Ben Davis has entered through the double doors of the fieldhouse that rests behind Gordo (Ala.) High School almost a thousand times.
It’s a portal to the past.
Team photos line the inside walls of the “G” room – as dubbed by coaches and teammates – like a yearbook. Gordo coach Ryan Lolley calls it the program’s replica of Alabama’s Hall of Champions.
Four enlarged photos are prominently centered on the white wall, each one commemorating a state championship.
Davis always eyes the 1980 frame.
A young man wearing No. 90 stands in the back row, noticeable by his large afro. From his ears to his cheekbones to his stocky frame, Davis can see his own reflection.
It’s his father, Wayne, staring back at him.
The elder Davis starred for Gordo during the early 1980s and won a state title as a sophomore, before playing at Alabama from 1983-86, where he became the program’s all-time leading tackler. He is the only player from Gordo to make it to the NFL.
“I taped Wayne’s ankles every Friday night and I’m taping Ben’s now,” said Dale Davis, who bears no relation. He began volunteer coaching for Gordo in 1980.
“It’s like watching the same guy 30 years later.”
The parallels between father and son are eerie. Both have carved out a legacy at Gordo. Both played linebacker and flashed on offense in high school. Both are being heavily recruited by in-state programs Auburn and Alabama.
The only difference, Dale says, is that Ben — at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds — is a good half-inch taller and 20 pounds heavier.
“If you brought Wayne from 1981 to 2015 and stood him next to Ben, you’d think they were twin brothers,” said Davis.
Those who know Ben know he was raised in a house built on faith. Both his father and his grandfather were deeply involved in ministry work. He’s uncharacteristically humble — a byproduct of being raised in the city of Gordo.
It’s a blue-collar town northwest of Tuscaloosa and close to the Alabama-Mississippi border.
It rests snug off of Highway 82, spanning roughly three miles with a population of just under 2,000. It’s home to two gas stations, a Piggly Wiggly, one street light. The closest Walmart is situated 45 miles away.
Gordo is where Wayne and Faye Davis grew up before heading to Tuscaloosa and then Phoenix, Ariz., by way of the 1987 NFL Draft. Wayne was taken in the ninth round that year by the then-St. Louis Cardinals, who moved to Phoenix in 1988. He spent two years in the NFL before playing a season with the Orlando Thunder – a member of the World Football League – in 1989. He and Faye returned to Phoenix in 1990, where Wayne pursued ministry work.
“The Lord starting calling, so, you have to move with that, man,” said Wayne, who has built his family’s lives around faith.
The Lord called again in 2007.
The Davis family moved back to Gordo that summer when Ben was a spry 9-year-old. Faye’s father, Dr. Bobby Lee Ellis, was battling diabetes and the family returned to offer support to both he and Ben’s grandmother, Mattie.
Ellis had been the pastor at New Home Baptist Church for 40-plus years before the disease worsened. Wayne joined the ministry the same year his family returned to Gordo and became the head pastor. His father-in-law passed in January 2013.
During this time, Ben came to know Gordo as his new home. It’s where he learned to hunt, ride a four-wheeler and fish.
Above all, it’s where he began playing football – a religion to the people of Gordo.
“If you want to rob Gordo, Friday night is the night because everyone is at the stadium,” Ben said jokingly.
The town doesn’t have a mall or a movie theater. The closest ones are miles away in Tuscaloosa or Columbus, Miss., making youth sports the premier attraction. When the Davis family returned to Gordo in 2007, Ben was eager to pick up the game his father came to love.
He started out on the offensive and defensive lines. Though he was bigger than his peers, his father could sense he had a unique skill set.
“He was able to naturally run to the ball, block and catch,” Wayne said. “The Lord really blessed him with that.”
Wayne said Ben was also blessed with far more than just the physical tools needed to be a good football player. At a young age, he was coachable.
“The greatest part about it was his seriousness about wanting to be a football player,” his father recalled.
Gordo coach Ryan Lolley has led the Green Wave for 14 seasons. He first met Wayne in 2007, when he served as the head basketball coach and linebackers coach at Gordo from 2010-12. Lolley had heard all the stories about how good Wayne was during the 1980s. He soon discovered Ben was cut from the same cloth when he arrived as a budding freshman.
“I never thought it’d be this big,” said Lolley, speaking to Ben’s blossoming recruitment.
Year after year, Lolley has seen Davis improve while expectations have grown. He equated outside expectations — not comparisons to his father — to what Kobe Bryant endured throughout his career when compared to Michael Jordan.
And though Ben has managed to scale those mountains, he has remained grounded.
He’s still the same Ben who sets up the audio at his father’s church for Sunday service. He is still a role model for some of the younger kids of Gordo, too. Davis even wrote “Colton” across his wrists before every game this season to pay homage to a local kid who is battling cystic fibrosis. The two met just before the start of this season and have maintained a friendship.
“It’s not out of his nature to do things like that in the community,” Wayne said.
And when it comes to the football field, Davis the player is equally impressive.
As a senior, he recorded 25 unassisted tackles, 79 assisted tackles, one sack, one interception. On offense, Davis recorded 33 receptions for 510 yards and seven touchdowns in his final year. His offer list continues to grow like a weed – he’s closing in on 30.
And the more he plays, the more he resembles No. 90.
At 6-3 and 240 pounds, he is the same size as his father was during his short stint in the NFL. Unsurprisingly, he’s coveted by several programs, including his father’s alma mater, given his plug-in potential.
“Of course, there is no doubt about it I’m pushing him to go to the Crimson Tide,” Wayne said jokingly.
But Wayne knows the conundrum facing recruits today. He’ll be the first to tell you he wants his son just 45 miles away from home donning Crimson. But he also knows the difficulty of the decision. And so he’s offered Ben advice on how to handle the pressures of the media and coaches calling morning, noon and night. He’s been there before, though Ben jokingly said his father never received as much mail as he has.
“I had to ask myself on my official visit down to Auburn, I just had to ask, ‘Would I be down here wishing I was at Alabama?’ ” Wayne recalled of his own recruitment. “And then I reversed the question. My choice was, ‘I’d rather be at Alabama.’”
Like his father, Ben is wrestling with his decision as National Signing Day in February approaches. Surely, Alabama has crossed his mind before. He grew up watching the Crimson Tide. He knows his father holds the all-time record for tackles (327). But Ben also grew up watching LSU, too. Other programs, such as Auburn and UGA, have caught his attention.
And while he knows where his father would like for him to go, Ben knows just how big the world is.
“When I think about it, I’m going to be my own person,” Ben said. “Wherever I go, I’m coming to take someone’s spot.”
While he may be known as “Mr. Uno” to Gordo locals — a nickname he earned from wearing No. 1 — Ben has earned the distinction as the top inside linebacker in the country, per multiple recruiting sites such as Rivals and 247Sports.
And Lolley cannot fathom how his top player hasn’t changed throughout this whole process, but he knows why.
“A lot of times when you run into these guys that get so much hype there is so much baggage,” Lolley said. “In Ben’s case, he doesn’t. He’s the type of guy you would want as the face of your program at the next level.”
Last week, Gordo lost a 17-14 heartbreaker in the third round of the Alabama state playoffs.. Ben exited the Green Wave stadium for the last time hunched over with his father keeping him upright. The emotions took over.
A win would have given Gordo another week. A win would have inched Ben and his teammates closer to hanging up a state championship team photo of their own. A win would have made the careers of Ben and his father look almost identical.
Ben will enter the field house at Gordo High School a few more times before graduating. He’ll see the 1980 team photo and the familiar face in the background. And though he won’t have a state title of his own, the parallels between father and son will continue.