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Vontae Davis’ death leaves Colts teammates, coaches stunned and saddened


Vontae Davis’ death leaves Colts teammates, coaches stunned and saddened

Most afternoons he’d sit solo in the back corner of the Indianapolis Colts’ locker room, eating alone while teammates gathered for lunch inside the cafeteria. He seemed unbothered by the bustle surrounding him — music thumping, reporters mingling, players hollering back and forth as practice neared.

Vontae Davis slumped on his stool in silence, his back to the room, picking at his food from a Styrofoam takeout box. The scene spoke to his role on the field — a lockdown cornerback, Davis often worked on an island, isolated in man-to-man coverage against the opposition’s most lethal wide receiver. There was little room for error. Getting beat usually meant a touchdown.

The job was both thankless and unforgiving, among the most grueling in pro football. It was as much a mental grind as it was a physical one. Most teams weren’t —and still aren’t — willing to leave their top corner all alone, without any safety help over the top, because most simply aren’t good enough.

At his best, Vontae Davis was.

“If you want a cornerback to play on an island,” he once told me, “I’m the makeup of that.”

The former first-round pick once went 25 straight games without allowing a touchdown in coverage. In 2014, opposing quarterbacks posted a passer rating of 38.8 when throwing his way. For a brief stretch that season, undeniably the best of Davis’ 10-year career, some QBs stopped looking his direction altogether, including in a Week 4 win over the Titans in which Davis wasn’t thrown at a single time.

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Vontae Davis developed into a shutdown corner in Indianapolis after his trade from Miami in 2012. (Rob Foldy / Getty Images)

Forty-three snaps. Zero targets. Half the field erased by a single player. Chuck Pagano, his coach at the time, would call it the equivalent of a starting cornerback pitching a perfect game.

Davis made two Pro Bowls. He was the best player on the field in the Colts’ biggest playoff win of the post-Peyton Manning era, a 24-13 upset of Manning’s Broncos in the 2014 divisional round. He was beloved by teammates — the high-pitched voice they couldn’t understand half the time, the 1,000-watt smile that lit up every meeting room, the amiable personality that touched everyone in the building.

That’s the Davis I got to know during his six seasons in Indianapolis. He was a character all his own, as comfortable stuffing a running back in front of 63,000 fans as he was sitting in silence in the quiet of the locker room.

Davis would fight with the receivers on the practice field after losing a rep, then hug them afterward. He could be both introverted and insightful in conversation. On game days, he could be light and loose one minute — dancing in the huddle before kickoff, jiving with teammates — then a menace as soon as the ball was snapped, jawing at anyone who tested him.

But beneath the fiery exterior flashed on Sundays, Davis was a kind-hearted kid who was raised by his grandma. He was endlessly polite and always welcoming, even to nosy reporters who interrupted his lunch from time to time.

Which is why, for so many, Monday’s news that Davis was found dead at his South Florida home was devastating. For his close-knit family, including older brother Vernon, a longtime NFL tight end to whom Vontae always looked up. For the teammates who loved him and learned from watching him work. For the coaches who watched him grow from discarded Miami Dolphin to one of the best corners in the game in Indianapolis.

“Such a tragedy,” texted Pagano, who was instrumental in resurrecting Davis’ career after he flamed out in Miami and was traded to the Colts in 2012.

“I still can’t believe it,” added former defensive captain, D’Qwell Jackson. “He was like my little brother.”

“I don’t wanna believe you gone,” T.Y. Hilton wrote on X.

At this point, teammates and coaches are left asking the same questions as the rest of us after Davie (Fl.) officers responded to an emergency call from Davis’ house assistant early Monday morning. Preliminary information suggests foul play was “not involved,” according to the authorities. Davis was just 35. The investigation remains active.

During his playing days, I always thought Davis’ reputation around the league belied the quiet, compassionate person he was behind the scenes. His reaction to the news the Dolphins were trading him, caught by HBO’s “Hard Knocks” cameras, went viral. “I’m going to call my grandmother,” was his first instinct. That’s about all anyone knew him for.

But there was more to him, and the change in scenery changed the course of his career.

Davis matured in Indy thanks in large part to Pagano, who taught him how to be a pro. In practice, he warred with Hilton and Reggie Wayne and made both better. With longtime defensive stalwart Robert Mathis sidelined in 2014 after rupturing his Achilles’ tendon, Davis carried the unit all the way to the AFC title game, posting eight tackles and five passes defensed in that divisional playoff win over the Broncos.

He fought through nagging injuries throughout his career, rarely missing a start. At one point near the end of the 2016 season, Davis had practiced just 14 times since the end of training camp, dogged by a bum ankle, a concussion, another bum ankle, then a groin pull.

Somehow, he missed just two games.

Teammates came to laud his toughness. And over time, Davis came to realize what had been holding him back early in his career: himself.

“When I think about Miami, I sit back and laugh,” he once told me. “It’s crazy to me how far I’ve come since then.”

His exit from Indianapolis was messy. When an elite cornerback loses his top-end speed the rest goes quickly, and Davis’ play slipped during the 2017 season. The Colts benched him. Davis vented his frustrations to the media, then elected to have groin surgery against the team’s wishes. The Colts cut him a day later.

Davis signed a one-year, $5 million with the Bills the following offseason, looking for a restart. Then, with Buffalo trailing 28-6 in the first half of a Week 2 game against the Chargers, he decided he was finished, right then and there. A few minutes before halftime, he walked to the locker room and took off his uniform for the last time.

He was in street clothes before the third quarter started. He drove home and never looked back. Teammates and coaches were flabbergasted. Davis would insist in interviews that he was at peace.

“He retired, wrote a check back to the organization like, ‘Hey, I’m going on with my life,’” former teamamte Darius Butler said on “The Pat McAfee Show” Monday. “He kind of lived his life to the beat of his own drum.”

On his own Instagram, Davis poked fun at his own expense. “Former NFL cornerback, two-time Pro Bowler, and halftime retirement sensation in 2018,” he wrote.

Maybe Davis struggled to find a purpose after football ended. He wouldn’t be alone on that front. Still, he kept in touch with his old teammates. Hilton wrote that they FaceTimed “a couple of weeks ago.” Jackson said they spoke often.

McAfee and Butler tried to keep it together on their show Monday, mindful that the news might slip out while they were live on the air. When it did, they fought through their own emotions to pay tribute. “If you knew him, you loved him and you enjoyed the hell out of him,” McAfee said.

“I’ll always remember him,” Butler added.

Pagano echoed the sentiment of so many left stunned and shaken after learning they’d lost one of their own.

“Devastating and Heartbreaking news,” Pagano wrote on X. “My thoughts and prayer go out to the Davis family. It was an absolute honor and privilege being his coach in Indy. Great player but better person. Loved him like a son. RIP Vontae.”

(Photo of Davis, left, and Darius Butler: Zach Bolinger / Getty Images)

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