GROWING UP, Jordan Davis was obsessed with mythology. He devoured books about ancient Greece and studied the Egyptians. He still downloads TED Talks on everything from ancient civilizations to modern religion. His favorite stories were the Percy Jackson novels, about a boy who discovers he's part god then goes on mystical quests, saving cursed lands and defeating ferocious beasts, ultimately restoring honor to a community that had long been condemned to a life as outcasts.
As Davis leads Georgia into its annual rivalry game with Florida, the anchor of a historically good defense for the No. 1 team in the nation, it's easy to see the parallels between the mythology he loved as a kid and the story he's scripting for these Bulldogs.
Davis was always different, bigger and stronger and somehow still faster than nearly everyone his age. Even now, playing in the SEC, surrounded by world-class athletes, Davis stands out. He's nicknamed "Godzilla," and his coach, Kirby Smart, doesn't disagree. "He's definitely Godzilla-like," Smart said.
That Davis has arrived at this moment is still a surprise, even to him. In high school, he hid in bathroom stalls to avoid weightlifting, and at Georgia, he considered abandoning football amid early struggles.
"I can see how football was forced upon him," former teammate Michael Barnett said, "but it was like, 'Bro, you're big as hell. Come on.'"
Even if he comes off as a reluctant hero, this might have always been his destiny.
There's serious Heisman buzz for Davis now, too -- not because of the numbers on his stat sheet, which are pedestrian, but from the sheer spectacle of his play.
"I've never seen but one like that, and it's Jordan," Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean said. "As big as he is and moving the way he does, it's hard to believe until you're out there with him seeing it every day."
And so it makes sense to assign some supernatural explanation for Davis' performance. He has Georgia on the precipice of a College Football Playoff run, and he has perhaps the most cynical fan base in college sports believing that the football gods have at last delivered them a hero who will lead them to that mythical national championship.
But that wouldn't capture Davis' real story.
"It wasn't handed to him at all," said NC State center Grant Gibson, who played alongside Davis in high school. "There's not too many guys who are built like him, but he's worked extremely hard to get here. And he's grown into [his success]."
AS A TEENAGER, Davis spent most of his time playing video games and DJing at parties. For a while, he hoped to turn his musical skills into a business. He went by the name DJ Oreo. The business didn't last, but he still makes music with fellow Georgia lineman Bill Norton for fun.
But basketball was Davis' first love, the one he still hasn't quite forgotten. He'll play a bit in the offseason, and every few days, he'll stroll over to his neighborhood park and put up a few shots to scratch the itch. As a kid, though, it's all he wanted to do.
Davis played AAU ball, and his mother, Shay Allen, would sit in the stands and hear the other parents speculate.
"There's no way he's 15."
"Ask for a birth certificate."
Allen would calmly inform them she was his mother, and she knew exactly when she had given birth to him.
When the game tipped off, Davis would thunder down the court, plant himself in the paint and form an insurmountable barrier between the opponent and the basket. He was a nose tackle on the court.
"Kids would run into him, and he wouldn't move," Allen said. "They'd bounce off, and he'd get called for a foul."
Davis fouled out most games. Still, he loved it.
That's what Davis told the football coaches at Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. He transferred as a sophomore in hopes of better academic opportunities, and when he registered for classes, the registrar quickly noted his size. She just so happened to be married to Mallard Creek's football coach, Mike Palmieri.
"You have to meet my husband," she said.
Davis was left with no choice, so off they went, down to the coach's office, where he was introduced to Palmieri, coach of the two-time defending state champions.
"What grade are you in, son?" Palmieri asked.
"Tenth," Davis said.
"Do you play football?"
"No," Davis said emphatically. "I'm a basketball player."
Palmieri wasn't going to let that interaction be their last. He begged Allen to bring her son out for camp that summer. He told Allen the team had breakfast and lunch provided by the school, which served as a good sales pitch. Davis was an introvert, and he had spent that summer sitting at home, playing video games with a handful of friends, enjoying the air conditioning and raiding mom's fridge.
"I was working two jobs," Allen said, "and he was eating me out of house and home."
That night, Allen informed her son he was going to football practice the next day. He didn't have to play, she said. He could fetch water, serve as the equipment manager, "put Band-Aids on knees, if he had to." Allen just wanted him off the couch.
