It doesn’t take much probing to find traces of Michael Davis’ heritage.
The third-year Los Angeles Chargers cornerback includes the word “Mexicano” front and center on his Instagram profile. At his Southern California home in Irvine, a traditional blue and white Mexican poncho hangs off a wall. Tattoos of Mexican icons Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Emiliano Zapata cover his right leg; his right arm displays an Aztec warrior.
So next week’s Monday Night Football divisional clash against the Kansas City Chiefs in Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca takes on a special meaning for Davis. It’s not only a homecoming for the 24-year-old native of the Los Angeles area who spent meaningful parts of his childhood in Mexico, but also an affirmation of his identity.
“Yo soy Michael Davis, y soy mexicano,” he said.
As if to drive the point home: “I am Michael Davis, and I am Mexican.”
With his marked progress this season for the 4-6 Chargers, Davis relishes the timing of Monday’s game to make a first-hand impression as a self-proclaimed son of Mexico under the bright Azteca lights. By then, Davis surmises, fans in Mexico may be more familiar with his name and support him as the country’s latest ambassador in the NFL.
“Mexicans, we’re loud and proud,” Davis said. “I hope when I run out there, I see a packed stadium in [Chargers] blue and gold.”
Rooted in Mexico
Davis was 5 years old when he first visited family in Mexico. For several Christmases and summer vacations thereafter, he would accompany his mother, Mexico City native Ana Martínez, to the country of their roots. Davis, who is African American on his father’s side, grew up an only child in a single-parent home in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale. On trips to Mexico, however, he could surround himself with the warmth and exuberance of his extended family for two or three months at a time.
The change in scenery wasn’t too abrupt for Davis. Los Angeles to Mexico City was essentially switching out one metropolis for another. The real shock came in a more intimate form, going from Ana’s apartment, where only the two of them lived, to his grandmother’s house, where aunts, uncles and cousins would gather.
“They would all be there. My grandma, my Tía Lety, Tío Humberto and then my cousins Angel and Beto and then mi Tío José, they would all come out there to hang out with us,” Davis said.
The time in Mexico left an indelible mark on her son, as Ana intended. It led to a visible one, too: Beneath Davis’ Aztec warrior tattoo, the phrase “Por siempre de la familia Martínez” — Forever a part of the Martínez family — stands out.
“I’m proud to be here in the United States and for my son to have been born here, but at the same time I wanted him to see where he came from,” Martínez said. “I wanted him to know what our culture is all about.”
The usually tranquil and shy Davis would become more outgoing around his mother’s family. Young Michael would transform before his mother’s eyes, with the single-syllable responses of Glendale turning into exuberant bursts of Spanglish in Mexico.
“Those times I would watch my son fool around with his cousins and his uncles, those are the moments I’d realize he needed it,” Martínez said. “He needed that company of family around him.”
On any given morning in the Mexico City suburb now called Ciudad López Mateos, where the Martínez family remains based, Davis would wake up to the smell of pozole, a traditional Mexican stew made with hominy and meat that happens to be his favorite Mexican meal. For his sake, though, his grandmother would tone down the heat associated with the usually spicy dish.
It wasn’t the only way Davis’ grandmother would dote on the future NFL defensive back. Pictures from one of his January birthdays spent in Mexico show a dour Davis looking down at his cake. Another snapshot taken moments later catches him smiling after words of encouragement from his abuela.
“My grandmother used to tell me things like, ‘Michael, you may be different from the rest of us, you may look different from the rest of us, but you’re just as special, you’re even more special,'” Davis said.
Soccer dreams to football stardom
The streets and parks near his grandmother’s home are where Davis’ interest in sports first piqued. On fields of dirt dotted with small patches of grass, Davis dreamed of success as a soccer player.
If things had gone differently, the 6-foot-2 Davis concedes there was an alternate path to playing at the Azteca, the cavernous stadium hosting its fourth NFL regular-season game in 14 years.
— Club América EN (@ClubAmerica_EN) April 28, 2019
“I always wanted to be a [goalkeeper] for the Mexican national team, so being able to play in the same stadium as them is a great honor,” Davis said.
But Davis’ interest in soccer did not move beyond casual pickup games, and he never played it at the organized youth level. Where Davis did excel was in more traditionally American sports such as football and track. He starred for Glendale High at wide receiver and defensive back, earning first-team All-Pacific League honors his senior year. On the track, he ran the 100 meters in 10.67 seconds, good for seventh at the California state championships.
