Ray Davis grew up homeless, now he seeks to be a ‘name you’ll remember forever’

Ray Davis grew up homeless, now he seeks to be a ‘name you’ll remember forever’
Ray Davis grew up homeless, now he seeks to be a ‘name you’ll remember forever’

Picture him, just 9 years old, walking the streets of San Francisco each morning, dropping off his younger sister at school, then hustling back home to take care of his baby brother. His chair in Mr. Klaus’ third-grade class sits empty, sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks.

Picture him, summoning the courage to write a letter to the man he kept hearing about — “You run just like your pops!” they’d tell him on the football field — but rarely saw. Then stamping that letter. Then mailing it to his father in prison. “I don’t know you,” part of it read.

Picture him, running out of places to stay and people to ask. For a while, Ray Davis lived with his mom, but then she went away, too. So he stayed with his grandma, sleeping on her living room floor. When the social worker would swing by to check on him, they’d lie, vowing that he had a bedroom to call his own. Anything to keep him out of foster care a little longer.

But that didn’t last. Nothing seemed to last.

By 8 he was a ward of the state; by 12 he was living in a homeless shelter with two of his 14 siblings. When he learned a foster family had enough room to take two of them — but not all three — Ray volunteered to stay back so his brother and sister wouldn’t get lost in the system like he was. “If they can get out and be together,” he told the case worker at the time, “that’s the best thing for them.”

They went. He stayed.

Picture him, sitting in the front seat of a social worker’s car a few years later, texting and calling everyone he can think of, begging for a couch or a chair or a spot on the floor to sleep on, only to be told “sorry” too many times to count, his heart breaking a little more with each rejection.

Finally, he reaches out to his favorite teacher. “Can I stay with you?” Ray asks. “Just for a night or two?”

“Of course you can stay with us,” Ben Klaus tells him, and even though it’s a tiny one-bedroom apartment in the heart of downtown San Francisco, and even though Ben and his fiancée, Alexa, are busy planning their wedding for that summer, “just a night or two” turns into three years.



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Now look at him. He’s 24. He’s two months from hearing his name called in the NFL Draft. He piled up more than 1,000 rushing yards for three different college football programs. And he owns a degree from Vanderbilt.

That’s what it took for Re’Mahn “Ray” Davis to answer the question he’s been asking since he sat in that homeless shelter 12 years ago, feeling alone and abandoned, wiping tears from his cheeks, whispering the same thing to himself every night before he went to bed.

“Why God? Why me?”

His mom was 14 when she got pregnant, 15 when she gave birth. “She wasn’t ready,” is all Ray Davis will say about it now, tucked into a booth at a Yard House in Phoenix, where he has been training for the draft. “I love my mom, but she just couldn’t figure it out.”

For most of his childhood, his father, Raymond Davis, couldn’t either. Both parents were in and out of prison for long stretches, leaving Ray largely on his own. He remembers one afternoon, when he was 8 or 9, being told by a teacher that his father was there to pick him up.

“Wait,” Ray said, “I have a dad?”

From there, the relationship was starts and stops, weekends together followed by months, even years, without contact. Ray would hear stories about his father’s football exploits — how Raymond had broken O.J. Simpson’s Galileo High record for touchdowns in a season, how he had been named the San Francisco Examiner’s 1998 player of the year — but, for a while, he felt like a ghost.

When Ray lived with his mom, she’d drop him off at a daycare run by a family friend, then leave him there all weekend. Or for an entire week. Or for an entire month. When he had nowhere else to go, he’d stay with his grandma, but that was never going to be a permanent solution, Ray says. Not enough clean clothes. Not enough food.

“I was the kid who was kinda left around a bunch of different places,” Ray says now.

When he was in school, he’d linger at the aftercare program until 7 or 8 in the evening, his way of pushing away the reality that waited for him wherever he was staying that night. He’d carry around a duffel bag of clothes from Goodwill. Most of the time, it was all he had.

A fringe NFL Draft prospect last spring, Davis decided to transfer to Kentucky to bolster his credentials. He rushed for 1,129 yards and 14 touchdowns and briefly was in the Heisman conversation. (Todd Kirkland / Getty Images)

After seeing a flyer for the local Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter when he was 8, he found a phone, called the number and added himself to the waitlist. That led him to Patrick Dowley, his new Big Brother. The bond was instant, the relationship — like so few in Ray’s life at the time — stabilizing.

When they went to grab food, Patrick taught Ray proper restaurant etiquette. When they caught a Giants or Warriors game, Patrick told him about the players. When Ray struggled with his homework, Patrick pushed him and pushed him and pushed him.

He never had the money to sign up for football, so his coaches would cover the cost. They’d give him rides to and from games, then take him out to eat afterward to make sure he had a square meal. Ray remembers how much it stung, after all his touchdown runs in Pop Warner games, when he’d look over at the sideline and see nobody there.

