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Former USF star Andre Davis out to prove he belongs in NFL

Former USF receiver Andre Davis was signed to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad on Oct. 27.

More than a decade before realizing his dream of playing in the NFL, before he shattered USF records, before he donned the nickname “Freak Show,” a young Andre Davis sat in the living room of his grandmother’s house.

While Davis watched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 2001 wild-card playoff game with his family, a red Keyshawn Johnson jersey— the Bucs’ leading receiver that year —  rested on his shoulders with the No. 19 printed across the back in white. It was a gift from his parents.

That moment, captured by his grandmother in a photograph, was relived shortly after the former USF standout signed with his hometown team. It was something he had been dreaming of for as long as he could remember.

Davis, who was signed to the Bucs’ practice squad on Oct. 27, has lived in Tampa his entire life. From age 10, he began evolving from a young buck learning the intricacies of the game as part of the Town ‘n’ Country Packers to an up-and-coming NFL receiver without having to stray far from his hometown.

“All he knows is Tampa,” said his father, Andre Davis Sr. “We’ve always lived in Tampa, never relocated. We’re just Tampa people.

“That’s all we know.”

Instead of letting distractions overtake him as a kid, Davis turned to football, where he was turned loose and began wreaking havoc on opposing defenses from his very first snap.

“He’s always been a go-getter and a hard worker,” the elder Davis said. “His first year, at about 10 years old, they put him in against the first string defense, and the quarterback always wanted to throw to Andre.

“Andre wasn’t that tall, but they’d have him run a route, and he’d catch the ball over the defense, and his team would be like, ‘Ohhh.’”

Transitioning from the Tampa Bay Youth Football League, Davis starred at Jefferson High — just west of what would eventually be his all-too familiar home in Raymond James Stadium.

It was there that the 6-foot-1, homegrown talent began to make his name.

A three-time All-State selection, Davis amassed 3,158 yards (19.3 per catch) and 40 touchdowns in his three-year career. He led the Dragons to the Class 3A state championship in 2010, where they were victorious over Miami Norland.

When National Signing Day came, Davis had little intention of leaving Tampa. There was no other place he would rather play than USF. Although Bulls coach Willie Taggart didn’t recruit him, he now models his current prospects after his former star.

“(Davis) is one of those kids that just loves the Bay Area and is one of those guys that we look for to go out and recruit now — the guys that really love their area and love their community,” Taggart said.

As good as Davis felt he was — leaving USF holding 14 of the program’s receiving records — when the NFL draft rolled around in May, general managers didn’t see him in the same light.

Davis was passed over by all 32 teams.

Two hundred fifty-six other college standouts were deemed better than him by NFL teams, which gave Davis 256 reasons to prove them wrong.

“It’s definitely a chip on your shoulder,” Davis said.

Davis got his shot as an undrafted free agent with the Buffalo Bills, who already had six receivers under contract. But they wanted to give Davis a shot to make the 53-man roster.

A solid training camp and stellar preseason, in which Davis caught the game-winning touchdown in a victory over the Browns, gave Davis hope he had done enough to make the team.

But he didn’t last through the end of preseason with the Bills. Davis was among the final cuts when the team trimmed its roster down to the final 53 heading into the regular season.

“He was real stressed,” Davis Sr. said. “He put all he had into the Bills, which he does with everything. But it really took a lot out of him and he went into a little bit of a depression for about a week or so.

“I asked him if there was anything different you could have done and he said, ‘No, I put it all out there.’”

Nearly two months rolled by without much interest from teams. But the dream never faded.

“I wasn’t too worried,” Davis said. “I was kind of in a messy situation with the Bills. … It wasn’t for me to be there, but I felt like I’d get another shot. It was more about when.”

That’s what landed him back home in Tampa Bay.

After a workout that pitted Davis against another NFL hopeful vying for the team’s lone roster spot, Davis was finally back where he felt he belonged.

“Being undrafted and then still feeling like (I) had a shot, I felt like I did what I needed to do to stay (in Buffalo),” he said. “But everything happens for a reason and I’m always going to have a chip on my shoulder just for those reasons.”

When Davis jogs out to the practice fields at One Buc Place — just miles from the fields that got him started — he dons the No. 19 — the same one he idolized that January afternoon in the living room of his grandmother’s house.

Only now, it bears his name.

“I just wanted to make the best of the opportunity here in Tampa” Davis said. “I love Tampa — growing up here, going to college here and growing up a Bucs fan.

“The opportunity is great, and I’ll make the most of it.”