Walking the lonely road: Ashtyn Davis’ rise to stardom is no accident

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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Hey, I’m Ashtyn.”

As the 2014 California high school State Track and Field Championships and all the festivities that they entail get underway, a young hurdler sporting Santa Cruz High School sweatpants roams the grounds, eager to make himself known.

“I’m Ashtyn. I have no offers, no nothing, but I’m really interested in running track for you.”

It’s somewhat of a miracle that Ashtyn Davis was in Clovis, California, for the state meet in the first place, competing against some of the top athletes in California. As a guy who joined Santa Cruz’s track and field team on a whim as a high school junior, he’s just moments away from a top-5 finish in the 110-meter hurdles event.

It’s even more of a miracle that four years later, Davis stood just outside the California Memorial Stadium goal line, awaiting an Idaho State kickoff early in the second quarter of a college football game.

In this moment, track is an afterthought. For now, Ashtyn Davis is a football player — a former walk-on who has rightfully earned every rep he’s gotten both in practice and on Saturdays.

Standing beside fellow safety and kick returner Jaylinn Hawkins, Davis calls off his teammate with a shout and a few taps of his chest, signaling that he’ll take this one as the kick flutters down near the 10-yard line.

He catches the ball and sprints toward the right sideline, a highly improbable scene just a few years earlier. The former Cal track star — who had to Google his way into the football program in a desperate search to continue playing the sport he loved — is now one of the hardest hitters and loudest playmakers on this year’s Bears squad.

As his blockers open up a crease for the All-American hurdler, he seizes his opportunity, just as he did every step of the way on his path to stardom.

Before hurdling his way into the state finals, Davis was just an ordinary kid with dreams of shining under the brightest of lights. While both of his parents were ardent supporters of his athletic endeavors, it was another family member who fueled Davis’ late-night ambitions when it came to sports.

“Every single night, my grandpa would come home from work and I would play catch with him until it was too dark to play,” Davis says. “The thing he likes to mention is that I would always say, ‘One more, one more.’ ”

The family raised Ashtyn on the land his grandfather owned in a house built by his father. It was in this setting where Davis would dive in the grass for balls his grandfather threw to him, and it was his grandfather who supported his decision to try out for football despite his mother’s initial concerns.

“We did that basically up until I left for college,” Davis says of his earliest memories with his grandfather. “I’ve always want to be the best person on the field, and he would help me make and achieve whatever goals I had.”

While baseball and basketball took up the majority of Davis’ winter and spring seasons, fall was reserved for football.

But once Davis grew older and competed at higher and higher levels, a clear-cut favorite began to emerge.

“I gradually got more into football because I felt like I was able to contribute more and honestly felt like I had more fun than playing other sports,” Davis says. “I made that my main focus.”

Football became Davis’ passion, a sport that allowed him to develop his closest friends both on and off the field. At the end of his junior season in high school, the team’s quarterback invited Davis and others to join the track and field team in an effort to spend more time together during the offseason and increase speed for football.

Running sprints in the 100-meter and 4×100-meter events brought Davis joy, but competing in track long-term was always an afterthought. Football is, and always has been, the sport he loves the most.

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

But in the middle of track season, Davis showed up to a meet only to realize that his sprints and hurdles coach, Bob Sanders, had incorrectly entered him into the 110-meter hurdles event, not the 100 sprint. A competitor at heart, Davis hopped into the starting blocks.

At Davis’ age and in the competition he participated in, eight steps are traditionally needed between hurdles during the longer hurdling events. But in his accidental appearance, Davis raised his coach’s eyebrows immediately, displaying a “seven-step” technique thanks to his long stride and unusually strong form, despite his lack of experience.

“He was like, ‘This has got to be your event now,’ ” Davis says. “That’s when he realized that we could do some special things.”

A year later, Davis returned to the hurdling spotlight and wowed his parents, coaches and teammates with a display of stardom, reaching all-time heights on the track that he hoped to eventually attain on the gridiron. He broke his school’s all-time record in the event that his coach accidentally entered him in just several months prior — a record previously held by Sanders himself.