At 12, without anywhere else to go, he spent two months in a homeless shelter on the bottom floor of Zuckerberg General Hospital and Trauma Center. Ray can still see the food pantry that kept him from going hungry, the baby crates the toddlers would sleep in, the game room where he spent hours watching movies on the VCR or playing “NCAA Football” on PlayStation.

As a homeless minor, he was prohibited from leaving the facility. He’d get one hour a day outside. He’d spend it shooting baskets with a staff member.

“Being in that shelter, it just taught me: you’re a man now,” he says. “No more being spoon-fed. No more having your hand held. You’re gonna have to figure this out yourself.”

So he did. After the shelter, he couch-surfed with extended family or anyone willing to take him in. He stayed with friends of friends of friends — sometimes without even knowing their last names.

Ben Klaus had Ray in his third-grade class at Bret Harte Elementary, then again in fifth grade. The more days Ray missed — sometimes he was gone for weeks at a time — the more Ben started to piece it together. Ray would walk his sister to school, then walk back to wherever they were staying. There was no one else to watch his brother. Ray would change his diapers. He’d make sure he was fed.

He was 9.

Ben would take Ray out for burritos. He’d catch him up in school. “That was part of our non-negotiable. He had to get his homework done,” Ben says. He invited Ray to spend Thanksgiving with him and his family.

After that last-ditch phone call, when Ray was in sixth grade, out of options and needing somewhere to stay, Ben and Alexa Klaus became family. Ray made it to their wedding that summer; he gave a speech, too. “He became a shining light for us,” Ben says. “People still talk about that speech.”

That was home for the better part of three years, until a five-hour car ride in the back of a Chevy Suburban changed his life.

None of it added up to Lora Banks. The more she kept peppering this young man with questions — “probably 1,000 over the course of the entire drive home,” she admits — the more he kept dodging them, then slipping on his headphones so he could tune out the country music she was blaring up front.

They’d wrapped an AAU basketball tournament in Santa Barbara one weekend when Banks’ youngest son, Bradley, asked her if one of his teammates could catch a ride with them back to San Francisco.

Beyond him being the best player on the team, Lora knew nothing about Ray. No one really did. He’d hitched a ride to the tournament with one of the coaches, someone said. He didn’t have a spot in any of the hotel rooms, someone mentioned. And when it came time to leave, he didn’t have a ride home.

Lora wanted to know more. Ray wanted the password to her internet hotspot. So she proposed a deal: if he’d answer some questions, she’d share it. He agreed. She kept asking, for five long hours, learning very little.

“You just don’t think to ask, ‘Who takes care of you?’ Or, ‘Where’s your mom and dad?’”, she says now. “But the one thing that stuck out to me was when we got back, I asked him where I should drop him off, and he just mumbled, ‘Oh, I’ll just take the bus from your house.’

“Now that was weird.”

Slowly, she started to see more of him. Ray would swing by the house on his way to practice. She knew he wasn’t eating enough, so she’d invite him over for family dinners. She knew he needed somewhere to work out, so she added him to their YMCA membership. When she’d ask if his parents knew where he was, he’d shrug.

A few months later, one of the AAU coaches asked if Lora could give Ray a ride to another tournament, this one in Nevada. Sure, she said. But to leave the state, Ray told her, he’d need permission. She needed to call his social worker.

“Now I’m starting to figure this out,” she says. “He’s lost in the system.”

Lora Banks helped him find his way out. She filed the mountains of paperwork to become his temporary guardian so he could play in the Nevada tournament. Pretty soon, she was doing the same thing to become his educational guardian, giving her a say in where he went to school.

With these wheels spinning, something else was happening in Ray Davis’ life: Raymond Davis was out of prison and beginning to rebuild his life. He’d landed a job. And he wanted to reconnect with his son. So Lora and her husband, Greg, had him over for dinner.

“When we sat down, we could tell his heart was in the right place,” Lora said.

Together, the three of them weighed Ray’s next steps. He was 15, a bit behind in school, in desperate need of structure. A friend of Lora’s who’d heard about Ray’s talents on the basketball court suggested they look into boarding schools. Another well-connected friend lined up an interview with a prestigious one in New York.

What sounded crazy at first — attending a prep school 2,000 miles away — became more realistic. The school, Trinity-Pawling, was interested in offering Ray a basketball scholarship.

Raymond Davis resisted the idea initially; he wanted his son in San Francisco. But his stance changed a few weeks later after hearing about a shooting in their neighborhood. “If he stays around here,” Raymond finally admitted, “he could end up like a lot of old friends of mine.”

So they flew to New York to visit Trinity-Pawling, an all-boys college preparatory school an hour north of the city. The campus was stunning, like nothing Ray had ever seen. They met with the basketball coach. Ray aced the interview. The scholarship offer came. Then, before they left, Ray mentioned one more thing.

“You know,” he told the coaches, “I can play football, too.”

Before Ray could move across the country, he needed California’s permission.

Still a ward of the state, Ray had to stand before a judge and argue in support of his father’s petition to resume custody, without which Ray couldn’t leave. But when Ray, Raymond, Lora and Greg arrived in court, they learned an attorney for San Francisco county was there to oppose the move.

