Five years after he sprinted wildly toward one of the most iconic endings in the history of college football, Chris Davis calls from his car in Birmingham, Alabama, the city where he’s attempting to revive his NFL career by playing in a fledgling professional football league whose prospects even he seems kind of uncertain about.
“I can tell you about a moment, man,” Davis says, and he tells me not about that moment, but another moment, in the spring of 2014, a few months after he briefly became the most famous human being in his home state of Alabama. The story goes like this: It’s late, and Davis is leaving the Auburn campus as a student for the last time, and he just wants to get home to Birmingham. His mother’s in the front seat, and the outside world is a blur; the speedometer’s pushing 120.
“You see that state trooper?” his mother asks.
“What state trooper?” Davis says.
At this point, it hasn’t even been a year since the miracle now enshrined in history as the Kick Six, and Davis is just beginning to come to terms with the new realities of his existence as a folk hero. November 30, 2013: Davis, a cornerback, who had been agitating the Auburn coaching staff pretty much his entire career for an opportunity to return punts, trots back to the Tigers goal line in the final seconds of regulation in a tie game against no. 1 Alabama. Winner goes to the SEC championship game against Missouri, and with a win there, likely goes to the BCS National Championship Game. The field goal attempt, a 57-yarder, comes up short, and Davis fields it and takes off running.
Davis tells me that he knew he was going to run for the game-winning touchdown as soon as the ball landed in his hands; I tell him, in so many words, that I think he’s full of crap, that there’s no way he could have foreseen the path he’d take along the sideline and into the Alabama end zone 109 yards away. “When I caught it,” he tells me, “I knew I was gonna score,” and I suppose even if this is an embellishment, it only makes the story that much better.
But anyway, this is not the story he’s telling me right now. In this story, the state trooper’s lights flash in Davis’s rearview, and he figures he’s cooked. Why was he going that fast, anyway? Davis can’t say, though maybe if you’re in search of a metaphor, you can speculate that it had something to do with escaping Auburn and the Kick Six and moving on with his life. It was cool for a while, getting standing ovations in class and getting gawked at by strangers and getting approached by fully-grown adults fighting back tears, but at some point, Davis says, you want to make it as something more than a one-hit wonder, you know?
So Davis pulls over, the trooper asks for his license, then looks at the picture and at the man himself, right there in the flesh.
“You’re that Chris Davis?” the trooper says.
“Yes, sir,” Davis tells him.
I imagine you know where the story goes from there. The trooper cuts him a break; Davis gets off with a warning, and mutters a thanks to both the trooper and to the man above. And maybe it’s a telling metaphor that this is the story that stands out in Davis’s mind when I ask him about the implications of the Kick Six on his life. Because Davis knew this thing was big, but at that moment he was only starting to understand just how all-encompassing it was. And five years later, as he recovers from knee surgery and makes one last improbable push toward an NFL return at age 28, he’s coming to peace with the fact he might never be able to outrun it.
It’s an odd place to sit, five years removed from an iconic football game that resides in a place that is not quite present and not quite past. The dual miracles that the 2013 Auburn team produced in back-to-back weeks have hardly been diminished by its subsequent loss to Florida State for the national title; the game prior to the Iron Bowl, receiver Ricardo Louis caught a tipped pass to beat Georgia that Davis considered to be a far bigger miracle than his own—except that the Iron Bowl tends to dwarf everything else in the state of Alabama.
Before the Kick Six, the fourth quarter of that Iron Bowl was a series of precarious back-and-forths: Alabama had the ball in Auburn territory much of the time but couldn’t put the game away, and Auburn tied the game on a pass from quarterback Nick Marshall to receiver Sammie Coates that feels, in retrospect, like the Nevermind of the run-pass option era in football, the moment when a revolutionary idea broke into the mainstream.
If not for a clock review allowed Alabama to attempt the field goal that led to the Kick Six, the game would have gone to overtime; if not for the fact the coaches decided to send Davis into the end zone at the last minute, the ball would have landed harmlessly on the Jordan-Hare Stadium field.
Both quarterbacks, Alabama’s A.J. McCarron and Marshall, are still active (McCarron as a backup with the Raiders and Marshall as a cornerback in the Canadian Football League); others who played in that game, like Alabama receiver Amari Cooper, have established themselves as NFL mainstays. And then there are those on the precipice, seeking the one opportunity they feel like they haven’t quite gotten yet. Which is how multiple players in that game, including Davis, find themselves seeking that last chance in a newly formed eight-team spring-football league called the Alliance of American Football, with a franchise called the Birmingham Iron.
Even Davis admits that he was skeptical when he heard a new professional football team in his hometown wanted to speak with him; for Davis, it’s always been NFL or bust. After going undrafted in 2014, he latched on with the Chargers, where he played in the secondary and on special teams. He landed with the 49ers the following season and into 2016 before he blew out his knee during his contract year (“I wasn’t cut,” he insists). After it took him more than a year to rehab, Davis recognized his options were thinning out, and that the AAF might be his only hope. He thought the offer over for a week and a half, he says, before finally signing the contract.
“I was kind of skeptical,” he tells me. “But I sat down and I had a real conversation with myself, and I said this may be the only chance I get.”