Despite all the years of long-toss and hours spent perfecting his hands for football, track and field seemed like Davis’ calling — the qualification for state, the school record, everything.

There was just one problem. His rise to stardom came so late in his recruiting process that he drove to Clovis with zero offers to compete at the collegiate level. The one thing he did have? The times to back up his case for a roster spot come the next spring.

“I went to everyone with a college shirt on,” Davis says of his state meet experience. “The places I came up with were Washington, Cal, Cal Poly and (UC) Santa Barbara.”

None of the schools offered him an athletic scholarship out of high school, meaning Davis would have to prove himself on the track and then figure out a plan to get himself a tryout as a potential receiver for a football school. For a variety of reasons, Cal was the obvious choice.

“My dad said, ‘Just keep doing (track) and use it as a platform for where you want to go for football,’ ” Davis reflects. “It was really hard to find a school that was going to let me pursue football as well. When I visited Cal, the track staff was totally fine with me doing that, so it was just the right fit.”

Proving himself as a hurdler was the easy part. In four years with the Bears, Davis evolved into one of the top hurdlers in the country, winning the Pac-12 Championships in his signature, once-accidental event, and he was named a second team All-American in his final year of eligibility in the spring.

Finding a contact to try out for the football team? Not so straightforward. A Google search, six emails, a prolonged meeting and, of course, earning a spot on the team during a spring tryout were all it took for Davis to finally see his dream come to fruition.

“Coming up here, I Googled and tried to find who it was I had to talk to,” Davis says. “I found (assistant athletic director) Andrew McGraw and found out that he actually went to my high school, so I emailed him probably five or six times before I got a response.”

Three years ago, Davis entered McGraw’s office with ambitions of being a receiver for Cal. Today, he’s the starting free safety and one of the most dangerous return men in the Pac-12, a reputation that wouldn’t be possible without his grandfather, his parents, track and field and, of course, hard work.

“Just to know that a guy walked onto this team and was able to persevere through all the things and all the challenges that go with that and to find himself in a role where he’s a starter… He’s one of the guys who’s looked to as a leader,” says defensive backs coach Gerald Alexander.

The art of being a successful walk-on doesn’t come easy. Not a single opportunity comes without a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears. But when a player truly cares about something, the results are evident.

When Davis sat out a key practice earlier this month because of injury, he took matters into his own hands, confident that he would be ready to go come Saturday’s game.

“Ashtyn, on his own, stood about 50 yards behind the play and mimicked his position, from about 50 yards behind each play, during every rep of practice,” head coach Justin Wilcox says of Davis’ attitude. “It’s something me and a lot of our coaches pointed out to some of our younger players.

“If you didn’t know any better, you’d think he was crazy back there talking to himself,” Wilcox continued. “But he was back there taking every single rep, every single rep of the practice because it matters that much to him.”

Back in action, the Bears lead the Bengals 14-3 when Davis collects the kickoff and makes a beeline up the field. His blockers account for all but two Idaho State tacklers, but Davis makes both of them whiff near the 30-yard line, barely breaking stride as he gets past the initial wave.

He elevates his leg over the second defender — a maneuver he’s familiar with as one of the Pac-12’s most dominant hurdlers — and makes a juke to the right as the kicker comes flying after him. Another miss. A fourth and final would-be-tackler can’t catch No. 27 either, as Davis kicks it into high gear and bursts free down the sideline.

Nothing but green turf is between him and the end zone. Eighty-nine yards, to the house, for his first collegiate score.

“I always told everyone that if I had to choose between being a stud in track or live my life and play my college career on scout team, that I would choose (the latter) up here because that’s what I’m passionate about,” Davis says. “I’m definitely taken back by the progress I’ve made.”

Ashtyn Davis’ rise to stardom is unlike the experiences of his fellow defensive starters. From having zero offers out of high school to hurdling at the highest level of collegiate track and field to earning his place as a football player, it’s safe to say he’s made it far down the lonely road.

Josh Yuen is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.