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Winning hearts


He was 13, a tenacious kid with an athlete's build and a chip on his shoulder. A lacrosse coach at St. Ignatius Loyola liked the fire in the youngster's belly but wondered about his attitude.

The coach asked around and got an answer. Two years earlier, the boy had witnessed the drive-by shootings of his father and uncle. Both men died.

"That [incident] showed me how tough and resilient a lot of these children are," said Damien Davis, the coach.

It's kids like that whom Davis wants to reach. For three years, Davis - a pro lacrosse player and former All-American at Princeton University - has worked as a volunteer at St. Ignatius Loyola, a Jesuit middle school on Calvert Street that prepares at-risk city youths to attend private and parochial high schools.

Twice a week, during winter and spring, Davis arrives from his job with a Baltimore money management firm to help coach the school's wrestling and lacrosse teams. Or drive the team van. Or lend an ear.

"He [Davis] helped me at times when I was down," said Donnuelle Durham, 14, a recent graduate of St. Ignatius. "I went to practice mad about something and coach said, 'Let it go.'

"He's like a big ball of joy, very positive, very motivated. By the end of practice, I'd forgotten what I was mad at."

Come winter, said headmaster Jeff Sindler, it's not uncommon for Davis - a two-time state private schools wrestling champion at Gilman School - to tussle with kids while still wearing his work clothes, minus the tie. Invariably, practice ends with the team ganging up on Davis, 25, to try to drag him down. Imagine 10 of them hanging from his arms, legs and head, like a scene from Gulliver's Travels.

"The kids treasure Damien's presence," said Sindler, the head coach in wrestling and lacrosse. "He has an innate understanding of the best way to challenge a middle school kid whose dad may be in jail, or was murdered, and whose mom is overly protective of him."

Eric Henson was 12 when Davis took him to task for whining after getting hit with a lacrosse ball.

"He called me a baby and told me I had to be a real man," said Henson, now 14. "Then he stood there, without pads, and let us hit him with balls. He never flinched."

Henson's response?

"I stopped whining," he said.

Davis treats them all the same way - as individuals, said Sind- ler.

"There's a lot of woundedness among these kids, but there is also potential," he said, "and Damien is willing to learn what makes each of them tick before throwing expectations at them. He takes them for who they are.

"He seems to implicitly get that."

How does Davis find time for this? He works full time as a research analyst for Brown Capital Management. He plays nearly year-round in two lacrosse leagues for teams in Portland, Ore., and Chicago. Most weekends, he jets cross-country for games in places such as San Francisco and Denver.

Yesterday, for instance, Davis reached the office at 8 a.m., organized meetings with company bosses and set about uploading clients' portfolio performances and working out their earnings estimates. At 6 p.m. he was airborne for Chicago, laptop humming on his dining tray. There was research to finish, correspondence to answer.

At 10 p.m., Davis knelt on the field at Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill., lacing his shoes and preparing for a two-hour practice with the Chicago Machine, the team for which he plays in Major League Lacrosse.

At 2 a.m. this morning, he likely crawled into bed at the team's hotel. By 7, he was probably awake.

"I've never needed more than four to six hours of sleep," he said.

Tonight, the Machine (0-5) hosts the Los Angeles Riptide (1-3). As Chicago's top defender, Davis will guard Michael Watson, Los Angeles' high-scoring attackman and a graduate of St. Paul's School.

Both Davis and Watson are past winners of The Sun's High School Athlete of the Year award.

Though his team is winless, Davis has not disappointed.

"He has the tenacity to stop attackmen cold at times, just shut them down," said Kevin Finneran, Chicago's coach.

"He's a fierce player who's not afraid to 'lay the lumber' [hit with the stick]. Off the field, Damien is cool and calm, a mild-mannered gentleman. When he puts on the helmet, he's a warrior."

A role model, as well. Davis is one of two African-Americans on Chicago's roster, and the only one playing for Portland of the National Lacrosse League. In college (2003) he became only the sixth black player to be named a first-team All-American.

The son of a Baltimore neurosurgeon, Davis shares the work ethic passed down the line. His great-great-grandfather was a slave who could neither read nor write. However, in the wake of Reconstruction, he worked to purchase 400 acres of farmland near Bernice, La. - a tract that remains in the family's hands.

"The road map to success is right there," Davis said of the spread. "Work hard and do things right and, most times, it pays off."

Most times. Davis won't forget the day when, as a high school junior, he turned a corner on the Gilman campus and was struck by the scrawl on the practice field wall.

"Damien Davis is a n-----," it screamed in white spray paint.

Davis continued on his way to wrestling practice. When he returned in several hours, the graffiti was gone.

"When Damien told us, I asked how he felt," said Reggie Davis, his father.

"He shrugged and said, 'At least they spelled my name right.'"

Davis responded by winning The Sun's Athlete of the Year award, both that year and the next. He remains the only male to win twice.

"I've always told him that the best revenge is to do well, to succeed," Reggie Davis said.

It's the same advice Damien Davis doles out to his oft-troubled charges at St. Ignatius.

"I try to bring positive energy to these kids, to show them that hard work pays off," he said. "Gilman teaches you to educate the spirit, and this is how it's done."


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