ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Niko Davis taking the field Saturday against the Seattle Seahawks will seem about a million miles away from where his football journey began.
College football – much less the NFL – was not even on the radar for Davis when he graduated from high school. He once earned a living as a street performer. Now he’s competing for a roster spot on one of the league’s best defensive lines.
“Coming out of high school I had nothing rolling with football,” Davis said.
The Davis family has a stellar athletic record. His father Charles was inducted into the Buffalo State Bengals Hall of Fame and still holds the school record with 37 rebounds in a single game.
His mother, Cassandra, was a high school swimmer and basketball player. One brother, John, played basketball at Duquesne, and brother Jabari ran track and field at Cincinnati.
Despite the pedigree, Davis had no scholarship offers to play college sports. He instead headed south from his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., to Fort Myers, Fla., attending the Florida School of Discipleship, a faith-based institution that matched his spiritual interests.
There Davis found himself a creative job to help pay for school: dancing and performing on the streets and beaches of Fort Myers entertaining tourists for tips.
“I just went out there, took my hat off, put it on the ground and started doing ‘The Robot,’” Davis said. “I don’t think I ever made less than $30 for an hour.”
Chiefs defensive back Deveron Carr said he’s impressed with the performing skills of his teammate.
“For a big guy, he can definitely dance,” Carr said. “He’s very good at what he does, very coordinated. You wouldn’t expect that from a guy his size. I can’t dance like that and I’m a defensive back.”
In the same parks where Davis performed to pay for classes, a series of fateful events started him on his trek to the NFL.
“There was absolutely no athletic program at the school,” Davis said. “Anything that we did was honestly just a bunch of guys on a park field. That’s where I revived my love for football.”
One of the players in those pickup games wanted to play football at Liberty University in Virginia. He convinced Davis to join him on a visit to the campus. Davis tried out for the coaches and made the team.
Another twist of fate occurred for Davis before his redshirt sophomore season in 2012. Coach Danny Rocco left Liberty for the University of Richmond. Enter new head coach Turner Gill, who had just been fired from the same job at Kansas.
Davis and Gill were familiar with one another from their days in Buffalo. Gill was head coach of the University at Buffalo when Davis played in high school.
Vantz Singletary followed Gill from Kansas to Liberty as defensive line coach. Singletary graduated from Kansas State in 1990 and played for the Wildcats during the 1987-88 seasons. He is also the nephew of Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary.
Singletary opened up Davis to a whole new level of football knowledge he never even imagined.
“It sounds crazy, but before then I had never been sat down and told what to do,” Davis said. “Like, ‘Niko, this is a B-gap, this is an A-gap. On the snap of the ball go to the B-gap.’ Just through him simplifying it and breaking it down, eventually I became a starter and the rest is history.
“He really showed me what football was down to the Xs and Os and how you play the game.”
Davis signed with Pittsburgh as a free agent following the 2015 NFL draft and spent training camp with the team. The Chiefs signed him as a free agent in January.
Playing with the Steelers was the first time Davis played in a 3-4 defense. Davis said he enjoys the way the Chiefs rotate the defensive line to create different looks.
“That’s how I view myself, as a guy who can play every position up front and down the line,” Davis said. “I really like how they move guys around, and that’s definitely something I think that fits me.”
The battle for a coveted roster slot along the defensive line is fierce, particularly given the team’s depth at the position group.
“We’ve got nine guys in our group and each and every one of them could be a serious contributor to any team around the league,” Davis said.
Throughout his winding path to the NFL, Davis said his faith has always shaped his entire life. He admits it can be challenging balancing his faith with a job that requires aggression and ferocity to succeed.
“You do your job, and you do it fierce, with passion,” Davis explained. “When the play is over you can shake a guy’s hand and say, ‘I played clean, I did what I was supposed to do and you did what you were supposed to do.’ And that’s the way you play. Guys know and can look at that and respect you from that standpoint.”