Vontae Davis, in his own words
The now-retired cornerback ‘feels great. I haven’t felt like this in … well, in my whole life.’
For the first time since his abrupt in-game retirement, former Buffalo Bills cornerback Vontae Davis speaks out about the moment he changed his life. “I went to the bench after that series and it just hit me,” Davis said. “I don’t belong on that field anymore.” Davis told defensive backs coach John Butler, “I’m done” and returned to his spot on the bench. The coach didn’t reply. With just 47 seconds until halftime Sunday, the Bills’ defense went back on the field for two inconsequential plays before the half. Lafayette Pitts replaced Davis at cornerback.
For Davis, that game-day morning felt no different from any of the others he had experienced in his nine previous NFL seasons. Waking up in a hotel, eating, reviewing notes, “I felt normal,” he said. With rhythm and blues music playing through the speakers of his white Mercedes S550 sedan, he drove to the stadium. Continuing with his usual pregame routine, Davis hydrated, stretched and did some light drills while playing hip-hop through his headphones. “It’s normally randomly selected Rick Ross, but I always make sure I listen to ‘Tears of Joy’ at least once.”
Fulfilling a promise to his grandmother, he recited Psalm 23 twice before every game. Then went to work.
When the game started, something was different. “I didn’t feel right, I didn’t feel like myself.” You wouldn’t have been able to tell from the first series. On third down, Davis eluded a blocker and tackled Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, inches shy of the first down marker, forcing a three and out. Showing the skill that made him a first-round pick and Pro Bowler, Davis stood triumphant, with his fist held high, signaling fourth down.
Even in that moment, Davis knew something wasn’t right, but it wasn’t until the moment on the bench that he realized that he no longer belonged there. He suddenly realized that he was an outsider in the game that he had loved since he was a boy in Washington, D.C. The game that made him who he is. “Football is not for me,” he said.
The team chaplain and player development director came to talk to Davis. “I didn’t expect them to understand,” Davis said. “That moment was shocking to me as well.” Davis is intimately familiar with the football gladiator mentality. He, like all football players, has taken shots to play through injuries and given of himself to advance the goals of a team. “My intention was not to hurt my teammates,” but he does not regret the timing. “In that moment, my intuition was telling me I don’t belong on that field anymore.”
He texted the one person for whom little explanation was needed, his wife: “Babe I’m done. I’m retiring.” She replied, “Ok, want me to meet you at the house.” He had to wait a few hours to talk to his brother, Vernon Davis, who was busy playing for Washington. “Vernon was emotional and surprised, but he’s always supported every decision I’ve made and understood.”
Davis is unbothered by the critics of his unprecedented move. From analysts preaching brotherhood and loyalty to fans tweeting that his actions were akin to soldiers leaving their platoon mates to die in the middle of a battle — he’s heard it. Although Davis refused to respond to those critiques, anyone willing to fairly assess the NFL knows Davis’ decision didn’t put anyone’s life in jeopardy. And the expectation for loyalty in the big business that is professional football could be described as subjective at best. He even finds some of it amusing. “The crazy thing is that people automatically assumed that something was wrong with me mentally.” Standing on the precipice of a life he has never known, a life with no football, a life without the guardrails of football’s regimens, Davis is enthusiastic. “I feel great. I haven’t felt like this in … ” Davis paused to consider, “well, in my whole life.”
Davis seemed to genuinely be in a good place after a decision that shocked the football world. But a major event like that may take some time to fully process. Minutes after our phone conversation concluded, Davis texted me:
“And on a final note, Fox, leaving was therapeutic, bro. I left everything the league wanted me to be, playing for my teammates while injured, the gladiator mentality, it all just popped. And when it popped, I just wanted to leave it all behind. So that’s why I don’t care what people say. That experience was personal and not meant for anyone else to understand. It was me cold turkey leaving behind an identity that I carried with me for so long.”