The next morning, Allen roused her boy from bed bright and early, shuffled him into the car and drove him to practice. She opened the passenger door and shoved Allen out, telling him she'd return after teaching her summer school classes.
Davis stood there, befuddled. Eventually, Palmieri and a few other coaches found him and directed him onto the field, where he watched and baked in the sun.
"Oh, he hated it," Allen said. "And he hated me for making him do it."
But the next day, Davis returned. Eventually, he relented and started running through drills with the rest of the team. He stuck with it through camp and into the school year, but still, he was miserable.
Each day after classes, the team lifted weights. Davis was 6-foot-6, more than 300 pounds, and he struggled to bench press a fraction of his body weight. He begged teachers to let him sit in on tutoring sessions and, when that failed, hid in bathroom stalls, sometimes for up to an hour before coaches eventually found him.
"He was literally in tears, crying, saying, 'I can't do it,'" former Mallard Creek defensive line coach Shon Galloway said. "But he's come a long way."
Weeks passed. Davis got reps on the JV team. He asked questions, learned techniques. He improved. Before long, the kid who sobbed on the weight bench was squatting 400 pounds with ease. He had become a wrecking ball seemingly overnight. His first game on the defensive line came for the JV team, and Palmieri remembers the opposing center was so rattled by Davis' size, he snapped the ball over the QB's head nearly a dozen times. Mallard Creek had a genuine prospect.
Only one problem remained: Davis still believed he was a basketball player.
IT WAS JUNE 2016, and Davis had just one season of JV football under his belt at Mallard Creek. He had mostly played on the offensive line, and he wasn't sold on a future there.
Davis wanted to play basketball. He just wasn't very good.
"I probably wasn't going to make it anywhere averaging four points a game," Davis said.
Still, he loved playing, and he had signed up for an AAU camp in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Palmieri, however, had other plans for that weekend. There was a camp at North Carolina the same weekend, and a host of college coaches would be on hand. With Davis' size, he was sure to be noticed, and one of Mallard Creek's assistant coaches had already taken the extra step of phoning ahead to UNC defensive line coach Tray Scott, hyping the big kid with the raw skill set.
Davis wasn't interested. He told Palmieri he wanted to play in the basketball tournament, and besides, his mom had already shelled out nearly $200 for the trip. So, over the next two weeks, the coaches worked out a deal with Allen: Her son would come back from the camp with a scholarship offer or they'd repay her for the cost of the basketball tournament. She got it all in writing.
Davis was hardly the star of the camp. As Scott recalled, he didn't even finish the workouts. He was out of shape and unprepared, but he was also enormous and could move like a tailback. That's all that mattered.
"I hadn't seen a big kid like him have the ability to go over bags, move and bend like that," Scott said. "I offered him. I didn't find out until afterward that he hadn't even really played football yet."
That was the turning point for Davis. He wanted to go to college, but he knew his mom couldn't afford it without assistance.
Football opened doors. Here was a way to pay for college, to change the trajectory of his life. Basketball would never do that.
"I held on to basketball until the very end," Davis said, "but football had a real future."
Davis' junior season was more glimpses of potential than true progress. He played only a handful of snaps on defense, and while he was a solid offensive lineman, his skill set didn't exactly pop on that side of the ball. It wasn't until late in his senior season that the coaching staff moved him to defense full time. His first game starting at nose tackle, he finished with three sacks, and he completely shut down the ground game.
"He just ate up the middle," Galloway said.
Still, Davis was something of a late bloomer, and he never embraced the gauntlet of offseason camps where scouting services and coaches identify the top prospects. He ended up a three-star recruit, and the coach who had first offered him a scholarship was his best option.
By then, however, Scott had moved on to Georgia, where Kirby Smart had a plan to build a perfect defense, and that blueprint called for a 300-pound superhero in the middle of the D-line.
MOST SCHOOLS RECRUITED Davis as an offensive lineman, but Scott was certain he had a future star on his hands at nose tackle.
The early returns, however, weren't encouraging. Scott remembers standing next to Smart during an early practice, and the head coach shaking his head and asking, "Are we sure about this?"
"We had conviction and video footage of him running through bags and doing up-downs and bending, and I'm like, 'Man, people are missing out. This guy is a really good player,''' Smart said. "And then he got here and was a little bit out of shape and struggling."
Davis arrived on campus at close to 380 pounds. He expected to play early, but instead he was struggling more than he ever had. He was frustrated.
