Marlon Davidson stood at his mother's gravesite hours after the defensive lineman was selected by the Atlanta Falcons in the second round of the 2020 NFL draft and recited those words: "Mama, we made it. We're here now."
Amid the chaos of the family celebration, Davidson slipped out of his aunt's home in Greenville, Alabama, hopped in his truck, and drove 20 minutes to the Ridgeville Baptist Church cemetery to honor the person who paved his NFL path.
Davidson's mom, Cynthia Carter, died on Feb. 23, 2015 at the age of 47 due to complications from a blood clot in her right leg. She collapsed and hit her head while leaving an immediate care facility, but it was the clot circulating to her heart -- not the fall, as had been reported -- that was the cause of death, according to Davidson's aunt, Debra Moorer.
Davidson, a junior in high school at the time of his mother's death, went to live with Moorer. Reflecting on the tragedy makes his voice quiver.
"It was kind of crazy because my mama was perfect, at least I felt," Davidson said. "I felt like she was in good health because she always showed that she was smiling and happy, dancing and energetic. That's where I get my beautiful smile."
Davidson, the youngest of four boys, was born in 1998 on the day after Mother's Day. He shared a special bond with his single mother, a relationship that made his brothers jealous.
"Man, when we used to get into it with Marlon -- we couldn't grab him, couldn't touch him because Mama didn't want us to hurt him," recalled older brother Marvin, who once threw a misbehaving Marlon in the dryer. "It was like everything that she had, Marlon would get it. If she had ice cream, Marlon would get it because he's the baby."
Had his mother been there draft night, Marlon knows she would have wiped his tears while trying to hold back her own. She would have screamed "That's my baby!" like she did at all of his football games -- loud enough for him to hear on the sideline.
And Cynthia Carter would have thanked her son for fulfilling the promise he made in the seventh grade: to make it to the NFL, so that he could eventually build her a house right next to his and buy her the sporty Jaguar she always wanted.
"You know, I got picked 47th in the draft and wore No. 47 in high school because that was my mama's age when she passed. That's crazy, man. That's powerful," Davidson said. "Everything I do is for my lady. Everything I do, I do it for her."
Davidson briefly gave up on football.
During a Greenville Middle School practice, he had a disagreement with his position coach, Woodrow Briggs. Marlon -- who says he has a short temper -- doesn't recall what ignited the confrontation, but the dispute ended with him storming off the field.
"After that day, I was like, 'Man, I'm not doing this junk no more,'" Davidson said. "I felt like the coach was treating me wrong, you feel me? It was seventh grade, and I just left."
Briggs put context behind what happened.
"I kind of held him to a different standard," Briggs said. "He was [the] guy. There were some things that some people around him could possibly get away with, but he couldn't. I wanted him to know from the beginning that he was going to be expected to go over and beyond every day. It was clear as a seventh grader -- 5-foot-9 and maybe 180 pounds -- that he was dominant. He could run with the skills players and be physical enough to take on any O-lineman.
"When he left practice, I had no doubt he was coming back. No question."
Davidson angrily walked home, not expecting to be greeted by his mother.
"We were staying like 10 minutes from the school, and my mama typically came to practice after work," Davidson said. "She went home first that day so when I got home, she was coming out the door. She said something like, 'What you doing home?' And I was like, 'I quit.'
"She always told me quitters aren't allowed. ... So, I got a tremendous butt-whipping that day. Then she told me to walk back to practice. So I walked back, got my butt tore up, and was so mad. I was feeling pretty busted."
Davidson apologized to the team. After he got into his mother's red Ford Explorer, he made a vow.
"That's the day I made the promise," Davidson said of making it to the NFL. "When I got in the car, I told her, 'Mama, I promise you won't have to worry about nothing. Mama, I'm going to get you a house. I'm going to get you a house right beside me wherever I go.' If I had to lose everything so she could have everything she wanted, that's what I was going to do. She sacrificed for me, so why couldn't I sacrifice for her? I wanted to make sure she got everything she deserved because she was my rock."
Davidson knew his mother was no quitter. She initially worked at a seat belt manufacturer to pay for the three-bedroom trailer they lived in along with his older brothers Marvin, Kenny Carter and Terrence Carter. His mother earned a little extra money playing the piano at church on Sundays. Marlon said his father lived in Greenville and was involved with disciplinary matters but wasn't really a part of his life.
The boys often wore the same clothes throughout the week and understood not to ask for the newest Jordans. Hamburger Helper was a typical meal, but every now and then they'd be treated to McDonald's.
"Whenever she had the money, she'd go get us some cheeseburgers," Marvin said. "But we used to eat two, three cheeseburgers per person, so that wasn't all the time. We were some big boys, now."
Marlon realized the family wasn't rich by definition, yet he had what he wanted: His mother's love. Whenever she came home from work, he'd be there to pull off her shoes and lay on her until she screamed, "Get off me, boy!" They often played a video game called "Bubble Blast" where Carter didn't hesitate to run up the score on her son.
One year on Mother's Day, Davidson brought his mother flowers and promised to cook.
"I didn't know how to cook for real, but I put some chicken tenders in some grease with some fries," he said. "I was her personal maid for that day. I just wanted to make sure she stayed happy."
Maybe one of his best memories was the day Davidson challenged his mother to a wrestling match.
