Correction: Marcus Davis’s godmother was misidentified in an earlier version of this story. She is Jeri McCants, not Jeri McCabe. This version has been corrected.
BLACKSBURG, Va. — On Dec. 23, 1989, Lillian Tann received a phone call from Virginia Beach’s Department of Human Services.
“Do you want a baby? His mom just walked out the hospital and left him.”
It wasn’t totally unexpected. Tann’s house on Beautiful Street, less than two miles from the Atlantic Ocean, had long been a haven for forgotten children. A school bus driver in Virginia Beach for 30 years, Tann and her husband, Wilford, had become foster parents years earlier and taken in a number of children.
So Tann made the 10-minute drive to Virginia Beach General Hospital, not realizing how that decision would resonate almost 23 years later.
“Usually I just kept [foster children] three or four months and then their parents would come pick them up,” Tann recalled last week. “Ain’t no parents come pick up Marcus, so I kept him. I had him at two days old and he felt like mine. He’s been my baby ever since.”
Marcus turned into Virginia Tech redshirt senior Marcus Davis, a tantalizing yet polarizing talent who could become the program’s first 1,000-yard receiver this year. Every play he makes, though, is a tribute to the people who raised him in place of the family he hardly knows.
“Every time I do something, I thank them just for keeping me. It’s a blessing. Things like that usually don’t happen. I don’t think I’d be here without them,” Davis said recently. “I don’t know what my life would have been like if they hadn’t did what they did for me.”
Now 80 years old, Tann initially couldn’t remember the first name of Davis’s birth mother last week. Davis doesn’t know it, either. He has spoken to her only a few times, mostly over the phone, and neither Tann nor Davis have met his father.
But Tann called back, her memory of Michelle Davis jogged after a conversation with a reporter. Michelle grew up across the way on Beautiful Street, but moved away years before Marcus was born.
Tann knew about their long-ago connection when she picked up Marcus at the hospital. She even took Marcus to see his mother in those first days, “because social services told me to since [at that time], he was just in foster care.” Every now and then, Michelle Davis would return to her old neighborhood to see her son.
“She’d then leave to go wherever. I didn’t ask no questions. I didn’t want to know,” said Tann, who eventually gained full custody of Marcus. “When he got school-sized, we didn’t see her that much. She didn’t have enough sense to keep in close contact with her son, so why should I keep in contact with her?”
Outside of the circumstances that brought him to the Tann household, Marcus Davis calls his upbringing “a good childhood,” with many days spent playing football and basketball with his cousins at Seatack Recreation Center. He became an honor roll student in school, stayed out of trouble and continues to go to church to this day.
Davis joined his first organized football team at age 5, around the same time Tann had to address the situation involving his birth parents. Tann said Davis initially learned of his mother and father from a member of the Virginia Beach Department of Human Services.
Davis says now that it barely fazed him.
“I never really looked into it because as a child I didn’t know. I was so young, and then as I grew up it didn’t really matter,” he said. “I had what I needed. I had that family I wanted. I was blessed to get a mother and a father. Not by birth, but at the same time, two days old, that’s pretty much birth.
“I talked to my [birth] mother, but at this stage in my life, I really don’t even . . .,” Davis added, his voice trailing off. “It is what it is.”
When Davis first arrived on Virginia Tech’s campus in July 2008 after a standout career as a quarterback at Ocean Lakes High, there were no other students around. He initially thought, “Man, I can’t do this.” On the field, he had to adjust to playing wide receiver, a move that seemed to be a natural fit considering his 6-foot-4, 232-pound frame, 4.49-second 40-yard dash and a 40.5-inch vertical jump.
But after redshirting as a freshman, he had to wait his turn behind record-setting wideouts Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale for three years. Despite showing glimpses of his talent, Davis sometimes chafed at the tough love he received from Virginia Tech’s coaches.
“I was trying to get home whenever I could,” Davis said. “I could not stand it.”
His ascension to a starting role this year hasn’t gone as smoothly as he hoped, either. Though Davis leads the Hokies with 38 catches for 754 yards and four touchdowns, he has had several key drops and questioned the leadership on this year’s team. This week, Davis became a symbol for Virginia Tech’s worst season in 20 years when a video of his poor blocking was featured on several national Web sites and blogs.
But Davis contends his brush with Internet infamy is just a blip on the radar screen.
“Obviously somebody was bored and they felt they could put up a video, but little did they know, they don’t know the half of it,” Davis said. “If that’s what they want to do with their free time, then I applaud them. Go ahead and do what you want. But at the end of the day, that’s not gonna define me. That’s not who I am.”
Davis says there’s little significance to the fact that he still goes by his birth mother’s last name. Before college he thought about changing it to Tann, but never got around to it. But his fame on the field in recent years has brought some unfamiliar faces into the picture.
Since Davis went to Virginia Tech, Wilford Tann said Michelle Davis has stopped by his Beautiful Street house three times. Lillian Tann noted the encounters have always been right after Marcus has visited from Blacksburg, and that Michelle hasn’t stayed long. Invariably, the short conversations would break down into three categories: “How’s Marcus? Where’s Marcus? Give Marcus my phone number.”
Marcus Davis has had no contact with her, but those who helped raise him worry about the situation because, despite his up-and-down college career, Davis’s physical gifts could make him an NFL draft pick, according to ESPN expert Mel Kiper Jr.
“Now it feels like people are starting to come around because of who he is,” said Jeri McCants, Davis’s godmother, who helped him through the recruiting process. “But it’s like, ‘Where were you guys when his lights were getting cut off up at Blacksburg?’ He didn’t have money to eat because he was sending money back home to Virginia Beach. Not saying there’s anything wrong with it or anything, but where were you, this other family, for a lot of years? Half of them knew who he was and now you want to come around and [say], ‘Don’t forget your Davis side.’
“I just tell him: ‘I know who I am. I know my place.’ But I’m gonna still look at people. I would never tell you don’t see your mother or your father, but I’m gonna still be looking at them from the corner of my eye. What is your angle? What are you trying to get? I would never tell them, ‘No, you can’t be a part of his life.’ But I can understand why he’s like, ‘Don’t come now when you weren’t there then.’ ”
Davis doesn’t pay his birth mother’s entreaties much mind. He’s focused on salvaging a season that hasn’t gone as planned for Virginia Tech, which enters Saturday’s game at Boston College needing two wins simply to make a bowl game for a 20th consecutive season. But when the subject comes up, Wilford Tann likes to tell the story of how Marcus “picked us as his parents.”
One day, Wilford introduced himself to someone as Marcus’s godfather. But Marcus cut him off and quickly corrected Tann: “You ain’t my godfather. You’re my father.”
“And he said the same thing about his mother. He loves me as much as anybody loves me. I believe he do.”