Red Bank's Keionta Davis leaned back in his chair, angling a brand new blue and gold cap down to hide his eyes. Underneath the brim, tears wet his cheeks.
In the back of the room, behind coaches, television cameras and classmates, Davis’ mother, Audrey Eddins, watched her 6-foot-4, 230-pound son try to fight away an overflow of emotion. She was already losing the battle.
“I thought I would be the first one to cry,” Audrey Eddins said. “And I did good until he started to cry. … I’m just kind of speechless because I know this is something he has been striving for for a long time.”
Wednesday morning in the Red Bank High School library, Davis signed a national letter of intent to attend UTC. Flipping through page after page of scholarship fine print, Davis scribbled his way six miles south down Highway 27, where he’ll have the chance to become the first in his family to graduate from a four-year university.
Back in early August when Davis sat with his mother and stepfather in a doctor’s office, emotions spilled over for an entirely different reason. None of this seemed possible. The promising defensive lineman was told he would miss his entire senior season with a torn ACL. He had surgery the same week the Lions opened their season at Soddy-Daisy.
“After the injury, I didn’t think I was going to be able to go to college,” Davis said. “I wanted to do so much. I felt like I let the team down at first. At the time I was just like, I’ve got to do my best and get better.”
Before the injury, Davis’ build and raw talent made him appealing to schools throughout the southeast. Chattanooga expressed interest in him but assumed higher profile schools would sweep in. Last spring, Red Bank coach Tim Daniels saw glimpses that made him believe Davis could be a top-level recruit.
During a weight room session, in which players split into groups to determine, pound-for-pound, who was the strongest on the team, Davis squatted 500 pounds 10 times. After being outdone by a teammate, he wanted another chance.
“We put 600 pounds on the bar and he only had to get it five times to win,” Daniels said. “I told him, ‘If you even wobble a little bit I’m blowing it and you’re done.’ So he gets five of them, shakes his head at me and does five more.
“That just tells you what kind of heart the kid has — the strength, the work ethic, all those things.”
On the field as a junior, Davis played linebacker, defensive end and tight end on offense. His numbers (33 tackles, 1 interception) weren’t overwhelming, but the potential was obvious. That season was his first at the varsity level, after not playing at all as a sophomore.
“What he produced on the field for one year, and he didn’t even start the first game of his junior year, he’s quite a kid,” Daniels said.
Davis began attracting attention after his junior year, becoming even more appealing to coaches at a University of Tennessee camp over the summer.
After the knee injury, though, suitors backed away. With so little on-field experience and an injury that could debilitate the explosiveness that initially made him attractive, Davis' risk outweighed a few fleeting bright spots.
“I’ve been killing myself trying to get better,” Davis said. “Doing whatever I can, doing extra stuff at home, pushing myself to the limit when my knee wasn’t able to go any farther.”
The only school to stay with him was Chattanooga. Will Healy, UTC’s wide receivers coach and Davis’ primary recruiter, called the day after his knee surgery.
“Once you get a chance to meet the kid, you’re just sucked in right away,” Healy said. “Everybody falls in love with him the first chance they meet him.”
When other schools started to show interest again a few weeks ago, Davis turned them away. He made an official visit last Saturday and UTC offered a scholarship Monday. In 2012, it will only be a partial scholarship, but there were no hesitations from Davis or his mother on Wednesday.
“He had a couple of offers, but nobody was really willing to take that risk,” Eddins said. “They said he could come in as a walk-on.
“UTC was the one who came in and showed him the love.”
Healy sees Davis as a three- or four-year starter with the potential to be an All-American. He believes that in a few years, people will be looking at Davis saying, "Wow, how did Chattanooga get him?"
Is it a risk?
“To people on the outside, probably,” Healy said. “To us on the inside, we feel like we got a steal.”
Davis plans on doing everything he can to prove him right.
“He’s already seen what its like to get knocked down and he’s proven that he can get back up,” Daniels said. “(UTC) is getting a great kid, a great athlete and a great football player.”