TAMPA — Even before he was old enough to play, Malik Davis couldn't stay away from football.
As a 5-year-old, Davis would go to Tampa Bay Youth Football League practices with his older brother, dressed head to toe in the football outfit his parents bought for him. If his brother, four years his senior, was running too slow, their mother Angela Davis said, Malik told him so.
Davis began playing tackle football for the Nuccio Jaguars a year later, often sleeping in his uniform when he wasn't on the field. During those days, Davis dreamed of one day playing for Tampa Bay powerhouse Armwood High, his zoned school.
His parents had a different idea.
Angela and Myron Davis wanted to prepare their son for college with the best education they could find, so, much to Malik's dismay, they enrolled him at Jesuit High School for his freshman year.
"He was not pleased, because his first reaction was that it's an all boys school. That's all he could think about," Angela Davis recalled. "(I said), 'You're going kicking and screaming. That's where you're going.' "
His first year at the private Catholic school wasn't easy. Davis admits he struggled with the rigorous coursework, leading his parents to hire a tutor to help him adjust. On the Nuccio Jaguars, it wasn't uncommon for Davis to score four touchdowns in a game. As a freshman at Jesuit, he had to bide his time, hoping to get noticed.
"We made him understand, you're not the same kid you were (in little league). You have to prove yourself coming into high school," Angela Davis said. "His daddy always told him, 'When your number is called, just be ready.' "
And on Nov. 18, 2013, in a game against rival Tampa Catholic, it finally was.
That night, Jesuit quarterback Vincent Testaverde came down with appendicitis. During the game, the Tigers threw a pair of interceptions. First-year coach Matt Thompson gave the freshman Davis a chance to show what he could do.
What he did was lead Jesuit to a 13-9 victory, the Tigers' 14th in a row against the Crusaders.
"I remember rushing for 100 yards. I knew some of the TC kids, too, because we grew up playing against each other," Davis said. "After that game I said, 'I like this school.' "
As his grades climbed — Davis has had at least a 3.0 grade-point average for the past year, Thompson said — so did his contributions on the field. During his sophomore season, Davis rushed for more than 1,700 yards and 18 touchdowns.
In the annual game against Tampa Catholic, he rushed for 187 yards, 47 on the final drive that ended with a winning 30-yard field goal to seal the 15th straight win against the Crusaders.
And for Davis and the Tigers, the 16th was even sweeter.
Last November, Davis rushed for a career-high 357 yards on 51 carries in a 35-20 victory against Tampa Catholic. In that televised game, Davis also became Jesuit's all-time leading rusher, breaking a record set by former Georgia Tech wide receiver Will Glover in 1998.
"He just gets up for big games. He's one of those guys that when the spotlight is on him, he's going to shine," Thompson said. "Last year, running the ball 51 times, I've had people say, 'Well, how could you run him 51 times?' I say, 'He wasn't tired.' His 51st carry was a 30-yard touchdown."
Even though he's already made his way into Jesuit's record books, Davis isn't interested in stopping there. This season, an even bigger benchmark looms.
With 4,556 career rushing yards, Davis needs just 1,210 this fall to become Hillsborough County's all-time leading rusher, beating the mark (5,765) set by former Sickles running back Ray Ray McCloud III (now at Clemson) in 2014. If Davis stays healthy and runs at the pace he did in 2015, he'd break the record with more than a month of the 2016 regular season left to spare.
Davis, who is friends with the McClouds, said they recently discussed the potential changing of the guard.
"His younger brother — that's my boy, too, Jordan — he was like, 'We're going to have someone break your ankle,' " said Davis, laughing. "We talk about it sometimes."
As far as former Tiger Kevin Newman is concerned, Hillsborough County will have a new rushing king in no time.
Newman, who is also Davis' cousin, grew up watching him play. And even though the current FAMU running back no longer lives in Tampa, he still tries to watch his former teammate work his magic whenever he can.
Because to Newman, that's exactly what it is.
"You can see on the film, when he's making his cuts, he's planting his foot on the ground before the hole is there," Newman said. "He's got the speed, and once he gets going, the likelihood of you catching him is, you're not. It's just natural."
Nowadays, Davis often reflects on how different his life would be had he had his way three years ago. Davis said he's more than prepared to go to college next year — he'll have his pick from 29 Division I-A offers, including North Carolina, UCF and Miami — and the Catholic school has strengthened his relationship with God. Davis is excited about the thought of becoming Hillsborough County's all-time leading rusher not just because of the personal accolade, but because of the notoriety it could bring to his school.
"Me and my husband talk about it, and I tell Malik all the time," Angela Davis said, "that was the best decision of our lives."
Because Jesuit, once a place he dreaded, now feels like home.