OBETZ, OH – “Don’t those get hot in the summertime?”
A long, deep sigh followed immediately by a cheeky grin, “You’d think that,” he said, looking behind me at a passing car, “But they’re quite the all season footwear. Extreme comfort and durability.” Kicking one leg on top of the other onto the green picnic table at Obetz Community Athletic Center, Aaron “Spike” Davis winks at me in his trademark cowboy boots. On a Wednesday afternoon, post-training, in 95 degree heat. How can you not like the guy?
Spike Davis is a newcomer to the game of rugby, but if you have managed to catch any highlights of the PRO Ohio Aviators in recent weeks, you would have a hard time arguing that he wasn’t born with a ball in his hands; or between his teeth. Known this season for his 50 meter gallops through desperate arms of attempted tacklers, he is very much new to his profession, but his ability to grasp the concepts and schemes of the professional game proves testament to the student and competitor that he is.
Spike is one of the many top level American football converts that have put a hand up to give rugby a shot – but unlike many of those footballers, Spike found a special knack for the game, saying that the team camaraderie and culture was exactly what he needed. Spike was a standout defensive lineman at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. At SMU, Davis was a 3-year starter on the defensive line, standing at a meager 6’4” 290 pounds. The 3-year Special Teams Player of the Year at SMU loved football more than anything, and with hopes of playing in the National Football League, he dedicated his every moment to pursuing his dream of professional athletics.
After graduation in 2013, Davis was invited to NFL preseason camp with the Washington Redskins and Green Bay Packers. Noting the differences in preseason regimes, Davis acknowledged the necessity for specialization and body size in the NFL set ups. Prior to the 2014 NFL season, Davis was released from each respective camp, slightly devastated and confused, but vowed to be invited to another NFL preseason again. He spent the 2014 NFL season training like a lunatic, working on his foot-speed and agility, all the while maintaining his enormous form hovering near the 300 lb mark and moving at sub 4.7 40 yard dash speed.
Davis was once again invited to attend the Redskins 2014 preseason camp, this time in the shape of his life; or so he thought. Once again, his dreams of achieving professional athletics were snubbed, as the stars remained misaligned for the SMU graduate and Goodell’s league. Due to specialization of the position, he was left watching that season with another ball in his hands; a size 5 Gilbert Zenon.
Prior to that 2014 Redskins camp, Davis was training at Michael Johnson Performance Center where he met a future Aviator teammate, Alex Elkins. Davis and Elkins became fast friends, sharing size and speed and a certain grit that keeps the 2 on the edges of the lethal attack of the Aviator backline. Elkins was a recent graduate of Oklahoma State University where he played a predominant role as an outside linebacker; himself being invited to several NFL camps. But much like Davis, found himself as a spectator once the season kicked off. Amidst a serious let down and confidence blow, the 2 friends continued to train in Texas.
Luckily for us, things would change drastically for the better; they were introduced to the sport of rugby. Their first experience with the oval shaped ball was with the Alliance Rugby Club in Keller, Texas. The 2 took to it like a bird to flight; eager to escape from the nest and soar. But first they knew they had to learn to fly. Their attempt to take off took them to an open high performance rugby combine in Chula Vista in January of 2015. There they met the man who would empower them to become the stars they are today: Paul Holmes. Paul has a certain knack for acknowledging potential in athletes, most recently his ability can be seen in USA’s try scoring machine, Perry “Speed Stick” Baker.
Paul invited the boys to attend the Tiger Academy in Columbus, Ohio immediately where they would be able to immerse themselves into rugby full-time. The Columbus academy was the first of its time, a full time rugby specific training center. Under the tutelage of another Aviator teammate, Taylor Howden, the boys were shown the ropes and the basics of the game. Due to the excellent coaching of both Howden and Holmes, the 2 were stars for the USA 7’s National Club contending 1823 last summer; where the team took 4th. Holmes, also head coach for the top domestic 7’s touring side, Tiger, had invited Davis to Australia to compete at the Central Coast 7’s. The CC 7’s is regarded as one of the top 7’s tournaments in the world, outside of the HSBC circuit. Davis noted that being exposed to the culture of the game in Oz, from the fans to his opponent’s talent ability, he knew that this game was for him.
Returning from Australia, Davis was then selected to attend several 7’s camps under Mike Friday at the Olympic Training Center in California. In February of 2016, Davis was showcased as a hard runner and ferocious tackler as he was one of the many contributors to the USA Falcons cup championship winning side for the Las Vegas Elite tournament; knocking off Fiji amateur powerhouse Daveta and French outfit, Midol Frogs. At the height of the domestic 7’s game, Davis was then selected to attend USA Eagles 15’s American Rugby Championship camp as a backrow forward under newly appointed coach, John Mitchell. While Davis was not privileged to don his first international cap, he knew that he had the ability; he just needed a bit of polishing.
Cue the discussion of PRO Rugby. The first professional rugby league ever in the United States. Davis anxiously waited, hoping for that phone call that had to come, needed to come. And unlike his previous professional endeavors, he made it. He achieved his childhood dream of professional athlete. With the Aviators, Davis has been their dominating outside back with his league leading 14 tries this season. Although initially his parents were devastated at their son’s decision to stop pursuing his football career, they were elated when they began to see the the dividends that his life of hard work and effort paid. Their son was living his dream – the dream of every parent. To watch their child live their dream with a smile on his face and tape wrapped tightly around his head.
In candid conversation, the often bashful Davis jokes that if it was not for the rugby, he would be selling insurance with his father in their hometown of Elsinore, California (that, or ranching cattle). Smiling, he said thank goodness he is not, as he is still determined to achieve higher status in the rugby world, mentioning that he would not mind taking his ability internationally to become more educated on the game from different perspectives. But he did mention that nothing would come between coming back to play with the Aviators next spring. He commented on how passionate the rugby community is in central Ohio, how inspirational the bleachers become when the team takes the pitch, and how willing the staff is to assist in any way they can.
For now, Davis remains focused on the final task of the year: to win the first ever professional rugby American championship next week. The top of the table Denver Stampede are facing off against the hometown second seeded Ohio Aviators on Sunday, July 31. I believe that I speak for all fans of the domestic game when I say that I cannot wait for the 3 pm kick off, but as a member of the Aviator outfit, I sure am glad that Spike Davis is wearing 14 in a blue and red sweater and I cannot wait to see the fireworks his dynamic play will provide.
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