Former fourth-rounder develops into dual threat

HOUSTON -- If you wonder how a player's exploits can catapult him into a pantheon of running backs that includes Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk, Terrell Davis, Jerome Bettis and Curtis Martin, and how that youngster can exude so much humility despite being in such elite company, well, think about this:

Domanick Davis of the Houston Texans, one of only 13 players over the last 20 seasons to compile 1,000 rushing yards in each of his first two years in the NFL, was raised in Breaux Bridge, La. And while that rural city with a per capita income 42 percent below the national average boasts a population of just 7,281 residents spread across 6.66 square miles, according to the 2000 census report, the Texans tailback is only its second-most celebrated NFL player.

Now that will keep you unpretentious and, Domanick Davis acknowledged, keep your home-grown values in place, too.

"Oh, yeah, people know me, sure," Davis said last week after an evening practice session at the Texans' sprawling complex in the shadows of the monolithic Reliant Stadium. "But they probably know [Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme] just a little bit better, I guess. That's fine. He's a good guy. I don't mind being the quiet one."

So quiet was Davis, claim members of the Texans' public relations department, that when the team selected him in the fourth round of the 2003 NFL draft and hooked him up with local media members on a telephone conference call, the cows mooing in the background came across the lines louder than he did. As the workhorse in the Texans' backfield, though, Davis has spoken volumes, and milked a lot of production out of relatively modest skills.

So much so that the Texans, who appreciate Davis' work ethic, dedication and diligence, even while conceding he probably is not an elite back, rewarded him a four-year contract extension two weeks ago. The deal, which came as Davis was about to enter the last year of his original contract, featured about $20.7 million in so-called "new money" and included a $5 million signing bonus.

That kind of windfall might not enable someone to buy all of Breaux Bridge, but it would sure spend pretty well there.

The city, northeast of Lafayette, La., and about a 3½-hour drive from Houston, sits a tad south of Route 10 in the Saint Martin Parish. It bills itself as the Crawfish Capital of the World and the annual highlight, unless the townsfolk have convened a parade to honor Delhomme or Davis, is the Crawfish Festival every May. Besides Delhomme and Davis, the biggest Breaux Bridge celebrity is the actress Ali Landry, who won the Miss USA Pageant in 1996 and is best known as the "Doritos Girl," according to her Web site bio.

But it's family, not finances, that means the most in Breaux Bridge.

When he was young, Davis' parents separated and his grandparents took in his mother and her four children. They gave the extended family, which burgeoned with aunts, uncles and cousins, food and shelter and a sense that no matter how high you rose in life, you'd always be pretty grounded if you recalled your Breaux Bridge years. And it is clear from talking to Davis, one of the most unassuming young players that you might encounter in the NFL, that his values are deep-rooted.

You think Davis' physique -- at 5-foot-9 and 220 pounds, he is stacked like a Breaux Bridge brick outhouse -- is solid? Spend some time talking to him and it becomes apparent Davis' character makeup is even stouter than his physical dimensions. And while he makes his home in Houston, his heart remains in Breaux Bridge.

"Hard work, doing things right, those were things [emphasized] to all of us," Davis said. "You hear it enough, and see how hard people have to work to provide and to just stay a little ahead, it sticks with you. So when I came here, I knew the one thing I wasn't going to cheat myself on or cheat [the Texans] on was work. It's what I understand best."

Remarkably, the Texans chose Davis, who had never really been a full-time starter during his college career at LSU, as a return specialist. If not quite an afterthought, then neither did the personnel department project him as a starter. He was principally viewed as a bit player, maybe a third-down receiver out of the backfield and a special teams contributor. And when he broke his hand in the spring, delaying his debut in the preseason, it wasn't even certain he could fill those roles.

In the first five games of his rookie season, Davis returned three kickoffs for 61 yards. With the running game sputtering, starter Stacey Mack injured and the Texans' offense needing some sort of lift, Davis earned his first start in Week 7 and responded by rushing for 129 yards on 29 carries against the New York Jets. He started in 10 of the final 11 games of the season, missing one outing because of injury, and finished the year with 1,031 yards and eight touchdowns on 238 rushes, surpassing the 100-yards mark four times.

His numbers were even better in 2004, when Davis carried 302 times for 1,188 yards and 13 touchdowns and also added 68 receptions for 588 yards and one score. Among all league tailbacks, only Brian Westbrook of Philadelphia had more catches (73) in 2004. His 370 "touches" from scrimmage were the eighth most in the league. Davis enters the 2005 season with a streak of 323 straight "touches" without a fumble.

"Catching the ball is probably his greatest [area of] improvement," quarterback David Carr said. "But he just made himself, through hard work, a good receiver. And now he's one of the best all-around backs in the whole league. He might not get credit for it, but honestly, how many guys are better than him?"

The irony is that the Houston scouts keep looking for someone better and keep coming up empty. While he may not be regarded as an upper-echelon back, one of the reasons Davis has been successful is that he knows his strengths and simply tries to maximize them every time he gets onto the field.

"Through hard work," general manager Charley Casserly said, "Domanick has improved his play from the first day he arrived here. We feel confident he will continue to flourish for years to come."

Which helps explain why the Texans, who could have forced Davis to play this year for the NFL minimum base salary of $380,000 and then likely retained him in 2006 just by making him the middle-level restricted free agent qualifying offer, decided to secure him for the long term. It would have cost the team less than $2 million to keep Davis around through '06 under his original contract. That the club will instead pay him slightly more than $9 million total for 2005 and 2006 is more than ample reinforcement as to how the Texans feel about him.

It is also a prime example of hard work being duly rewarded -- minus any kind of public rhetoric about being underpaid. Every day in the offseason, Davis reported for team workouts, allowed agent Rick Smith and Texans negotiator Dan Ferens to quietly move the bargaining process forward, and simply kept the faith that at some point laying low would wind up paying him big.

"It's just not my style [to complain]," Davis said. "I'm grateful to be here, happy that I have succeeded to the point that I have. But the only way to keep on getting better has nothing to do with talking about it and everything to do with doing it. Back [in Breaux Bridge], that's just how it is, you know?"

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.