Fourteen years ago on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, Mich., an 8-year old boy learned to be a football player. In the blistering heat of summer, the boy climbed and descended the concrete steps of Eastern Michigan's Rynearson Stadium, past empty bleachers as sweat dripped down his face. After, he would run route after route on the field, sprinting and chasing his older brother.
As the young running back worked, his father watched, giving instruction. For years, through high school, the boy, Travis Davidson, would run those steps and those routes, never fully grasping why his father had him do this.
"I didn't understand it at the time. I used to hate it," Davidson said. "But now I thank and love him for it."
"I'm proud of him," said his father, George Davidson. "He listened. Travis would always listen and that's why he is where he is now."
From Michigan to Baltimore, Davidson now stands alone as the top running back in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. In his second year as a starter at Morgan State — which hosts Delaware State on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. — the senior has a chance to leave his mark.
The junior college transfer from Butte College in northern California says he chose Morgan State (3-4, 2-2 MEAC) because of the coaches. He also planned to visit Towson, but signed with the Bears on the spot.
"He had some rough edges coming out of JUCO," said Bears running back coach Earl Davis. "But he has improved 100 percent since he got here."
In 2011, the Redford, Mich., native ran for 732 yards and seven touchdowns, numbers that led the team and ranked him fourth in the MEAC. In the offseason, Davidson said he committed himself to grueling summer workouts of running hills, parachute running, 300-yard sprints and lifting everyday.
"He hates to fail," says his father, a corrections officer, who used to have his 6-year-old son play against 8- and 10-year olds in Pop Warner. "He always has to be the number one guy."
This year Davidson, who wants to work in criminal justice after football, has rushed for 723 yards — more than 100 yards more than the next closest runner in the MEAC — in seven games with a league-best 11 rushing touchdowns and one receiving score. He leads the conference in scoring with 72 total points, averaging 10.3 points. Overall, Davidson has accounted for 41 percent of the Bears' points and 40 percent of their total offensive yards.
Davidson, who his teammates call "Juice," has been gashing defenses with what Davis calls "sneaky speed" and a long stride the coach has never seen in 27 years of coaching.
"When he gets on the outside, I don't know how he does it, but these [defenders] have angles on him, but then he's gone," Davis said.
"Our strides are the same, but he has better vision," said the elder Davidson, who played running back at New Mexico Highlands University before an ACL tear ended his career.
Perhaps it's also the emulation of his favorite player, Walter Payton, whose highlight video Davidson watched over and over as a boy, studying the former Chicago Bears running back's stride and play.
"I'm kind of following in his footsteps," Davidson said of his path to a historically black college like Payton at Jackson State. In honor of the Hall of Famer, Davidson has Payton's famous quote — "Never Die Easy" — tattooed across his chest in Japanese.
Davidson, who sports a big streak of orange dye through the middle of his hair, is six touchdowns away from breaking Chad Simpson and Bradshaw Littlejohn's career rushing touchdown record of 23. He's also on track to become just the fifth 1,000-yard rusher in school history. If he keeps his current pace, Davidson is projected to have the fourth-best single-season rushing total since 1970.
In fact, the goal Davis set out for him was to break Simpson's single-season school record of 1,402 yards set in 2007. With just four games left, the senior needs 681 yards to break it.
"It's a big thing and I think I can do it if I put my mind to it," Davidson said.
But like all those years he spent at the stadium, the record would be just be one more step to he wants to go: winning the MEAC, becoming the best back in the FCS and making the NFL.
"To me that's not the end for me. It's not the main goal," Davidson said. "If I break it that's cool, but there is more that I want to do."
Morgan State (3-4, 2-2 MEAC) vs. Delaware State (4-3, 3-1 MEAC)Time: 7:30 p.m.Location: Hughes Stadium TV: ESPNURadio: 88.9 FMSeries: Morgan State leads 31-23
What's at Stake: After dropping two straight games to two of the top five teams in the MEAC -- a 24-20 homecoming loss to North Carolina Central and a 21-20 loss to Howard last weekend -- the Bears are hungry for a win. With a 2-2 record in the MEAC, a victory over Delaware State on national television keeps their conference championship dreams alive. Morgan State coach Donald Hill-Eley is 6-4 against the Hornets, including three straight victories.
Key Matchup: The big question is whether the Bears' quarterback committee can take advantage of a weak Hornets pass defense. The Bears are hardly an air-it-out team -- they rank seventh in the MEAC with 152.8 passing yards per game and two passing touchdowns. But Delaware State has the worst pass defense in the conference, giving up 268.2 yards per game through the air. If Morgan State quarterbacks Robert Council or Seth Higgins can exploit this, the Bears could roll with an already potent rushing attack. Morgan State hasn't had a 300-yard passing game in over a year.
Player to Watch: Council has been the most effective signal caller for the Bears, but the two-quarterback system still has been used. Last week against Howard, Higgins started, but Council came in and went 11-for-20 for 141 yards, including 4 of 5 on an 89-yard final drive, capped off by his 35-yard touchdown run. The Hornets have trouble defending the pass, giving the sophomore Council a prime opportunity.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun