Donnie Davis hated Georgia Tech. He wouldn’t go to a game, wouldn’t set foot on campus. Whenever he drove past – and living in Atlanta, he did often – he’d feel sick to his stomach.
On this spring day in 2009, Donnie Davis sits in the Edge Center, headquarters for Tech sports. He has come from a class in business law. At his feet is a backpack bearing the embroidered letters “GT.”
He’s talking about the future – he’ll graduate with a degree in business management in December – and also the past. Donnie Davis was once the biggest name on the campus he came to despise, but now he’s back, and he’s older (age 36) and wiser and far more forgiving.
“I don’t want to present the case that I was the victim and Georgia Tech was the villain,” he says. “I wholeheartedly believe that nothing was directed at Donnie Davis. I just happened to be the guy in Locker No. 13.”
He arrived at Tech in 1991, a Parade All-American from Burlington, N.C. Recruited by Bobby Ross, Davis was seen as the successor to Shawn Jones, who had led the Jackets to the 1990 national title.
He redshirted in 1991 and sat behind Jones in 1992, but by then Ross was gone to the NFL and Bill Lewis was coaching Tech. Davis started at quarterback in 1993, when the Jackets finished 5-6, and even after two off-season shoulder surgeries he assumed he’d remain the starter.
“It wasn’t up in the air,” he says. “I didn’t think I’d done so badly that they’d bring in somebody who hadn’t even been here.”
At the end of spring practice, Lewis told Davis he was No. 1 no longer. The Jackets would go with Tommy Luginbill, a transfer from a California community college. As Davis recalls it, Lewis said he would deploy both quarterbacks but that Luginbill gave Tech its best chance to win.
The 1994 Jackets won one game. Davis played at wide receiver and on special teams, but not until the North Carolina State game, Tech’s fourth of the season, did he get a real look at quarterback. He scored a touchdown on an option keeper and led a drive to a field goal at the end of the first half. He didn’t play in the second. For him, and for others, that tore it.
Davis: “I’m thinking, ‘We aren’t winning. We aren’t even close to winning. And I’m not even close to getting on the field … This has to be bigger than me.’ ”
It has been speculated that Lewis’ choice of Luginbill splintered the team along racial lines. (Luginbill is white.) In the cold light of hindsight, Davis won’t call the decision racially motivated: “I don’t think it was that clear-cut, the white-black thing. But people were questioning the coaches’ motives, and that was the only thing they could grasp … ‘It’s because the guy’s black – what else could it be?’ ”
Lewis, who now works for the Notre Dame athletics department in community relations, declined to revisit the Davis-Luginbill issue. “I don’t remember those things,” he said this week. “Let’s just let it lie.”
Lewis resigned with three games remaining in the 1994 season. Luginbill transferred to Eastern Kentucky. Under new coach George O’Leary, Davis started at quarterback and led Tech to a 6-5 record in 1995. Then, his eligibility completed but three quarters short of a degree, he left and didn’t look back.
He played for the Arizona Rattlers and was MVP of the 1997 Arena Bowl, in which Kurt Warner was the losing quarterback. He had discussions with Canadian teams but never signed a contract. Soon he was back in Atlanta. He played for the Georgia Force in 2002 and 2003. Eric Zeier, a former Georgia rival then employed by HomeBanc, helped Davis get a job in mortgage banking. But something was missing.
“I’d left with a bad taste in my mouth,” he says. “I had nothing good to say about Georgia Tech. But I hadn’t finished [college] and I didn’t like Tech … I was handcuffed.”
He tried once to return to Tech but found the red tape too daunting. He was taking online courses from Penn State when Joe Hamilton, the former Tech quarterback, introduced him to broadcaster Wes Durham, who introduced him to Wayne Hogan, an associate AD who offered to facilitate. In 2008 Davis re-entered the Institute, taking his classes and serving an internship in the athletics department.
Today Davis is a de facto ambassador. He waves to everybody. He invited several former teammates to Tech’s spring game. He thinks he can stand as a case study: “I’m an example of how not to handle things, and I’m also an example of coming back to finish what you started.”
He wants to work for a “multi-national organization in international marketing,” and he has his graduation targeted. “It’s Dec. 12, 2009, and I should walk across the stage at 9:37 a.m.”
He laughs. “I might even ask to make the speech.”