Brandon’s Demario Davis has become one of the NFL’s most productive linebackers for the New Orleans Saints.

NEW ORLEANS – When 30-year-old Demario Davis was a senior football player at Brandon High School, he was not recruited by Ole Miss or Mississippi State and eventually chose Arkansas State over Southern Miss.

Now, Davis, who plays for the New Orleans Saints, might be the best linebacker in the NFL. If not, he definitely belongs in the first sentence of any discussion about who is the best linebacker in the sport.

When 23-year-old Gardner Minshew was a senior at Brandon, he was overlooked by Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Miss, and eventually walked on at Troy, before his football odyssey took him to Northwest Community College, East Carolina and then across the continent to Washington State.

Now, Minshew, a sixth-round draft choice, might be the best rookie quarterback in the NFL. He is surely the best rookie story in pro football.

Rick Cleveland

Sunday, the New Orleans Saints’ Davis will be chasing the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Minshew, trying to help the Saints remain in first place in the NFC South. Thursday afternoon, Davis talked about the only other Brandon native active in pro football.

“Yeah, I know Gardner,” Davis said. “Used to, when I would come back to Brandon, I’d hear from friends about this young quarterback and how good he was and how hard he worked. That was Gardner. Then, I met his dad, Flint, who is a really nice guy, and started working out at Flint’s gym in the off-season. So, yeah, I’ve kept up with Gardner Minshew. I’m super-proud of him and what he’s achieved.

Gardner Minshew (right), pre-mustache, and his dad, Flint Minshew, are pictured during Gardner’s recruiting visit to Washington State in 2018.

“It’s so impressive what Gardner’s doing at Jacksonville, getting a chance to play as a rookie quarterback because of injuries, and then not just playing but really playing well and giving his team a chance to win. I guess he’s the first player from my hometown to start at quarterback in the NFL. I’m proud of him, proud for him. I’m proud for Flint, too.”

Brandon can take great pride in both Davis, who leads the Saints in tackles with 35 through five games, and Minshew, who has thrown nine touchdowns against only one interception since taking over for Nick Foles, who was injured in the Jaguars’ opening game.

Davis believes both he and Minshew benefit from what he calls a “blue-collar attitude” that he says is common among Mississippi athletes.

“It’s an underdog mentality, a blue-collar mentality,” Davis said. “I think you see it a lot with Mississippi athletes. Neither one of us got much publicity coming out of high school. We weren’t projected to be great college players, much less pros. That puts a chip on your shoulder, makes you work all the harder to prove yourself. I used to hear about how hard Gardner worked, how much time he spent throwing after practice or on Saturday mornings after games. I heard about how much time he spent in the film room.

“And I know how hard I’ve worked and am still working to prove myself. Neither one of us had any handouts. Neither one of us had it easy. This didn’t happen overnight for either one of us.”

It did not. And that has been the case for most of the greatest football players Mississippi has produced. Pro and College Football Hall of Famer Walter Payton had one major college offer: Kansas State. Pro and College Hall of Famer Jerry Rice had none. Pro Football Hall of Famer Brett Favre got his only D-I offer from Southern Miss on the day before signing date. Even College Football Hall of Famer Archie Manning had only three major college offers: Ole Miss, State and Tulane. But all were incredibly hard workers. And all were from small-town Mississippi and had what Davis calls the”blue-collar attitude.”

You might have read in this space last December about how Davis was flying under the NFL radar despite leading a much-improved Saints defense into the playoffs. This season, Davis is getting more headlines, much more respect. At a chiseled 6 feet, 2 inches and 252 pounds, he has the speed to cover running backs and tight ends in pass coverage and the size and strength to both stuff the run and rush the quarterback.

Said Davis, “I’m not so worried about getting the press coverage. The respect I want is from my peers. And I’m seeing that more with teams using two players to block me. That’s the kind of respect I want.”

Lately, there have been as many stories about what Davis does off-the-field as there have been about what he does on it. Most recently, the NFL at first fined Davis $7,000 for wearing a “Man of God” bandanna. Later, the league rescinded that fine, but not before Davis, with some outside help, began mass-producing the bandannas to sell.

As of Thursday, Davis said, “more than 40 thousand dollars worth” of the bandannas have been sold. All the proceeds go to St. Dominic Memorial Hospital’s drive to raise money for a new emergency room. That’s where Davis’ mother worked as a cyto-technologist when he played for the Brandon Bulldogs.

“It’s all about using my platform any way I can to help people,” Davis said. “And in this case I am honoring my mother as well. I hope we raise a lot more. There’s already a match involved that turns the 40 thousand into 80 thousand.”

You also might have read in this space last year about Minshew’s football odyssey taking him to Pullman, Wash., 2,236 miles from Brandon.

Both Davis and Minshew are rags-to-riches, Cinderella-type stories that began in  Brandon – and collide in the NFL spotlight Sunday.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.