"I was so ready to go back home," Davis said. "I was like, 'Man, I can't do this anymore.'"
Davis was always a quiet kid. Palmieri said nearly two years passed at Mallard Creek before he heard Davis say much of anything off the football field. Allen thinks football gave her son an identity -- the kid who was always noticed for being big was now noticed for being a big football player -- but even that wasn't his choice. He was a giant who could bend and twist like someone half his size, so the world decided he should play football. And here he was, betrayed by the identity he had been assigned so many years ago.
"People were expecting big things out of him," former Georgia defensive lineman Michael Barnett said. "But his mind just wasn't mature yet. So I took him under my wing."
Barnett and a few of the other older linemen made Davis their pet project. They pushed, and Davis resisted. They scolded, and Davis sulked. But they also put their arms around him and reminded him he belonged, even if he never made a play on the field.
"It was just about pushing him to where he wouldn't quit on us and getting him past that hump," Barnett said. "We all saw the potential in him. I was like, 'Just do it and have fun.'"
Davis hadn't considered football fun. He's an amiable guy by nature, but football was supposed to be work.
"Back when we were in high school, he'd smile the whole day," said Gibson, his high school teammate. "But then it was time for us to get on the field, and he goes to a whole different mode. He's so cool off the field, but once he steps on the field, you don't want to mess with him."
But the more time Davis spent with Barnett, Julian Rochester and other veterans, the more fun he was having -- even on the field.
Now, he was joking during practice, dancing in the locker room. He began to look forward to workout sessions. The pressure was gone.
Davis also connected with Collier Madaleno, Georgia's director of performance nutrition, in hopes of finding a plan to keep his weight in check. They went grocery shopping, Madaleno teaching Davis how to pick out healthier options to have at his house. Davis took cooking classes. Madaleno taught him how to cook steaks and bake potatoes, and he loved the process. Each week, Madaleno hosts "Try It Tuesday," when players have to test out a new food. Davis is her prized pupil.
🍽️ 𝘿𝙄𝙉𝙄𝙉𝙂 𝙒𝙄𝙏𝙃 𝙏𝙃𝙀 𝘿𝘼𝙒𝙂𝙎: Episode 1— Georgia Football (@GeorgiaFootball) May 12, 2021
🎙️ @jordanxdavis99 and @datboi_vontae#ATD #GoDawgs pic.twitter.com/FcOg2HdlUg
"He'll try anything one time," she said.
Davis has a sweet tooth, but Madaleno found some low-sugar Swedish Fish that are now a favorite of his. Vegetables are still a tough sell, but he'll blend them into a shake so he doesn't miss out on the nutrients. Earlier this year, Davis and fellow lineman Devonte Wyatt starred in a video for the school demonstrating their cooking technique. At one point, Davis pinches both ends of a strip steak and gently places it onto a sizzling skillet, "like you're laying a baby to sleep," he narrates. He has become a salesman for Madaleno's program.
The work paid dividends. Midway through his freshman season, Davis got his first start against Florida, and Georgia's defense eviscerated the Gators in a 37-17 win. A year later, Davis started eight games and became a fixture on the D-line. In 2020, Davis emerged as a force in the middle of Georgia's defensive front, and the unit blossomed into one of the most ferocious in the country.
"I was in such a rush to get on the field and just do something," Davis said. "But now, I don't care what I do as long as when I do it, I do it 100 percent."
What Davis would do next, however, would exceed even his wildest ambitions.
DAVIS WAS AT an Atlanta Braves game a few weeks ago, and fans soon recognized him. He's used to attention with his height and stands out in a crowd. But this was different. People weren't simply reacting to the giant walking among them. They knew his name. They wanted pictures and autographs. Jordan Davis was a celebrity.
Palmieri is coaching in Georgia now, and as he drove through Atlanta last month, he looked up and saw a billboard with Davis on on it. He tries not to bother his former player too often during the season, but this was too much.
"I texted him that I thought that was pretty cool," Palmieri said.
The season opened with a game against Clemson, a top-five matchup between two powers, played in Charlotte. It was the part of the hero's journey when he returns home to discover he has grown far more powerful since he left. As a kid, Davis would ride by Bank of America Stadium in downtown Charlotte nearly every day, but he'd never set foot inside until September, when he led the Bulldogs to a 10-3 win over Clemson. Davis had three tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack, and the Tigers finished the game with just two rushing yards on 23 carries.
"That was my Super Bowl," Davis said. "I was in tears."
Now, there's Heisman talk. No interior lineman has made a serious run at the Heisman since Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh in 2009. No defensive player of any position has finished in the top three in voting since Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o in 2012. But Davis is the best player on the best unit on the best team in the country, so he's building a compelling case.
Georgia's defense has been otherworldly thus far, allowing just four touchdowns in seven games. Davis has played 155 snaps at nose tackle this year. Just four have resulted in an explosive play by the offense. Overall, opponents are averaging just 2.72 yards per play when Davis is on the field. His highlight plays have gone viral, the mammoth defender bull rushing three O-linemen at once. Davis shedding blocks to grab a tailback from behind. Davis sprinting 10 yards downfield to chase down UAB's quarterback -- a man half his size -- and save a potential touchdown run.
"That's one of the most impressive plays I've ever seen," said South Carolina coach Shane Beamer, who went viral himself when he was asked why his team struggled against Georgia's defensive front.
"They have 100 five-stars," he quipped, "and a defensive lineman who weighs 340 pounds and runs better than everybody on this call."
But there is one obvious blemish on Davis' Heisman résumé. He has played only 155 snaps all season, amounting to just 38% of Georgia's snaps on defense. Davis dominates on first and second down, then typically gives way to backup Jalen Carter, who has racked up 2.5 sacks, three QB hurries and six tackles for loss this year -- all better tallies than Davis.
"Jordan has the ability to be a three-down player, but his true value really comes in helping us win first down and maximize second-and-long," Scott said.
No team in the country has a higher rate of successful first-down plays than Georgia (73.4%). No team has a higher defensive expected points added on second-and-long than Georgia (33.02).
Can a guy who plays less than half the time really be the best player in college football?
"People always say, 'Why doesn't J.D. play third down?'" Davis said. "My job isn't to play third down. My job is to get to third down."
And if that means he's not considered the country's best player, so be it. Actually, Davis agrees.
"I'm excited about Jalen," Davis said. "I think Jalen is going to be better than me one day. Actually, I think he's already better than me, honestly."
This is the role Davis likes best -- the cheerleader, the mentor, the guy who reminds everyone that, no, this isn't work. It's fun.
At practice, Davis dances. ("He's got moves for a big man," Barnett said. "We call him Big Smooth.") In the locker room, he cracks jokes to break the tension before a big game. When offensive linemen talk trash during practice, Davis will retort with something like, "Man, your breath stinks," and have the entire line in tears laughing.
"I want to make sure everybody's having fun," Davis said. "You'd think we're not at practice. Coach Smart, I crack jokes with him. I want to make sure the defense is locked in and having fun. That's what makes our defense really special is the bond we have, the connection."
WHAT AWAITS DAVIS could be momentous -- championships, the NFL draft, superstardom -- but none of that is on his mind these days.
"If I start thinking about [the future], it gets scary," he said. "I like to be where I am, where my feet are."
In mid-September, however, Davis had put on some extra weight. He was stress-eating, he said.
There was some relationship drama. And there was his dog, a pit-terrier mix named Izzy he had adopted, and she had torn up the couch.
"She's a wild child," Davis laments, "and I feel like I'm to blame."
Then there was school. Davis is an explorer. He finds a thread that fascinates him, and he follows it. At Georgia, however, those loose threads had already led him to swap majors three times. He started in communications, switched to marketing, then landed on religion for a while, driven by his obsession with mythology. Now, he's thinking of switching back to communications.
"He stresses me out with that," his mom said. "I tell him, 'I need you to figure out life.'"
That's the thing about the hero's journey. It's a winding path, filled with obstacles big and small.
If Davis were to script his mythology, the journey ends with a national championship, a gift to the Dawgs faithful who've suffered through four decades of frustration, hoping that one day a hero would arrive and deliver them to the promised land.
It's just that Davis never figured he was the hero in this story. He's just a man -- a very big man -- who likes Swedish Fish and dogs and basketball.
"I never thought I'd be in this position," Davis said. "The Heisman? I never even thought I'd get recognized. I thought I'd be an under-the-radar player. It's a wild life, and I'm grateful for it, but at the end of the day, I'm still me."
Jordan Davis is not a mythical hero, but far from ancient Greece, in another Athens, he can become one.