Rulon Davis is Tough, Mean, and Not Ready to Give Up NFL Dream

Gerald NicdaoCorrespondent IFebruary 17, 2009

Rulon Davis knows that he’s fortunate to have gotten an invite to the NFL Combine, which starts this week in Indianapolis. And it’s not just because he’s been oft-injured in his collegiate career playing defensive end for California.

Davis has probably seen more than the average person’s share of life-threatening situations. Before taking up football at Mount San Antonio College, Davis spent four years in the Marines—which included a six-month tour in Iraq.

Then, in the summer after his first full year at Mt. SAC—a year after he left the Marines—Davis was in a motorcycle accident. After being nudged by a car on a Los Angeles freeway, he crashed and was run over by a truck—an 18-wheeler. Even with no broken bones or torn ligaments or tendons, he missed the entire 2005 season recuperating from his injury.

The accident has helped him put things like the NFL combine—and most importantly life—in perspective.

“It’s a miracle,” says Davis about the accident, which happened on July day in 2005. “I should be dead.”

Davis was surprised to get a call from Cal after the 2005 season. He came to Berkeley out to prove that the accident would not hinder him on the field. It never did—but injuries would.

He missed the second half of the 2006 season—his first with the Golden Bears—due to illness and a bruised bone in his leg.

In 2007, a foot injury made Davis miss four games and then a knee injury forced him to sit out the rest of the regular season. Last year, a broken foot kept him sidelined for five games.

So Davis knows that the biggest challenge at the combine will be overcoming his injured past, showing that his rewards are higher than his risks, and that his injuries should not be a concern.

“That’s going to be the hardest part,” says Davis, who will have to take extra durability tests at the combine. “I tried to show that in my performance at the Texas versus Nation bowl game. That was when I tried to show that I was healthy.”

If Davis wasn’t on NFL teams’ radar after the end of the collegiate bowl season, he did pique some interest after the Texas versus Nation bowl game last month, where he performed well on his one-on-one drills and notched a sack and two tackles in the game.

That’s when suitors started calling and when Davis’ name began appearing on mock drafts.

“Throughout his all-star week, I started fielding questions and calls,” says Cal defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi. “Interest started sparking a lot. One of the consistent (comments) was how well he did in all of his one-on-ones—his one-on-one pass rush and playing the run. I think (his performance) answers it.

"He had his week to perform and he showed his skills against some of the competition up there. He showed that he definitely has the tools to go onto the next level.”

The skills and raw talent have always been there, if you asked Davis, Lupoi, or any other person associated with the Cal program. He’s a physical specimen, coming in at about 6’5” and weighing just over 280 pounds.

He also holds the Cal school record for a vertical jump by a defensive lineman with a leap of 33.5 inches.

And Lupoi would know what an NFL defensive lineman looks like in college—he played with a couple while he was on the defensive line with the Bears from 2001-2004.

“He fits the role of an NFL defensive lineman very well,” says Lupoi. “He’s a bigger guy, with very long limbs. He plays very aggressive.

“I think Rulon plays with a high motor, similar to Ryan Riddle. He plays with aggression and violence, and sometimes you see that with Lorenzo Alexander.”

Rulon is aggressive almost to a fault. It was his intense level of play on the field that at one point made him doubt his future in football.

His dream seemed to die early last fall, in a nonconference tilt against Colorado State. With one second left in the first half against the Rams, Davis was in his usual pass rush. He heard and felt something wrong in his foot. He called it an explosion.

He didn’t think anything of it at the time, but after he was checked by the Cal doctors, the emotional Davis thought that he may never get to play the sport he loved again.

“After the x-rays came back in the training room, they told me I broke my foot,” says Davis. “I thought that my season was over and that my football career was over. It was the second injury to my foot and I just thought that I couldn’t play this game.”

And the thing is that the play almost didn’t happen. The clock read zeros at Memorial Stadium, but Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild apparently called time out to give his team one more shot at the end zone, with one second added back onto the clock.

Davis went back out and played his usual reckless style of football, and that’s when the injury happened.

He admits that if he knew that he was going to break his foot, he probably would not have gone back out there. However, Davis has always regarded injuries as inevitable and unpredictable in the game of football. Nothing was going to keep him from playing that final second.

“Of course I would have gone out on the field,” says Davis, in a matter of fact way.

“Yeah, guys are going to go down, guys are going to get hurt. There is no type of training that you can do that is going to prevent you from getting injured. Injury is part of the sport.”

That’s the way Davis plays the game. He plays with raw emotion—almost an anger when he’s on the field.

This is what makes him different from others, he says.

“When I’m in a football game, sometimes I convince myself that I’m in a fight,” he says. “I start to take things personal. It makes games more interesting to me when I take it to that level, because that’s when I’m able to play at my best—with emotion. On defense, if you can’t play with emotion, then you can’t play defense—flat out.”

At no time was Davis more emotional than in last season’s win over Stanford in the Big Game. After the game, Davis ran over to the sideline and ripped the Stanford Axe—the trophy given to the winner of the annual Big Game—out of the Stanford Axe Committee’s hands.

Not even a police officer or Cal head coach Jeff Tedford could get Davis to relinquish the Axe, which the Bears had lost to the Cardinal the year before.

“When I ripped the Stanford Axe out of those cats’ hands—Stanford’s hands? That’s just how I feel,” says Davis when asked to recount that day. “They did that to us last year, when they took our Axe from us. And I just feel that I have to take it back. We have to take what’s ours. That’s how I feel about football and that’s the way that I play.”

Just as Davis clutched the Stanford Axe, never relinquishing it, he has always kept a grip on his NFL dream—even when he doubted himself.

“When Rulon is locked into something and commits to something, it’s really hard to alter that path,” says Lupoi. “This is something that he’s definitely locked into.”

Davis showed his resolve and toughness—two characteristics that he undoubtedly picked up in his stint as a Marine—when he returned in five games after his foot injury. His comeback coincided with Cal’s much-anticipated showdown with USC. Davis played hurt against the Trojans, and returned 100 percent shortly thereafter.

Normally, it would take a person twice as much time to recover from the type of fracture he suffered.

And if there was any silver lining to all of the injuries he’s had, it’s that those nicks and bruises aren’t the kind that will stick around and haunt a football player for a career.

“Most of his injuries have been an actual break or a crack, the kind of freak type of things that aren’t as nagging as weak ligaments or tissue that (has) more potential to tear,” says Lupoi. “His injuries haven’t come from the usual wear and tear of being a football player. They’ve come on things that have come sporadically.”

Essentially, that is what Davis has to do this week—show that the injuries of the past will not hurt or hinder his performance in the future. He must show that he is capable of taking his career to the next level, a dream he has had since he was a teenager.

Of course, there will be those who will doubt his health and will say that his injuries are too much of a risk.

And what would he say to these naysayers?

“I wouldn’t say a damn thing,” says Davis. “As long as they see me next year ballin’, and say ‘Aw damn, we should have drafted that guy.’ That to me is payback enough. If people are doubting me out there, that’s fine. Just wait and see what happens next year.”

With all of those injures, however, there may not be a next year and he knows that.

For Davis, his career hasn’t been a straight path. Though his end goal was always the same, he never really knew how he was going to get there.

But he’s almost there and that’s enough for the 25 year old.

“I feel so blessed to even be here,” he says two weeks before the combine. “To just be a draft prospect is great in my book. No matter how well I do.”


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