TAMPA — The most accomplished receiver on USF's roster was nearly thrown off his route.
Andre Davis had executed this pattern seemingly thousands of times: west on Fowler Avenue, south on I-275, past the bustle of downtown and Dale Mabry, and into the Carver City neighborhood where he still works at the rec center that spawned him. The journey had long since grown stagnant.
On this day, it became surreal.
About halfway through, Davis peered up through the windshield of his gray Nissan Altima. There, emblazoned on a Bulls football billboard, was rising sophomore safety Nate Godwin (another former Tampa high school football star), coach Willie Taggart and himself. Pedestals don't exist in Taggart's program, but promotion does. Davis had become a de facto poster child for the 2014 season.
"It was definitely mind-blowing," he said. "I never thought I'd be on a billboard."
Then again, who else could the Bulls have chosen for interstate immortality? Precious few endearing images had emerged from USF's 2-10 season last fall, and Davis clearly was one of them. After a pedestrian first half, the Jefferson High alumnus totaled 29 receptions in his last five games, finishing with a team-best 49 for a USF season-record 735 yards.
Six months later, he was staring at his photo on the roadside. Next stop: the record books.
Aligned with the third offensive coordinator and fourth receivers coach of his college career, Davis nonetheless enters his senior year on the cusp of history. He needs 107 yards to become USF's career receiving yardage leader, 15 catches to become its receptions leader and five TD catches to eclipse the school mark in that category.
"I know I can improve on (the 2013 numbers) big-time because I feel like I'll get the ball more this year," said Davis, slated to appear with USF's contingent at today's American Athletic Conference media day in Newport, R.I. "Our offense will be much better than it was last year, and I feel like I'll get opportunities to make plays."
Only three autumns before, some were openly questioning whether Davis possessed the speed to flourish at the Division I level. Nicknamed "Freak Show" at Jefferson for his 6-foot-3 frame that made him nearly impossible to defend around the goal line, Davis' physicality was coveted. His fleetness wasn't.
"Man, when you have a knack for the ball and it's thrown anywhere and you look up and go get it, that's all that matters," said former Jefferson quarterback (and 2010 Florida Mr. Football) Quentin Williams, who has known Davis since first grade. "Andre Davis is a phenomenal football player; that's why he's where he is today."
That, and perhaps a little celestial inspiration. For all the coaching turnover and philosophical fluctuations Davis has weathered at USF, one steadying force never has left his side.
Yep, C.J. Mills was that influential.
"He was probably like my god-brother," Davis said.
Davis had seen C.J. — a strapping, 17-year-old all-state linebacker — as Mills walked to Jefferson for a workout that April afternoon seven springs ago. A couple hours later, Davis and some buddies were shooting hoops in the Loretta Ingraham Center when they heard gunshots outside.
The boys dashed two streets over to C.J.'s house, where they found him sprawled on his driveway, blood pooling around him. Witnesses said two men drove up in a late-model Chrysler and shot C.J. twice.
"He was a big, strong guy, so he wasn't crying or anything," Davis recalled. "He was just like, 'It burns.' The ambulance came a little bit later and I thought he was going to be fine. And then later on that night I found out he passed."
Today, C.J.'s name is etched vertically along both of Davis' triceps. No arrests have been made, causing anger and frustration among C.J.'s loved ones to remain in a perpetual state of percolation.
"He used to always tell me, "You're going to be special. I can't wait 'til you get here (to Jefferson). I can't wait to play with you,' " said Davis, who teamed with Williams to lead the Dragons to the Class 3A state title in 2010. "I really couldn't wait to get there to play with him. He just played a big part in my life. He kept me confident and was just always steering me on the right path."
Maybe Davis' feats can't provide closure, but they can honor a fallen friend. A few more catches, a few more yards, another handful of TDs, and Davis' stats — like C.J.'s spirit — become immortalized.
"His work ethic, his competitive nature, I've always known Dre to compete, and that's what makes him so great," said Williams, entering his senior season at Bethune-Cookman. "That's what makes him so special."