With his head in his hand as he sat on his family’s couch in Ludowici, Ga., Jamin Davis pumped a fist with excitement, and immediately his family, sitting by his side, understood the cue. Smiles formed on their faces, and Rivera, perhaps knowing that any silence on the call was just contained enthusiasm, urged Davis to share the news.
“You tell your parents? I want to hear your parents yell and scream now,” Rivera told him, with the moment captured in a video posted on the team’s Twitter account. “Tell ‘em! Tell ‘em! Come on!”
Davis pulled the phone down from his ear and told his mother, father, brother and sister, “We’re going to Washington.” A chorus of screams and claps erupted, and Davis’s father hurriedly searched for the Washington ball cap that sat on a table alongside 31 others, one for each NFL team.
“My heart just dropped immediately because I thought it was a joke,” Davis said Friday during a conference call with reporters. “I didn’t know it was actually happening.”
When he hung up with Rivera and embraced his mother, tears rolled down his face. Finally, it hit him.
For nearly 14 years, Davis thought about that moment and what it would feel like when he got the call from an NFL team. As a three-star recruit who was a backup at Kentucky only a year ago, he had to dream big to see it. But after going from no-name to one of the top names in the 2021 draft, Davis’s first hours as Washington’s No. 19 overall pick were even more surreal.
“Honestly, it has been nonstop,” he said. “Just a lot of people reaching out to me — family and friends and whatnot. You don’t want to seem like you’re blowing anyone off, but at the same time I’m just doing everything I can to stay completely grounded.”
“That was definitely pretty cool,” Davis recounted. “I was actually in the shower, but when I got out, I had seen that [Johnson] had tweeted at me, so I was like, ‘Whoa’. That was a star-struck moment. Dale Earnhardt Jr. as well. After I saw that, I was like, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.’ ”
The celebrity treatment continued Friday morning as the team sent owner Daniel Snyder’s private jet to pick up Davis in Georgia and whisk him to Northern Virginia. Davis had never been on a private jet. He had never been to the D.C. area before, either.
Accompanied by his parents, Tanga and James, Davis was greeted by Rivera, who gave him a tour of the team’s Ashburn training facility. He met with his new defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, and new positional coach, Steve Russ, both of whom were NFL linebackers. He shook the hand of Doug Williams, who starred in Washington a decade before Davis was born. And then he saw his own burgundy jersey, complete with his surname stitched on the back above the number 52.
“One of the first things I asked,” he said, “was, ‘How soon can I get started?’ ”
After a media tour, with video and conference calls, Davis was treated to dinner at nearby steakhouse DC Prime by new teammates Jonathan Allen and Chase Young, both former first-round picks.
Davis got a glimpse of both players last season and allowed himself to dream a little bigger.
“I remember sitting there and just watching how guys like Chase Young were flying around, being a vocal leader and making plays all over the field,” he said. “That is something I would not mind stepping into. I am going to try and do the same exact thing.”
Rivera and Washington’s front office also had been able to envision the potential fit. Davis had multiple calls with Washington representatives, who took a liking to him early in the pre-draft process. Less than a week before calling Davis on draft night, Rivera dropped a clue that his future could be with Washington.
“Last Friday [April 23] he called me just to touch base and check in and see how things were going,” Kentucky co-defensive coordinator Jon Sumrall said of Davis. “He was like, ‘Well, I just got off a Zoom with the Washington Football Team,’ and I said: ‘That’s cool. Who was on the Zoom?’ He was like, ‘Uh, Ron Rivera.’ I was like: ‘Oh, that’s cool. He’s kind of an important dude.’ ”
Davis was a one-year starter at Kentucky who arrived at the school weighing all of 195 pounds before he blossomed into a 234-pound wall of muscle. After a redshirt year as a freshman, he was primarily a special teams player and backup on defense his next two seasons, biding his time on a deep linebacker corps. A hamstring injury held him back early in the 2019 season, but he had at least six tackles in each of Kentucky’s final four games.
In 2020, Davis became a starter and totaled 102 tackles, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and recovery, and three interceptions. He returned one of them 85 yards for a touchdown in a win at Tennessee.
“The Tennessee interception that he returned for a touchdown, if you get a chance to watch it, watch how he takes his angle on his drop, retreats and rolls back inside underneath,” Rivera said Thursday night. “That’s a very natural football play right there. A lot of guys that don’t get it, don’t understand it, don’t do that type of technique, don’t play that way, and that was such a natural feel for him.”
Though Davis had only 11 career starts at Kentucky, his play stood out. He has rare speed for a player his size; he’s 6-foot-3 and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds at his pro day. He can cover. He can tackle in space and has “some knock-back to him,” as Washington General Manager Martin Mayhew said. He’s a quick study, as evidenced by his growth as a one-year starter, and he has the versatility to move around in Washington’s defense if needed.
“As I was going through the process, he kept sticking out,” Rivera said. “There were several guys we really liked because of their athleticism and ability, but this guy had the most position flex of any of them, and that’s important to me.”
But Rivera was seemingly sold more on Davis’s character and background. Davis, like his coach, is a military brat: His parents are retired Army veterans. He lives by a quote his peewee football coach told him — “You can’t have a million-dollar dream with a minimum-wage work ethic” — and he fits the team-first, hard-working culture Rivera is trying to instill.
“They did their homework, and they knew who they were getting,” Sumrall said. “… Clearly he’s very physically talented and gifted. But there are a lot of guys like that. He’s a unique individual in how he’s wired. He wants to be great. He’s got high expectations and goals of what he wants to do next. But he’s also about the team and about his teammates. He’s not a selfish individual or a ‘look at me’ guy.”
As Sumrall was watching the draft Thursday night, before Washington’s pick was announced, he received a call from another team informing him Davis was being picked at No. 19. Sitting on his couch with a bourbon in hand, Sumrall celebrated so loud that he worried he would wake his wife and four kids. On Friday morning, when his son woke up, they watched a replay of the draft.
“I’ll get a little emotional because I love Jamin so much,” Sumrall said, choking up. “… The people up there are going to fall in love with him. The staff is going to love him. The fans are going to love him. He’s a down-home, south Georgia kid who loves NASCAR and loves football and will look you in the eye and tell you ‘Thank you’ if you give him something.”
When Rivera called Davis on Thursday night, he reminded him of their conversation a week earlier.
“We talk about having a sustainable winning culture. He’s the kind of guy you want to plug in,” Rivera said. “… Like I said, I think he’s the right fit for us.”