Don't misunderstand Robert Davis. He badly wants to make it as a professional football player, and he would love to reach that milestone with the Baltimore Football Club. But if Davis isn't around when the team finalizes its roster in three weeks, he won't be crushed.
Davis knows about disappointment, having been cut from two New York Jets camps. And off the field, the soft-spoken, 25-year-old rookie lineman has gained a sense of perspective by dealing with his share of tragedy.
Nearly five years ago, while Davis' collegiate career was blossoming at Shippensburg, he lost his little brother, Edward, who was shot to death in Washington, D.C. Eighteen months later, while Davis was home on spring break visiting his mother in Prince George's County, she suffered a fatal heart attack.
Compared with those experiences, Davis said, getting cut from a football team is a breeze.
"My experiences have molded me to the point where I'm pretty thick-skinned fighting off pain. I've already been to the bottom of the barrel," Davis said. "Nothing is ever given to you, but I feel pretty good about where I am so far [at camp]. I'm a realistic person. I know there are a limited number of jobs here."
And Davis stands a good chance of winning one of them, mainly because he can do so many things. At 6 feet 3, 285 pounds, he has impressed the Baltimore coaches with his strength and intelligence, trying out at defensive tackle, nose tackle and center.
But it's Davis' ability to do one of the little things -- long snapping -- that could ensure him a spot with Baltimore.
Throughout the first week of camp, coaches have watched as Davis has fired perfectly placed spirals to punter Josh Miller, in most cases to the exact spot where Miller has requested. A good long snap is a key to getting off a punt with effective distance and hang time, and coach Don Matthews has expressed a desire to upgrade that special teams function. As of now, veteran Scott Miller's long-snapping job is in jeopardy.
"That man [Davis] has quite a skill. He's remarkable, one of the best long snappers I've ever seen," Matthews said.
"The long snapper is the most important person in my life. He dictates everything," Miller said. "I've never seen anyone like him [Davis]. It's like Roger Clemens throwing to me. You've got to like him."
The New York Jets liked Davis, especially his long snapping, enough to take a look at him in their 1993 and 1994 training camps. After getting released for the second time, Davis decided to put his criminal justice degree to good use. Last fall, he got a job counseling juvenile delinquents at a detention center in Harrisburg, Pa.
When Baltimore assistant general manager Jim Popp -- who had seen him at the Jets' camp -- called him this spring, Davis decided to give football another shot.
"I was content with my job, but there was still an empty space inside of me," Davis said. "I didn't want to leave without finding out if I could play at this level."
"With a long snap like his, I don't see how he couldn't make it in the NFL. Even his bad snaps are right there, and they're tight spirals," said Marty Long, the team's defensive line coach. "And he's a smart, strong player on the line. You like having a guy who is smart enough to learn three phases of the game."
Davis, who taught himself how to long-snap, still is relatively new to the game. After playing his first year of organized football as a senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High, he walked on at Shippensburg and became a four-year starter at the Division II school, where he set a career record for most tackles by a defensive lineman. Oh yes, he also was the team's top snapper on special teams.
"I've never boasted about being a great defensive lineman. I was adequate, occasionally dominating, at the school where I played. But I'll put my snapping skills up against anybody's in this league or the NFL," Davis said.
"I was never a natural athlete. I had to get good at something," he added. "I'm pretty much a self-made athlete. I just get out there like a blue-collar guy and work with what I got. And if that's not good enough here, I've been given the boot before."
Matthews wasn't kidding when he said the Baltimore Football JTC Club's receiving positions, excluding veteran slotback Chris Armstrong, are pretty much wide open. Although vets like Walter Wilson and Robert Clark have looked impressive, the rookies have been noticeable in numbers and talent.
Baltimore brought nine rookies into camp, and Shannon Culver, who made the team last year before quitting early in the season, has been a standout again. In the first several days of camp, three rookies left voluntarily and were replaced by four new receivers. Among those, 6-foot-3 wide-out Jeff Johnson has already made a handful of exceptional catches. Johnson, a former college teammate of rookie slotback Chris Beatty, caught 142 passes in two seasons at East Tennessee State.
Tomorrow is the camp's first cut-down day, as Baltimore will trim its roster to 65 players. . . . Team owner Jim Speros is a finalist for the 1995 Entrepreneur of the Year Award. . . . Camp ended earlier than expected for offensive tackle David Vertin, who was injured on Tuesday in one-on-one drills, learned he has torn knee ligaments and headed home to Minnesota for surgery. . . . Rookie rush end Les Barley missed his third straight day of
workouts with a calf muscle injury.