"I was in the ninth grade and I was like, 'Come on, Mama, you can't be there with me.' And she was like, 'Boy, you don't want none of me.' So I grabbed her, but she grabbed me back and threw me down," he said. "Then she said, 'I told you that you can't bang with me.' She wasn't no little woman, though, not by a long shot."
Marlon needed to channel his aggressive energy against football opponents rather than trying to body-slam his mom. He did, and then some.
In loving memory
It's one of the many pictures Davidson keeps close as a memorial.
The photo is from his 8th birthday, showing him decked out in a party hat and flashing a wide smile while bouncing on his mother's lap. It's the same picture Davidson placed on his desk in college at Auburn.
"Some days I would be laying up there and I would be like, 'Man, I'm [going to] get me 30 more minutes [of sleep],' then I'd roll over, look at the picture and say, 'Nah, man, get your butt up. Let's go get this work,'" Davidson said. "That was a motivational picture for me. It was like, 'Get out the bed, go wash your face, brush your teeth, start this day off. When you come back at home, you can always rest.'"
Putting in work was never an issue for Davidson. Coach Briggs told the Greenville High coaching staff Davidson would make an immediate impact as a starter, which was unusual for a freshman. In practice, Marlon was relentless at outside linebacker and rushed against his brother, Marvin, a left tackle who was two years older and would later be a junior college standout.
"Even in practice, me and Marlon couldn't go at each other without fighting," said Marvin, now a truck driver. "We used to go at it a lot. Folks don't realize Marlon had a tremendous growth spurt as an eighth grader. He went from like 5-9 to 6-1."
In one of his first games against Charles Henderson High, Marlon intercepted a pass and returned it about 60 yards for a score. He looked up and noticed his mother ran from the stands to the outer area near the end zone in celebration.
"To see my mother running down the side of the stadium, that was incredible, man," Davidson said. "That's why everything I did, I did it with a passion. Her being there made it so much easier."
Davidson left Greenville for a couple of years after the family moved to Montgomery. He returned for his senior year, coping with his mother not being there to cheer at every game or encourage him after every practice. Having the support of his aunt and brothers helped. He also leaned on mentor Todd Dowell, who runs MADhouse Athletic Training in Montgomery -- the same place where Davidson now trains along with close friend and Browns linebacker Mack Wilson.
Davidson said Dowell, who specializes in helping troubled youth, "saved me a lot" with his guidance. Dowell refused to take much credit.
"His mother gets all the respect," Dowell said. "She was stern. That 'yes sir, no sir,' she instilled all that in them. What she said, it was what they did."
Marlon Davidson's NFL draft profile
Marlon Davidson's highlights at Auburn show a defensive end who has power, explosiveness and versatility.
Davidson dominated in his senior year. Greenville coach Josh McLendon marveled over Davidson's football knowledge and anticipation. McLendon remembered a specific play against Alma Bryant High, about three hours away, where Davidson, at 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, ran down a receiver to prevent a touchdown.
"It was just the most amazing play that I've ever seen," McLendon said. "I remember being on the headset and telling those coaches, 'Damn, that was worth us coming down here for, just to be able to see that.'"
Davidson became a four-year starter at Auburn, the place where his brother, Kenny Carter, starred on the defensive line and now is the assistant director of player development. Davidson contemplated entering the draft after his junior season but was determined to improve his stock after being given a third-round grade by the NFL College Advisory Committee.
Following a senior season when he was a team captain and first-team All-SEC -- alongside No. 7 overall pick Derrick Brown -- Davidson figured he performed well enough to merit a first-round selection. He let the world know he was all business at the NFL combine when he delivered this now-infamous quote: "What I love most about the game is that I can literally go out there and hit a man consistently, and pound him, and the police won't come. They won't say anything about it in the press. I won't get any headlines, handcuffs or mugshots."
For the draft party, Davidson had a pair of T-shirts made bearing the image of his mother with the words, "In loving memory, Miss Cynthia Carter."
He made just two of those shirts to wear during the draft's first two days because he knew he'd be gone by Day 2.
Although disappointed about not being a first-round pick, Davidson now has added motivation going into his rookie season. But make no mistake, his drive has been there "out the womb," as he would say.
"I always told my mother I was going to be the best at everything I did, that I was going to be No. 1," Davidson said. "I'm not coming to the league to be sitting the pine. I'm not coming into the league not being able to start. I've got to be No. 1 all the time. I've been No. 1 all my life."
Davidson hasn't signed his rookie contract but it's total value is expected to be just under $7 million based on his draft slot. He vowed to be frugal with his spending based on his humble beginnings. However, he intends to build a 10-room house on the outskirts of Greenville once he retires.
"I'm still going to build my mama's dream house," he said. "I'm still going to put her a room up in there."
Davidson will be No. 90 with the Falcons, the same number he wore during his early high school years. When he plays his first snap, he'll carry his mother's memory with him. He won't get a tattoo because his mother hated them, but he'll continue his tradition of writing "R.I.P." and her name on his wrist tape. And before each game, Davidson said he will recite the same prayer he did before every college contest:
"Mama, thank you for another day to be on this football field, for another moment to be here in this life, be here in this world. Thank you for another opportunity to let me play this great game of football. I want you to bless me with the opportunity to make every play I can this day; make sure I'll be able to be at my best through this whole game. Mama, I just want to say I appreciate you for everything you've done for me. Mama, this one is for us."