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‘Big Face’ faces big decisions

Any day now could be Michael Davis’ final day at Demopolis High School. As soon as all the paper work is processed, he will transfer to a school some 200 miles from the place he has always called home.

For some, it would seem the latest in a long line of punches in the gut to the high school junior. And while Michael still maintains the charismatic smile that has endeared him to so many friends, classmates, teachers and coaches, he cannot help but acknowledge the difficulty that accompanies the occasion.

“It’s kind of tough, leaving home, the place you’ve been all your life, all your teachers, your friends,” Michael says just above a whisper, intermittently clearing his throat of the emotion of the moment. “It’s kind of painful to leave them behind.”

Pain is something with which Michael has grown increasingly familiar with during his young life. His father not in the picture, Michael lost his mother to a heart attack when he was only 11 years old. A fifth-grader at the time, he immediately went into the care of his sister, Lakeisha, who legally adopted him.

“He grew up fast. When our mother passed, that changed him a lot,” Lakeisha says of her brother’s resilient spirit. “He handled it pretty good. We stuck together. We overcame that.”

Now, some eight years later, Michael is coming to terms with another form of upheaval. In the years since his mother’s death, the young man teammates and coaches lovingly refer to as “Big Face” has become a standout football player, helping Demopolis to a Class 5A state title in 2009 while playing fullback and middle linebacker. A student in good standing, Michael’s best shot at funding a college education is without question football. He’s seen interest from a handful of programs who believe his combination of size, speed and athleticism would translate well at the next level. The only problem is that Michael was born July 18, 14 days away from the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s eligibility deadline that requires players to turn 19 after Aug. 1 in order to be eligible, rendering him unable to play his senior season with the DHS Tigers.

The obstacle stems from that terrible fifth grade year. With the death of his mother, Michael missed too many days and was forced to repeat the grade. Now, seven years after the fact, those circumstances are threatening to take away his best opportunity at procuring a collegiate education.

So why does a young man so intent on getting an college education withdraw from school less than two months away from the end of his junior year? For Michael, the answer is simple. He is giving himself a chance.

In the State of Georgia, Michael will still be eligible to play high school football next season at the age of 19. With no appeals or waiver process in place in the Alabama system, Michael’s only options were to sit out and hope for the best, find a junior college with a football program and an open scholarship or move to Georgia. So Lakeisha, 14 years Michael’s senior, is picking up her younger brother and her five children and moving to Georgia in hopes of giving Big Face his best chance at an education.

“It is a tough decision because I have five other kids,” Lakeisha says, swallowing the lump in her throat as she wipes the tears from her cheek. “To take them from Demopolis to Georgia is a tough thing to do. But it is the right thing to do. Education is the best thing for (Michael). That is why I want him to succeed.”

Michael understands the gravity of his sister’s sacrifice and finds it hard to choose the words to express his gratitude.

“If you have somebody like my sister that will do anything for you to help you get a scholarship or whatever, it feels good to know that you have somebody behind you like that,” he says.

Michael is nothing if not a contradiction in terms. He has suffered more loss than the vast majority of his peers, yet he routinely greets life and its challenges with a smile.

“When you have people that look up to you and you have good friends, you can’t show them what is inside of you that is hurting,” Michael explains. “A lot of my friends know the situation about my mama and they couldn’t do anything better than to stick with me.”

A physically imposing, wildly athletic specimen, Michael is a soft spoken, easygoing individual off the field. Then there is the Michael that exists on the field. That is the Michael that recorded 129 tackles in 2009, including 10 tackles and an interception in the state title game. That is the side of Michael that plays with unparalleled intensity and physicality. That is the side of Michael that neglects to hide his pain, but rather chooses to utilize it to make himself better. And that is the side of Michael that gives him an opportunity to earn a collegiate football scholarship and finally be able to define his own circumstances.

“When I was little, my mama used to always want me to accomplish things, to be the best at everything I do,” Michael says. “Coaches and players push me forward and tell me that things in the past are gone. You’ve got to look forward to better things now. Every now and then it will happen during a game that I will picture my mama with her thumbs up, telling me good job. That keeps me motivated.”

“I see a boy grown from a child to a man. He does his best at everything he does,” Lakeisha says, again pausing to collect herself. “He not only tries to please himself, but he tries to please others, too. He is going to be a good man.”

The family will move to Columbus, Ga., so Michael can attend and play football for George Washington Carver High School, fittingly billed as “home of the Mighty Tigers.”

Lakeisha will begin a new job and she will watch Michael continue to grow into that man she believes he will become.

“He knows I am going to be there by him,” she says. “I want him to get the opportunity that I didn’t have, to go to college.”

She holds the same resolve as Michael. In the end, they will not be dictated by their circumstances, but rather by their reaction to them. They picked up that value, that triumphant approach to life, from Shirley Davis, who lost her life to a heart attack at the age of 47.

“She’d be proud because of how she raised us,” Lakeisha says. “Never give up.”