was. Johnny responded, ‘I played all those years in the NFL. Do you think I never got coached?’ He then told me, ‘That’s my advice to you, young man. Make sure you have people around you who actually coach you.’”
Davis admits he struggled initially with seeking out constructive criticism, but that the lack of depth in his playing background mandates he do so.
“The biggest challenge for me as an analyst is ensuring I’m at the top of my game at all times because I always worry I’ll be the first one to be replaced on-air,” Davis detailed. “I’m not a name. I’m not an All-American or future Hall of Famer, so, in my mind, I must be better prepared than the others because there is a successful coach or player retiring every year. I’m competing with those guys who have something I don’t – that pedigree, those rings, the skins on the wall. That’s where I find my perseverance and motivation each day.
“When I did the two years of NFL for FOX, I was the only analyst on any network during the regular season without pro playing, pro coaching or pro executive experience,” he continued. “I don’t want to ‘Wally Pipp’ myself and watch another Lou Gehrig take my spot. By no means am I pulling a ‘Howard Cosell’ and railing against the sports TV business and the ‘jockocracy.’ I’m part of the ‘jockocracy.’ I’m just not part of the elite. Therefore, I am extremely fortunate and blessed that I’m still here. I love this job. Going to work every week still thrills me nearly as much as charging onto the football field once did.”
– CFB ON FOX –