“We were flabbergasted,” Lora remembers.

“His support is here, in San Francisco,” the attorney argued in front of judge Catherine Lyons. “If he gets out to New York, how will he get back? What if his scholarship falls through?”

The options at home, he continued, were far more realistic: a spot in a group home, possibly vocational school.

Then the judge allowed Ray to state his case. He was 16 years old, pleading for his future.

“You say I won’t be supported out there,” he began. “But going back to when I was young, when have I been supported here?”

Ray wanted to go to New York. He wanted an education. He wanted a chance at college. For years, he told the judge, he wasn’t even sure if he’d even make it to high school. Now the opportunity was right in front of him.

After Ray was finished, the county attorney sat in silence. The judge asked for a rebuttal.

“We withdraw our opposition,” the attorney finally said. “We support him.”

Lyons agreed. She had followed Ray’s story since he was 6 years old. She knew what this moment meant to him.

“I’ve been a judge 10 years, and this is something I never get to do,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “Re’Mahn Davis, you’re no longer a ward of the court.

“You’re going to Trinity-Pawling,” Lyons continued. “I believe you’re going to graduate high school. And I believe one day you’re going to graduate from college.”

Ray Davis had earned his chance, and that was all he needed.

At Trinity-Pawling, he lettered in basketball, baseball and track and field, but stood out most on the football field. School wasn’t easy. Neither was the rigidity of the prep school schedule, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise for an unrefined teenager. Ray would get in trouble for not shaving, for sneaking his headphones into chapel, for not always following his coach’s orders.

But eventually, it stuck.

“I’m not much of a religious person,” Lora, a retired executive coach, says now. “But him getting into this school and what it did for him, it was an act of God.”

Ray graduated. Needing one credit to become NCAA eligible, he spent a postgrad year at Blair Academy in New Jersey, piling up 35 touchdowns on the football field. Pretty soon, college coaches were calling. The first scholarship offer came from Purdue.

When it did, Ray sat with his father and cried.

A few of them saw it early, all this untapped talent waiting to be unleashed. “We’re talking 80-yard touchdown after 80-yard touchdown every time I came to one of his Pop Warner games,” Patrick remembers. “I always sort of knew there was a chance.”

“Sports weren’t just his outlet,” Ben adds, “they were his therapy.”

Ray first landed at Temple, piling up 1,244 rushing yards in two seasons, then sought out the bigger stage of the SEC. After 1,253 more yards in two seasons at Vanderbilt — plus a degree in communications — he weighed going pro. But he knew he was a fringe NFL prospect at best, so he chose to bolster his credentials with one final season.

He transferred to Kentucky and, in coach Mark Stoops’ system, established himself as one of the best running backs in the country. A four-touchdown, 289-yard day against Florida in late September briefly elevated him into the Heisman conversation.

Davis finished his college career with 3,626 rushing yards, putting up over 1,000 yards at three different schools over parts of five seasons. (Patrick McDermott / Getty Images)

Lora was never too far away — to this day Ray calls her mom. She bought a condo in Nashville so she could watch him play at Vanderbilt, then one in Lexington to watch him at Kentucky. She kept a journal through it all, scribbling down the life lessons this young man taught her. She remains in awe.

“This isn’t a story of, ‘Oh, I stepped in a pile of crap and found the pony.’ Not at all,” she said. “He stepped in a pile of crap, then asked himself, ‘Do I wanna stay in it? Or do I wanna climb out of it?’”

Patrick would fly out to games. Same with Ben and Alexa. And Raymond Davis rarely missed a chance to watch his son play. “He’s my No. 1 fan,” Ray says of his dad.

The two have grown tight in recent years. Raymond, who did not comment for this story, has become a daily presence in his son’s life. Ray, slowly, has learned to move past the hurt.

“He’s a way better person,” he says of his dad.

Most stunning isn’t the story but its subject. It’s the way Ray Davis speaks about his life. He could be resentful, even bitter, and no one could blame him.

But he’s not. He’s grateful. The heartache that dotted his journey, the scars of his youth that he still wears — that’s the reason he’s here.

“After what I been through,” he says, “what’s gonna get in my way now?”

And he finally has the answer to the question he started asking himself all those years ago.

“Why me? Why me? It took me until I was 23, 24 to figure that out,” Ray says. “Well, this is why. Because of my story, and because of all the kids in a foster home or a homeless shelter that might hear about it one day.

“Everybody congratulates me for the football part of it, and that’s great, getting to the NFL and all that. But I’m an inner-city kid, a foster-care product who graduated from a top-15 school in the country. I feel like that’s what we should be celebrating. I never once thought I’d ever get into a school like Vanderbilt.”

He pauses for a moment, looking back on the improbability of it all. Then his bright, piercing green eyes lock in, and Ray Davis mentions one last thing.

“I’m just getting started. I’m not trying to be the best running back in this draft. I’m trying to be a name you’ll remember forever.”

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos courtesy of Lora Banks, Patrick Dowley and Ben Klaus, Joe Robbins / Getty Images)