GORDO, Ala. — The parking lot of Gordo High School was so full that the only spot to park a car was around 100 feet away from the gymnasium on the curbside of a tiny home in the town of 1,714.
There were nearly 10 television cameras waiting inside, a pep band and cheerleaders eagerly awaiting the announcement of where four football players were going to play in college.
The event was headlined by the nation’s No. 1 inside linebacker — Gordo’s native son, Ben Davis.
By 9 a.m., the energy in the gym was so loud that it vibrated through my jeans as I sat on the floor. If I wanted a good view of Davis’ decision, that was my only option because there were no other seating options. That’s how many people came to see Davis’ decision.
The crowd was very pro-Alabama. Men and women of all ages were wearing Alabama T-shirts, hoodies, hats — whatever showed off the script “A” logo.
“I’m just hoping Ben chooses Alabama,” a man behind me said. “I want him to bring home that championship trophy to Gordo.”
It was almost showtime.
After Gordo’s band played the fight songs of Alabama, Auburn and Georgia — three of Davis’ finalists — an ESPNU production staffer made sure Davis’ earpiece was in place so he could talk back with the analysts in studio after making his decision.
Around 9:10 a.m., the crowd became silent, eagerly awaiting Davis’ announcement. Would it be Alabama, where Bryant-Denny Stadium was exactly 24 miles from Gordo High School, or would it be the Crimson Tide’s cross-state arch nemesis, Auburn?
“First off, I would like to thank God, my family and the coaching staff for developing me as a player,” Davis said to the television cameras.
The five-star prospect then reached down below the table and placed a houndstooth hat on his head — an ode to legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant. He was going to play for the Crimson Tide. His mother, Faye Davis, seated to his right, jumped out of her chair and flashed the script “A” gloves to the camera. His father, Wayne Davis, placed two Alabama footballs on the table with a smile from ear to ear. The man behind me that really wanted Davis to attend his favorite school kicked me in the back in excitement. He apologized then immediately went back to screaming in excitement.
He wasn’t the only one that was overjoyed. The entire gymnasium erupted in cheers. The pep band immediately started playing “Yea, Alabama!”
Ben Davis was going home, and the expectations were going to be lofty.
His dad is still Alabama’s all-time leading tackler with 327. A record that has stood for 30 years. Davis was born with Alabama blood, but he says a decision wasn’t made until the night before he grabbed that gray and black checkered houndstooth hat.
“It was a tough decision,” Davis told SEC Country. “It went all the way up until last night. I picked the school that was best for me, not where everyone else wanted me to go.”
That life-changing decision came down to an Iron Bowl matchup of Auburn and Alabama. The Tigers finished in second place. Despite Davis batting over his decision until hours before he would tell the country on national television, his father knew all along where his son would be playing college football.
“This event just confirmed what I already knew,” Wayne Davis said. “I had no doubt that Ben was going to be attending the University of Alabama. At the same time, during the whole process, I wanted to respect his curiousness for going on his official visits, and that’s what we did.”
His son took all five of those official visits to each one of his finalists — Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU and Notre Dame. In the end, one thing put the Crimson Tide over their competition to land the nation’s top linebacker.
“The home feeling. They have a winning tradition, and I am a winner,” the younger Davis said.
There was no secret that throughout Ben Davis’ recruiting process that his father wanted him to follow in his footsteps at the University of Alabama. He admits that it would have been a little hard if his son chose Auburn.
“We would have supported Ben 110 percent,” Wayne Davis said. “The difficulty — I would have gotten over that eventually, like any parent would. Whichever school he would have chosen, we would have been behind him. Thank God, he chose the University of Alabama, though.”
Now that Davis is officially a Crimson Tide signee, what should Alabama fans expect from the son of a legend? Davis wasn’t the only five-star linebacker Alabama signed on Wednesday. His friend, who he calls a brother, Mack Wilson, also signed with the Tide. During his press conference on Wednesday, Nick Saban said both have a good chance at seeing the field early.
“We like getting good players who can go out on the field and play good,” Saban said “Perception doesn’t win any games for us around here but good players do. We thought they were outstanding players, very athletic guys.
“Both of them can run, they’re instinctive players, and the goal for us is to teach those guys as much as we can as soon as we can because this is a position where we’ve had lots of guys in the past contribute as freshmen.”
Saban has compared Davis to former Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland, a potential first-round pick in this year’s NFL draft.
“He said I’m a smart enough guy to take his spot on the defense with the play-calling and everything. He said I’m going to have to contribute early,” Davis said of Saban’s message to him.
Those familiar to the recruiting world understand that coaches promise almost every single player they come in contact with early playing time. The perception from the outside of Alabama’s facilities is that freshmen don’t play. Cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick heard it throughout his recruitment, and he helped recruit a four-star defensive end who ended up signing with the Tide Wednesday.
But Saban was clear in his post National Signing Day press conference, that Davis and his “brother,” Wilson, can make an impact on next year’s team, just like several other freshmen linebackers at Alabama.
“Rolando McClain did, Dont’a Hightower did, C.J. Mosley did, I think Nico Johnson did,” Saban said. “We didn’t have a lot of depth at that position this year. So I think how quickly these guys can learn and grow and develop at that position is important because I think they both have the kind of athletic ability and critical factors at that position that we’re looking for.”
There’s a long list of linebackers that succeeded at Alabama dating back to Ben’s father’s playing days, including the ones Saban rattled off above. He knows the Crimson Tide’s history. It’s in his house. He sees it every day.
“It definitely played a part in my decision,” Davis said when asked if his father’s legacy played a role in his commitment. “Knowing his roots and everything, he really helped me out throughout the whole process. I’m going to go to Alabama and be my own player, though. He has his name in the record books, and I am hopefully going to put mine in there, too.”
Being the son of a legend comes with added pressure. Fans will expect you to replicate your father’s success. Wayne says his son is ready for the challenge because it’s something they have talked about extensively.
“I don’t think there’s going to be no added pressure because Ben and I talk about it all the time,” Wayne Davis said. “It’s not an uncommon subject inside the Davis household. He knows the records I have. If he plays as half as good in college as he has in high school, because here at Gordo, he shattered everything I have done here.”
So how would the father of one of the top players in the country feel if he ends up breaking his records at Alabama?
“I want Ben to be better than I was,” he said. “I would think that any parent would. I want him to achieve more. I want him to be more successful than I ever was. I want him to get more accolades. I want him to be even more mature than what I was in college. It would be a joy if he breaks my records.”