Davis would earn a scholarship to BYU in 2013. Utah proved a challenge for Davis, a devout Roman Catholic who at first bristled at the idea of adjusting to a society where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the dominant force.
With guidance from Ana, who would fly out for every home game, Davis turned it around at BYU. But his performance slipped in his final year in Provo and he fell out of favor with the Cougars’ new coaching staff, leading to a benching midway during the season and putting his NFL hopes in jeopardy.
At home in Glendale the next spring, Davis and Martínez watched the NFL draft in 2017 over a tense three days as Davis’ stock tumbled. On the draft’s final day, with his name still not called, Davis turned off the television midway through the broadcast and went to lunch with his mother, taking occasional peeks at his phone in case any good news came through.
It did not.
“Not being drafted hurt, obviously,” Davis said. “Right there I knew what to do; I knew I had to prove people wrong.”
The undrafted free agent chose the Chargers, who had just relocated from San Diego to his hometown, over a handful of other teams, only to be released before the start of the regular season. Nevertheless, the team added him to its practice squad — from where Davis would eventually work his way up to the Chargers’ first team.
Davis again made the team in 2018 and filled in as a starter for nine games when fellow undrafted cornerback Trevor Williams went down with injuries. Davis hung in with a secondary including Pro Bowlers Casey Hayward Jr. and Derwin James. Los Angeles finished the regular season 12-4, beating the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC wild-card game before bowing out to the eventual champion New England Patriots in the divisional round. Davis started both postseason contests and played all but one snap on defense.
“I’ve got to give Michael a lot of credit; he’s come a long way at accepting coaching and being accountable,” Chargers defensive backs coach Ron Milus said. “Raw, that’s what he was. I thought last year he came a long way, and now it’s starting to show.”
Under Milus and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, Davis is now a full-fledged member of the “JackBoyz,” the nickname the members of the Chargers secondary gave themselves a few seasons ago. Davis, the projected starter at left corner going into training camp, indeed won the job outright. He snatched his first career interception during a Week 4 win over the Miami Dolphins and commemorates the occasion with a framed picture of the takeaway that sits on a shelf at home.
‘A beautiful experience’
The upcoming Week 11 clash will see the division-leading Chiefs finally play south of the border after last year’s matchup with Los Angeles’ other team — the Rams — was moved from Azteca to the LA Coliseum because of poor field conditions. That game saw the Rams outduel the Chiefs 54-51, the highest combined score ever posted in a Monday Night Football game and the third-highest-scoring game in NFL history.
This season’s Mexico City MNF showcase will pit the two AFC West teams that made the playoffs last season, though the Chargers currently find themselves on the outside of the postseason conversation looking in.
The 2019 NFL schedule release last spring confirmed that Davis would probably be coming home during the season. After the announcement, Davis immediately marched down to the Chargers’ media relations offices and requested extra tickets for his extended family. A week later, he was on a balcony in Mexico City overlooking the historic Palacio de Bellas Artes, announcing his team’s fourth-round draft pick in flawless Spanish:
“The Los Angeles Chargers eligieron a Drue Tranquill, linebacker, de la Universidad de Notre Dame. Bienvenido a LA.“
Cheers erupted from Ana as well as from Davis’ aunts, uncles, cousins and grandmother, who were positioned in front of him for the TV cameras.
“I don’t know how to describe it. As a child, I would take him to those places as a tourist,” Martínez said. “Now we were standing there, accompanying Michael on television. It was a beautiful experience.”
From there, Davis was whisked off to various events around the capital to promote the game. At Parque La Mexicana, a jubilant Davis engaged children in football drills. Later that afternoon, he stepped on the Azteca pitch for the first time during halftime of a Liga MX match. As he gazed into the rafters, Davis swapped jerseys with Oribe Peralta, the former star of Mexico’s national team who was at that time a forward with Club America — the capital soccer power Davis grew up supporting.
“For me, it’s a dream come true sort of, because I’m not playing soccer, but I’m playing at the Azteca,” Davis said.
The Chargers’ bye week arrives after Monday’s game, and Davis hopes he can use it to spend time in Mexico visiting family. If not, he said he plans to return during the offseason. Davis hopes to bring along Atticus, his 2-year-old son with whom he regularly speaks Spanish.
Whenever the trip happens, it will almost certainly be alongside Ana, who instilled the values and cultural heritage Davis carries with him — whether they be manifested in thoughts, actions or even ink on his body.
“I’ve always had that pride in being Mexican. She made me proud, she passed it along,” Davis said.