By Matt Parrino
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — Life was good for Aaron Davis when he walked the halls at North Tonawanda High School — people knew his name.
Even a quick glance at the school’s record book reveals the former two-sport star’s name.
He holds the all-time program record in points (1,674), assists (325), is second all-time in rebounds (805), was named as the Tonawanda News basketball Player of the Year in both his junior and senior seasons and is the only five-year letterman in the history of the NT basketball program. He also graduated as the all-time leading scorer in football and helped the Lumberjacks win the school’s only state championship in its history his senior year.
That was how things were in 2009.
Three years later, and while flashes of that player remain, Davis must now overcome a nagging but severe foot injury — one that could have cost him his career — to continue blossoming into his new role as a key contributor off the bench.
The player and person that’s emerged from a condition known as chronic tendinosis in the Achilles may be a key piece on a 14-4 Daemen men’s basketball team competing in the USCAA this season while it transitions into NCAA Division II.
Davis’ pedigree is undeniable and his competitive spirit has helped the Wildcats defensive unit make a big impact this season. Daemen associate head coach Mike Miranto, a North Tonawanda native, said that despite Davis’ injury, teams need players like him to be successful.
”I think every successful team has to have somebody like Aaron, even multiple guys like Aaron, if they want to accomplish the goals they set for themselves,” he said. “He’s come in and over the course of three years here, embraced his role as someone that comes off the bench and he’s willing to do whatever the team needs him to do to win a game. He’s very mature and well-respected amongst his teammates.”
Facing a road block
Davis wasn’t expecting to come off the bench in college. But after a year of fighting through excruciating pain in his foot, he was forced to deal with the reality that something wasn’t right.
”There wasn’t just one pop or anything like that. It was a gradual thing,” he said. “Throughout the preseason of my freshman year my Achilles started to bother me. I sort of shrugged it off and kept playing until one day specifically I was trying to run and I just couldn’t. I tried to walk off the court and I just couldn’t walk.”
Being a freshman and in a competitive environment trying to earn playing time, Davis didn’t want to sit out and feared what was crippling him every time he went too hard on the court.
”I pushed it too far when I should have sat out right away,” he said. “I ended up (developing the condition) and ever since then it hasn’t gone away. It’s something that just reoccurs. I spent all of last year rehabbing and trying to get it back to full strength. It will feel good at some points and worse at others. It’s definitely better than it was last year.”
The most frustrating part of the injury is that it’s never going to completely heal. Davis will have to play through pain, sometimes an unbearable amount, to continue his basketball career. But his passion for basketball goes back to his childhood, and he’s overcome injuries before.
Road to the top
Davis fell in love with hoops at an early age, mainly because of his older brother Andrew Davis. The two quickly became inseparable in the early stages of their youth and Andrew Davis, a Lumberjack great in his own right finishing his basketball career as the school’s eighth all-time leading scorer, pushed his brother in every sport they played. Davis attributes his competitive fire to his older brother and that characteristic convinced former Jacks basketball coach Erik O’Bryan to bring Davis up to the varsity team as an eighth-grader.
Davis loved basketball, but his father, Jonny Davis, said that soccer was the sport where he excelled the most. But since NT’s soccer program wasn’t very strong when Davis was entering his eligible years, the elder Davis convinced his son to go out for the football team.
”I was never truly in love with playing the game of football,” Davis said. “Ever since I was a little kid I always wanted to play basketball. As I started to play in the NT (football) system we just had such great coaches in Eric Jantzi and Rick Tomm that I ended up just loving the game and playing in the system that they built. My teammates were great and we always had a good team every year so it was always fun to play.”
By Davis’ senior season he had turned into a jack-of-all-trades for the football team because of his versatility. He played offense and defense, was the team’s kicker and even returned kickoffs and punts — his contributions helped the team ascend to the new heights they reached that storied season when they beat New Rochelle, 14-7 in the Class AA state final in Syracuse.
”That was an amazing experience,” he said. “I never would have even imagined it, even knowing the type of team that we had. ... You couldn’t go through a full day of school without somebody bringing up football to you. Everyone was talking about it — it was the talk of the town. The volleyball team actually won sections that same year and they felt like they didn’t get any credit because everyone was talking about this great football run that we were having at the same time.”
Davis remembers the atmosphere of the city and the way everyone treated the football players. People congratulated them after every win and huge crowds travelled to away games to support the Jacks in their quest for state.
In particular, the NT contingent in the Carrier Dome for the title game still amazes Davis, as he recalls the moments of that season.
”It was just amazing. I remember walking on to the field and the whole left side just erupted and went crazy,” he said. “You got goosebumps for a second. I think everyone did.”
Davis didn’t play in that game, however, because he had suffered a season-ending abdominal injury a few weeks prior. He went to a massage therapist, an acupuncture specialist and underwent several other treatments in an attempt to play in the biggest game of his life.
But nothing worked. Dealing with the sting of not joining his teammates may have helped to prepare him for the obstacles that awaited him at Daemen.
”There are really no words to describe how tough that was,” he said of missing the state title game. “You work the whole season to get to that point and you want to do anything you can to help the team, and to not be able to do that was definitely a rough experience.”
All about the team
Davis is no stranger to accolades. Individual accomplishment has always shined a bright light on an otherwise humble and grounded superstar. He decided to play basketball at Daemen because of his love of the game and passion for the team-first focus that college basketball offers, and the Wildcats are now benefitting from Davis’s decision.
Jonny Davis credits his son’s high sports IQ and high-level sports acumen for the adjustments he’s made in his game at the college level. Miranto agrees, and said that Davis’ contributions will become even more valuable as the season progresses and he gets more comfortable in his role.
”He proved what he could do as a freshman with double-digit scoring games, and when he particularly shot the ball really well from three-point range,” Miranto said. “That’s something that we really missed last year when he redshirted. This year he isn’t shooting it quite as well, but he’s doing other things that help us win. He’s getting rebounds, getting steals and playing extremely hard on the defensive end of the floor.”
Davis is also respected in the Daemen locker room. His teammates know what he’s been through to make it back and how hard he works every day to be able to compete with them.
Miranto said that because of his personality and penchant for making winning plays, his teammates have complete faith in him when he steps onto the court.
”He’s a quiet guy and definitely not a rah-rah cheerleader type and never has been,” Miranto said. “But I think in a lot of ways that’s a good thing, because when he does say something I think the guys tend to listen to him. He will interject with some thoughts from time to time, but I think above all else the guys know that when he steps onto the court he means business, he’s about winning and he’s about making winning plays. I think that’s what they respect the most.”
Davis isn’t the same player he was in high school, but in a way he might be even better. He’s learned what it takes to win and he’s made that his mission on the court. Before every basketball game he’s ever played, his father has told him to play hard and play smart, and if he does that, he said he feels like he can’t lose.
”Every time I take the floor I want to do two things: play hard and play smart. If I do in some way I hope I benefit the team,” he said. “I try to keep that in mind every time I take the floor. I want to benefit the team in some way even if it’s not scoring. ... (Because) It’s not always about scoring as many points as you can or getting in the stat book. Whatever my team needs at the time is what I’m going to do.”Contact Sports Editor Matt Parrino at 693-1000 ext. 4117 and find Tonawanda News sports on Twitter @tonanewssports.