That’s how the AAF’s founders, understanding the economic and commercial fragility of previous spring-football leagues, have framed their product: As a potential second-chance feeder system for the NFL, one that will allow its players to duck out of their contracts should an NFL team come calling. The AAF’s CEO is Charlie Ebersol, a television executive and the son of longtime NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol; the league held its first “quarterback draft” on Tuesday, and has embraced a wonky, analytical approach, as if in deliberate opposition to the owners of the new XFL, its impending competition come 2020. The AAF has also embraced the idea of stocking its rosters with local and regional talent, which is where a known name like Davis comes in—he was local to Birmingham, he had NFL experience, he was available. And he was Chris Davis.
This is something Iron team president Tom Ward freely admits to me—names like Davis are a selling point for a league that desperately needs the PR boost. Along with former Alabama running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Blake Sims (McCarron’s backup in that 2013 Iron Bowl), Davis has become one of the faces of the Iron’s promotional push, an attempt to lure in fans of Auburn and Alabama who may be seeking something to deliver them through the long months when college football is in hibernation. Professional football worked relatively well in Birmingham when the USFL fielded a team there; it didn’t work when the previous iteration of the XFL tried to capitalize on the the same football-mad market. But the best way to give it a shot, the AAF figures, is to tie itself to current allegiances.
“To have familiar faces that people have followed throughout their career is our best calling card,” Ward says.
Whether Davis becomes something more than a marketing tool for the Iron—and whether the Iron can lure those Auburn and Alabama fans to watch players like Davis seek to revive their careers when the season kicks off in February—has yet to be determined. The Iron’s general manager, Joe Pendry (a longtime Alabama assistant), says he’s watched film on all the players on his roster, but has yet to see Davis play in person. Mostly, he tells me, he knows Davis spent a couple of seasons in the NFL, and he knows that Davis did something extraordinary in college, and hopes he can do something like that again.
“I think I’m the best player on their roster this year,” Davis says. “But I think it also played a factor, you know, that I’m Chris Davis and that I went to Auburn.”
And he’s fine with that, at least to an extent. When the Iron asked him to attend this year’s Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa, Davis refused, in part, he says, because he worried he might not get off the Alabama campus with his limbs intact. I think he’s joking when he tells me this, but I’m not entirely sure, so I ask him to elaborate.
“Bama got the worst fans in college football,” he says, and then he breaks out laughing when I ask him why he thinks that.
“I’d say they’re sore losers,” he says.
A few weeks before I spoke to Davis, I interviewed a man named Frank Champi, who came off the bench to quarterback Harvard to a 29-29 tie against a formidable Yale team in 1968, a game that has since taken on mythical status. For Champi, his celebrity status always felt like a bit of an embarrassment; he recently described it to author George Howe Colt as having to relive, over and over again, the day he learned to a ride a bicycle. It was great, but he was a kid, and he’d long ago moved on.
I don’t know if that’s what it will be like for Chris Davis as he grows older, but it certainly doesn’t seem that way yet. He’s pretty tired of answering the same questions—about what he was thinking when he caught the ball (run), about whether he stepped out of bounds on the sideline (no), about what he was thinking when he reached the end zone (please don’t let there be a penalty flag somewhere)—but in a way, the Kick Six has taken on such relevance because Auburn is the perpetual underdog in this rivalry, and Davis was a manifestation of that mentality, the Luke Skywalker who somehow managed to breach the thermal exhaust port of the Alabama Death Star.
Davis grew up a Bama fan, but went to Auburn after the Crimson Tide didn’t offer him a scholarship; and he desperately sought a way to make an impact, to be remembered. He still remembers a speech his first coach at Auburn, Gene Chizik, gave before he was fired in 2012, about how the hero of one play in the Iron Bowl lives on in memory for perpetuity. When Davis turned back toward the field after scoring that touchdown and saw no penalty flags, and when his teammates piled on him so tightly that he nearly suffocated, that speech was one of the first things he thought about.
Davis’s 3-year-old son went to the bathroom at Jordan-Hare with his grandmother during the Kick Six. He’s now 8 and playing Pop Warner football, and still hasn’t fully grasped his father’s folk-hero status. What amazes Davis is how the time keeps pushing forward, how five years blew past in the blink of an eye. What amazes him, too, is how the whole thing feels so fresh: Every time he rewatches that play, as he’s done hundreds of times by now, he still gets chills.
So maybe Chris Davis makes it in the AAF, and maybe he finds a path back to the NFL, and maybe he has another moment that defines his football career outside of a single play. Or maybe sometime soon he faces that moment he’s been dreading—the day, he tells me, when he has to put on a suit and tie and head to a real job rather than working out in pursuit of the dream he’s had since he was his son’s age.
For now, at least, Davis seems content with who he is, and with what he is. The other day at the gym, an Alabama fan recognized Davis and told him he stepped out of bounds on the Kick Six. And Davis just laughed.
“If that’s what I’m known for, I’ll be fine with that, man,” Davis says. “A lot of people play four years and go on with their life and they’re not remembered for nothing from college football. And if that play is the play that defines me, the hell with it, you know?”