AUBURN, Ala. — If Marlon Davidson had made his own decisions in middle school, he would walked off of the football field for good.
The Greenville, Ala., native never would have become Auburn’s first freshman starter on the defensive line since 1985 (that’s as far back as records go). He wouldn’t have recorded his first career sack in his second game.
Lucky for Davidson, his mom wouldn’t let him quit.
Cynthia Carter recognized her youngest son’s potential and made him go back to practice. She told everyone around her — most commonly members of her church choir — that her boy was special.
And she was right. A few years later, Davidson was one of the top prospects in the country.
Then on Feb. 23, 2015, tragedy struck. Carter had been suffering from leg pain. She went to a walk-in clinic and collapsed. She hit her head during the fall and passed away later that evening.
Since that day, navigating his greatest loss has helped Davidson grow into the man and football player his mother always knew he could be — equipped with strength unmatched by any opponent.
“The thing about them (Davidson and freshman Derrick Brown), they’re both very emotionally mature,” Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said. “That’s the biggest separating factor with freshman. There are physical specimens, there are guys that pick it up quick, but the wear and tear of the daily grind gets to them emotionally — it doesn’t phase them (Davidson and Brown).”
The Tigers open SEC play against Texas A&M on Saturday, and Davidson is just getting started.
‘Student of the game’
Cynthia Carter never let single parent struggles overwhelm her. She sacrificed to give her three boys whatever they needed or wanted, especially when it came to sports.
“She was always giving up everything she had to make sure they could get what they wanted,” his aunt Debra Moorer said. “She never once complained about it. You couldn’t have ordered a better mom than Marlon had… I often wondered how she could afford to pay the money for all her kids ever since pee wee, but she always made a way.”
Carter’s grit was contagious and eventually it rubbed off on Davidson. As he played more football at Greenville High School, he tried harder to be the best. He often was.
“He was always a playmaker,” Greenville High School head coach Josh McClendon said. “He was always around the ball making plays, he had several interceptions for us, making sacks. He was always an impact player.”
Even as a freshman and sophomore Davidson’s size was impressive. But his athleticism was stunning. As a basketball player, he could finish with both hands, had good footwork and ran the floor well, yet he studied football like he lacked natural talent.
“I call him a student of the game,” McClendon said. “He loves to watch film, he understands the game, he understands what he’s supposed to do, not only what he’s supposed to do, but probably everyone else on the defense also… He was real good at understanding that the other team was going to do and what position he needed to be in and all those things. He’s one of those special players you talk about.”
Davidson’s knowledge of the game and abilities also helped him foster relationships with teammates.
Joe Maxwell played on the left side of the defensive line opposite Davidson. The two met in eighth grade and quickly became best friends.
“It was very helpful having someone like that (on the field with me),” Maxwell said. “I just had to compete with him…We had a competitive relationship that made each other better, but it was never anything negative, it was always a positive.”
As more college football powerhouses came calling, Davidson remained a playful giant. He played with Maxwell’s younger siblings when he visited their home. He ate the entire chocolate cake Maxwell gave him for his birthday. He went to barbeques. He enjoyed time bonding with his friends and family.
“He was very modest, he didn’t let it affect him at all,” Maxwell said. “He just wanted to be treated like a regular person. He didn’t want anyone to think of him as more than what he is, he just wanted to be a regular person.”
Davidson stayed positive, never talking trash or letting anyone get inside his head. He always played with passion.
“That’s really how he is,” Maxwell said. “He plays with a lot of emotion and plays with a chip on his shoulder and lets it drive him to do great things.”
And just like she had been with her other sons, Carter was in the stands for every play, making sure Davidson did what he was supposed to. After every forced turnover or made tackle, a “that’s my baby” usually followed.
The next challenge
Davidson transferred to Carver High School in Montgomery for his junior season. When his mother passed away, Maxwell was the first person Davidson called.
“His mom was really all he ever had,” Maxwell said. “His mom and brothers. It was really hard for him. You wouldn’t think that he would hide it as well as he does, and he doesn’t really hide it even, he doesn’t let it affect him.”
Davidson moved back to Greenville before the end of his junior year. With the help of teammates and family, he dealt with his devastation. He graduated from Greenville in December and enrolled at Auburn in January, where his older brother Kenneth Carter was a defensive lineman from 2010 to 2013.
Despite his personal adversity Davidson immediately did well in the classroom and excelled on the football field, working toward his goal of playing right away. The newcomer embodied his mom once again. He impressed his teammates with his resolve.
“I think the sky’s the limit for Marlon, just because of the type of player he is,” senior defensive lineman Montravius Adams said. “He always comes to work at practice and he always just wants to get better because he has the energy about himself. He doesn’t like to lose.”
Davidson enjoyed playing for defensive line coach Rodney Garner, one of the Tiger’s loudest and most animated coaches. Even in rare moments when Davidson was slightly overwhelmed by the intensity of his new world — like he was early in fall camp — the freshman continued to triumph and grow grow up fast.
As the 2016 season approached it became clear that Davidson would have a chance to play and contribute early.
“I think the special ones have a chance to,” Gus Malzahn said. “If you look in the past, there’s been some true freshmen defensive linemen in our league that earned it and were ready…Those guys are ready to play and they need to keep improving. But I think they will. Carl (Lawson) and Montravius (Adams) both played as true freshmen, and by the middle of the year, they started to feel comfortable.”
If Davidson was uneasy in his first college start against Heisman frontrunner Deshaun Watson and No. 2 Clemson, it didn’t show.
‘Make her proud’
People warned Davidson that college ball wouldn’t be as simple as high school, but he pushed the opposition around as he always had. In Auburn’s second game the following Saturday against Arkansas State, Davidson notched the first sack of the season.
“He was pumped, it was one of the best feelings ever,” Maxwell said. “With players like that that’s what really makes you great is having big plays and making a difference in the game. That’s something he always really liked doing. For him, he’s living out his dream at his favorite school and to be doing the things like that, it’s a great feeling for him.”
In just a few short months on the Plains, Davidson has shown he can handle any obstacle — or offensive line — standing in front of him. Few challenges will be as agonizing as what he’s already encountered.
“When he gets out there on the football field, he’s not afraid, he’s striving for something. I always told my husband, when Marlon plays football he gets hungry for it,” Moorer said. “I think his drive — he wants to make her proud to know that whatever she gave up for him, he wanted her to be proud and know that it mattered to him.”
When Davidson steps onto the field, the football player who almost never was aims to make his mom proud, and with every quarterback pursuit — just as she believed he would — inches closer to becoming great.