NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When Tennessee Titans wide receiver Rashard Davis was selected with the first overall pick of the XFL Draft in October 2019, he had a difficult decision to make.

While signing with the XFL would have reduced Davis to playing in a second-rate football league with an uncertain future, it would also have given the product of James Madison University a starring role and some financial security, both of which Davis could have used at the time.

Davis did get a call from the Titans in November 2019 with an offer to join their practice squad, but that would probably mean nothing more than a few spotty reps in practice—certainly not the exposure guaranteed by being a starting wide receiver in the XFL.

Yet, he told the XFL “thanks, but no thanks” and joined the Titans. Getting a paycheck and having an opportunity to get be a star player, albeit in a second-rate league, were enticing perks, but Davis wasn’t interested in second-rate. He never has been.

Davis has always been one to shoot for the stars, but the undersized receiver has often been overlooked. It’s forced him to work harder and take a non-conventional path to get to where he is now: a player with a real shot at making an NFL roster.

“He was going to bet on himself, and I was going to bet on him.”

At the time of the XFL Draft, Davis needed a big break. He had been waived a total of eight times by three NFL teams since 2017 and was relegated just a year earlier to driving for Uber to help make ends meet.

He had never even been on an NFL active roster during the season, much less played in a game.

So, Davis’ former college QB, Vad Lee, threw him a bone and passed his information along to Steve Wilson, one of Lee’s mentors who also happened to be the special teams coordinator for the D.C. Defenders, the team set to pick first in the XFL Draft.

Davis attended a workout with the Defenders soon afterward and, before he knew it, he saw his name tick across a computer screen as the XFL’s top overall draft pick.

“At the workout, they really liked me,” Davis said. “They were saying there was a possibility, but I didn’t know how true it was. When it came across, ‘No. 1 pick,’ it was definitely exciting.”

Davis’ agent, Sean Stellato of SES Sports, was happy for his client.

“He was humbled and honored to be the first pick of the XFL Draft and, let’s face it, there have been a lot of great football players to come out of non-NFL leagues—Kurt Warner, Jeff Garcia, Warren Moon,” Stellato said.

But when the Titans came calling, Davis decided to forego what, at first, appeared to be a potentially career-altering opportunity with the XFL.

Davis joined the Titans’ practice squad and immediately grew to appreciate the camaraderie he saw within the organization. As a result, he wanted to stick around.

“After Tennessee picked me up and showed me that they trusted me, I wanted to stay with a program like this that has a family mentality and a real brotherhood in the locker room,” Davis said.

Despite what it may seem, staying with the Titans was not a no-brainer and was certainly not a risk-free decision for Davis. Being a starting receiver in the XFL would have given Davis the chance to make eye-catching, highlight-reel plays to make himself a bigger presence on the NFL’s map.

Ultimately, though, Davis felt confident that he would be able to make enough of an impression on the Titans to finally make it onto an active roster.

“At the end of the day, he was going to bet on himself, and I was going to bet on him,” Stellato said.

“He’s standing out so much more than these other kids.”

Davis’ history of being overlooked began during his high school career at Charlottesville High School in Virginia, known more for its academics than its athletic programs.

Back then, Davis was a quarterback, though he did far more running than passing in head coach Eric Sherry’s triple-option offense.

While Davis had more than a handful of college scholarship offers at the end of his high school career, he was far from being a scout-darling entering his senior season.

“He certainly wasn’t a four-, five- or even a three-star kid,” Sherry said.

Yet, plenty of college scouts attended Charlottesville’s games in 2012, though, at least at first, none of them were looking in Davis’ direction.

“Schools like JMU, William and Mary, Liberty, they were all already looking at players from other schools that we played that year,” Davis said.

“When the scouts were coming to those games to look at other players, I would have a breakout game. That’s how I got on the map.”

Ultimately, Davis’ impressive production as a senior—over 1,300 rushing yards and 32 combined passing and rushing touchdowns—shifted scouts’ attention from Davis’ opponents to him.

“When he matched up against other teams who had some kids on their team, who were getting a lot of attention, it makes it kind of easy,” Sherry said. “He’s standing out so much more than these other kids on the field, including the ones that are being recruited by the bigger schools.”

“All the elements you look for in a player”

It took a lot more than wooing high school scouts or having the courage to turn down the XFL, though, to get Davis into his current, favorable position with the Titans.

After going undrafted and not even being signed as a priority free agent in 2017, Davis was unemployed for nearly four months before joining the Eagles during Training Camp.

“The whole summer, I was working at a restaurant and working out by myself before I went in and after I got off,” Davis said.

He spent the following three seasons bouncing from practice squad to practice squad, enduring multiple months’-long stretches of being unemployed.

But Davis’ belief in himself never wavered. He never stopped working.

“One thing I love about Rashard Davis is his ability to stay in shape, his training, his work ethic, his core values,” Stellato said. “He’s got a beautiful concoction of all the elements you look for in a player, all the traits.”

That work ethic began to finally pay off just over a month after Davis joined the Titans when, due to some injuries on the team, he was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster, played in his first NFL game and made his first career catch.

“Davis came in and had to play, and that’s the name of the game in the NFL. It’s unfortunate but there’s going to be injuries. You need guys to step up, and Rashard did a nice job,” Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith said.

Now, after an offseason in which the Titans didn’t add to the receiver position aside from undrafted rookies, Davis is a legitimate candidate to make it past final cuts and get the opportunity to continue playing in the NFL on an active roster.

Davis will learn his fate on September 5, when the Titans will have to trim their roster from 80 players to 53. Until then, he’s focused on doing what he’s always done—working harder than the competition and taking full advantage of every sliver of an opportunity.

“I want to show the coaches that they can trust in me, and the players that they can trust in me as well, to go out there and put the team on my back if I have to, if I’m in that position.”

Cover image: George Walker IV/The Tennessean via pool