WMU's Corey Davis met the media Saturday, ahead of Monday'a Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas. Tony Paul, The Detroit News
Arlington, Texas — Corey Davis didn’t come from great means. He didn’t even come from decent means. His parents didn’t have cars when he was growing up.
So after last season, when it came time to sit down and decide whether he would enter the NFL draft early and potentially cash a seven-figure check in the process, most would have understood if he’d said, “See ya, K’zoo.”
But Davis didn’t. He had a vision of what these 2016 Broncos could accomplish, and the idea of missing out on it scared the daylights out of him.
Good move. Here are the Broncos, 13-0, Mid-American Conference champs, and with a chance to finish in the Top 10 nationally, in the Associated Press poll with a victory over Wisconsin in Monday’s Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium.
And Davis has done nothing to hurt his NFL stock. In fact, most experts agree, it’s risen monumentally, likely to first-round money.
“I remember we sat down and talked about it,” Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck said. “The biggest thing he talked about was, one, ‘I want to be able to get a degree, or at least set myself up to get closer to getting that degree.’
“But the biggest thing was, ‘Coach, I think we’re going to be really, really special next year.’
“Here’s a kid convincing the head football coach how good we’re going to be. I should be convincing him, but he’s convincing me how good we’re going to be. And he said, ‘I would really regret it if it’s as good as I think it’s going to be and I’m watching it on TV instead or experiencing it.’”
A lor of people, in uniform or not, are responsible for Western Michigan’s season, but it starts with Davis, who caught a career-high 91 passes for 1,427 yards, and in the process became the all-time leader in Football Bowl Subdivision history with 5,212 yards.
All this from a relatively quiet, 6-foot-3, 213-pound receiver who couldn’t crack the two-star reports in high school, meaning Big Ten teams never gave him a sniff — and even if they did, it would’ve been hard to get him admitted.
Making the grade
Davis’ Western Michigan teammates talk a lot about how Davis is among the hardest workers on the team, if not the gold standard. It’s a good sign when your stars are your hardest workers.
But he’s the same way in the classroom, because he has to be.
When Fleck went hard after Davis in Chicagoland — he attended Wheaton-Warrenville High School — getting Davis to say, “Sure,” to a 32-year-old with no head-coaching experience, from a little-known school in southwestern Michigan, wasn’t even the hardest part of the process. It was getting Davis’ grades up to snuff, after Davis had committed.
That was not easy.
“That’s not something that comes naturally to him, that’s not something that comes naturally to everybody,” said fellow senior Zach Terrell, the quarterback who’s thrown 50 touchdown passes to Davis over four years, one short of the college record for a quarterback receiver tandem.
“Took an Army,” Fleck said.
“But he’s (Davis) never been on academic probation,” Terrell said. “He has busted his butt to be in a position to continue to be able to play every single day.”
WMU coach P.J. Fleck met the media Saturday ahead of Monday's Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas. Tony Paul, The Detroit News
Now, perhaps, you get the sense why that degree matters so much. You put in that much work, at something that just doesn’t always compute, and you want to see it through, even if it means putting a million-dollar payday on hold.
“From his past, he’s a guy that comes from nothing,” said Terrell, a masters student. “Look at me, I have no excuses. He had every excuse to quit, and he could’ve been another statistic. And he chose not to, and you’ve gotta commend him for that.
“Look where he’s at now.”
In high school, Davis moved out of his parents’ home, and into a better situation with the Graham family, Robin and Dan. They’re officially his foster parents. They played a role in his decision-making process on the pros, as did Fleck, and Davis’ brother Titus, who played at Central Michigan and briefly in the NFL.
But in the end, it was Davis’ call last winter and spring.
“I’m not really in it for the money, as hard as that is to believe,” Davis said. “I’m in it for the fun of it, and the love of it.
“A lot more work to do, a lot more meat on the bone ... I just knew, this group was going to be very special.”
One thing Terrell adamantly points out is that Davis returning for his senior season had nothing to do with career college-football records.
In fact, early in the season when Davis was getting fewer targets, not once did he complain to Terrell. And not once since Davis became college football’s all-time leading receiver has Terrell heard Davis bring it up in conversation, and they converse a lot.
Davis’ decision, Terrell is convinced, was all almost all about the team, and maybe a bit for Fleck, too.
“I think he just felt very blessed that Coach Fleck gave him the opportunity to come to Western Michigan,” Terrell said. “I felt like he felt he owed him. ... That’s just who he is.
“He’s all about his teammates. He gave up all that money ... and he would do it all over again.”
While several college football stars have made headlines in recent weeks, deciding to skip their respective bowl games to protect their health and, thus, their future bank accounts, Davis threw caution to the wind in returning for his senior season — and certainly never gave a minute of thought to skipping this Cotton Bowl.
Even though, as a projected first-round pick, he’s worth more than $5 million able-bodied, and potentially a lot more.
Monday will be the final game of his storied college football season, which almost never got off the ground — and now his stock is sky-high, thanks to the records, of course, and the steady stream of highlight catches, which ESPN and “SportsCenter” have aired frequently.
“It’s starting to hit me a little bit,” Davis said. “It’s gonna be very emotional, the last game with my brothers.”
One of those brothers is fellow senior receiver Carrington Thompson, who said he looks up to Davis — even though Thompson is a bit older.
He wasn’t surprised one bit that Davis came back for a 2016 grand finale.
“Corey’s been always not a selfish guy,” Thompson said. “He just wanted to come back and finish his last year off right, with this family that he’s spent his last three years with. We love that he wanted to come back.
“He really just wanted to come back and finish school and finish it out with us.”
Davis has been WMU’s leading receiver all four years he’s been in Kalamazoo, just edging out Daniel Braverman last year — before Braverman left early for the NFL draft. (He was a seventh-round pick by the Chicago Bears, and recently made his pro debut.)
Davis saved his best for last, though, and was a consensus All-American this season, and leads the nation with 18 touchdown receptions.
He’s got a tough test waiting in Wisconsin’s daunting defense. But Davis has stared down challenges, one after another since he was young, and as Terrell said, look at him now.
“It’s very inspiring,” Fleck said, “to watch his progress.
“And that’s a credit to his upbringing, his foster family, and all the things he’s been through in his life.”
Western Michigan vs. Wisconsin
Kickoff: 1 p.m. Monday, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Records: Western Michigan 13-0, Wisconsin 10-3
Line: Wisconsin by 8 1/2