The Syracuse linebacker stared out over the expanse of the Orenda Springs rope course in nearby Marcellus, New York, and his stomach turned and his mind raced. Behind him, dozens of kids shouted his name. Over the past five weeks, he’d seen those kids learn so much by trusting him, and he knew he couldn’t turn back now.
“That was something I’ll always remember,” Davis said. “It’ll stick with me my whole life.”
Davis, a senior linebacker for the Orange, spent the summer working with the kids as part of the Building Men program, an educational outreach pilot program in Syracuse designed to help young men learn to make good decisions and develop character and leadership. Davis was one of five Orange players to intern with the organization, and it’s an experience, he said, that impacted him as much as it did the kids.
“That’s just what I love to do, laughing with them and just having a good time,” Davis said. “Some kids remind me of myself when I was younger. A lot might not have father figures in their life, maybe not even any mentors. So just to affect those kids in a positive way is a blessing.”
A year ago, program director Joe Horan invited Davis and other Syracuse athletes to speak to the program, and the linebacker was eager to return in the winter. When Horan was given permission to start the summer program this year, Davis didn’t think twice about signing up as an intern.
He’d arrive each day before 9 a.m. and spend the morning working with kids in the classroom. Science was his focus, though Davis quickly learned that mentoring the students involved a little bit of everything.
“He built relationships with kids,” Horan said. “They’d act up in the classroom and he’d take them out in the hall, walk them around, talk about what they did wrong and how to do things better.”
Each afternoon, the program invites in guest speakers or takes the students on a trip -- like the rope course -- but the highlight of most days is the basketball league.
After lunch, the kids gather on the basketball courts, where each of the Syracuse players serves as coach of his own team. They play every day.
“We’re competitive,” Davis said. “We have games going throughout the week. We have a little season. ... We know they look up to us, so we just try to be a positive influence.”
With the football season just a few weeks away, Davis is back to the grind of fall camp now, but Horan said the impact Davis had on his students will last for a lifetime.
Davis said he hopes that’s true, but he’s also certain he got as much out of the experience as the kids did.
“I learned something every day,” Davis said. “It can be hard sometimes working with kids. At the end of the day, they’re kids, they can drive you crazy. But when I was growing up, in the classroom, I didn’t have a D-1 football player come and be there with us, show us the right way to make decisions, stressing that school is important. I never had that. So being a part of that now is just so special.”