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Despite Learning Disability, 49ers QB Nate Davis Earns NFL Job

Sep 3, 2009 – 1:35 PM
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Nancy Gay

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Nate DavisSANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Rookie quarterback Nate Davis, a San Francisco 49ers fifth-round draft pick in 2009, had an uncomfortable conversation several times in recent days with 12th-year quarterback Damon Huard. It wasn't about mentor-pupil anymore. How's this for awkward: Only one of them would make it through the week on the 49ers' roster.

So the conversation was about survival.

Mandatory roster cutdowns were imminent on NFL teams and the 49ers were carrying four quarterbacks. Shaun Hill had earned the starting job; former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith was idling in neutral at No. 2. That meant a final spot came down to Davis or Huard.

"We always stayed positive with each other and said, 'We hope that we're both here,'" Davis says of his many heartfelt talks with his most direct competitor for an NFL job.

When Huard, 36, didn't show up to the quarterbacks meeting on Tuesday after being released that afternoon, Davis realized he was now the 49ers' third quarterback. The former Ball State standout, 22, was overjoyed to learn he had landed a coveted 53-man roster spot on an NFL team.

And anyone who ever questioned whether a young man with a serious learning disability could play quarterback at football's highest level would have to eat their words.

"It's been very hard," Davis says of his ability to overcome his significant reading and comprehension challenges, as well as fighting the stigma of being a learning-disabled quarterback. "But the NFL is also a business. I understand that.

"I know that every team was a little hesitant taking me because of my learning disability. You know what? I came off and I was honest during the (NFL Scouting) combine. I came out and the first thing I told them was, 'Listen, I have a learning disability.' I wasn't going to hide nothing. I wanted them to know, and that I can overcome it, too.'"

Davis did that extraordinarily well this preseason, beating out the more polished and experienced Huard by showing uncommon poise and instincts for a rookie quarterback. He took full advantage of the few snaps he received in drills during San Francisco's mini-camps and training camp.

The team's coaches, who already were impressed with his strong right arm and perseverance, figured early on they might be able to stash Davis on their practice squad. But it was Davis' cool-headed play in his two preseason appearances that earned him the complete trust of coaches and teammates -- and left the 49ers with no choice but to find him a permanent roster spot or risk losing him to another team through a waiver claim.

Twice, Davis led the 49ers to come-from-behind, game-winning touchdown drives in exhibitions, doing so against the Raiders and Cowboys. Against Oakland, Davis methodically brought San Francisco back from a 14-3 deficit entering the fourth quarter, and captured a 21-20 win. Then against Dallas last week, Davis calmly engineered two late touchdown drives, including a 10-play, 88-yard series that led to a 20-13 victory.

"I think Nate came in and he has a composure about him -- sometimes a little too much," coach Mike Singletary says of his rookie passer, who has completed 16 of 20 passes for a team-leading 199 yards in the preseason. "That clock is ticking and I'm saying, 'Nate, let's go! Let's go!' "

Conquering challenges -- and changing perceptions -- is nothing new to Davis, who was once so crippled by the confusion of reading and writing that he would burst out of classrooms in fits of frustration and embarrassment.

As he entered middle school in his hometown of Bellaire, Ohio, Davis' parents, Charles and Linda, suspected their son's behavioral problems and F's on his report card weren't due to lack of intellect or discipline. Before his eighth grade year, they placed him with a tutor, Chris Sampson, a professor who specialized in learning disabilities at Wheeling (West Virginia) Jesuit University.

After a series of tests, Sampson -- who is now director of the McCann Learning Center at Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va. -- hit on what was limiting Davis.

"I wanted to see if he could read, so I actually had him read books on his grade level, and then I collected data on that. I charted everything he did to figure out where he needed help," Sampson says. "We worked on figuring out what we could do to make him more successful in his reading and writing."

Specifically, Davis struggled with processing multisyllabic words in reading, writing and speaking. As a result, Davis read and wrote at a much slower rate than his classmates.

"Sometimes I can't pronounce words. I get frustrated. Then I try to move on. And suddenly, I don't know what I'm reading," Davis says, describing what his brain often visualizes. "So I have to slow down, and it takes me a lot longer to read what other people are reading.

"And I get really frustrated, because sometimes I won't remember what I read. So sometimes, it's just a lot harder for me."

Sampson worked with Davis to help him break down the multisyllabic words that were confounding him, and put him on a specialized reading program to improve his retention and understanding.

"We worked on reading speed," says Sampson, adding that Davis also was more recently diagnosed as having a form of dyslexia, another cognitive disability.

The one-hour teaching sessions with Sampson were such a breakthrough -- it was as if someone handed Davis a decoder device.

"Everything suddenly became clearer to me," he says. "She has done wonders for me. She did more than I expected. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be here today."

At Ball State in Muncie, Ind., where Davis threw three touchdown passes in his first college game as a true freshman in 2006, coaches devised a system to help their learning-disabled young quarterback understand and memorize a complicated playbook.

His beloved head coach there, Brady Hoke -- who is now at San Diego State -- worked with former offensive coordinator Stan Parrish (now the Cardinals head coach) to impart the scheme and specific plays to Davis through extensive film study and by diagramming plays through pictures on a board.

It worked and it clicked. As a sophomore, Davis established school records with 3,667 passing yards and 30 touchdown passes. He followed that up in his junior season by throwing for 3,591 yards as Ball State compiled a 12-0 start -- an effort that earned Davis Mid-American Conference Offensive Player of the Year recognition for the second consecutive year. As a student, Davis already was comfortable enough working with tutors and digesting lectures and lessons through audio that he thrived in the classroom as a communications studies major as well.

When Hoke made the decision to leave Ball State after 2008, Davis was heartbroken, and opted to depart a year early for the NFL draft. That's when his comfort zone fell apart.

Scouts and NFL personnel people not only questioned his ability to succeed at their level because of his learning disability, they also downgraded Davis on draft boards because of a perceived lack of size (6-feet-1, 226 pounds) and the facts that he wore gloves year-round while passing and never gripped the football by the laces.

There also were concerns about how Davis finished his '08 season. Battling flu symptoms, Davis was a dud in a 42-24 MAC Championship game loss to Buffalo. He also bombed in a 45-13 GMAC Bowl loss to Tulsa. He fumbled eight times in those two postseason games.

At the NFL Scouting Combine, Davis' rigorous weight training slowed his 40 time to an unimpressive 4.95 seconds, which sent his stock plummeting further. Then, the ultimate indignation: At Ball State's pro day, only one NFL team came to watch -- Colts quarterbacks coach Frank Reich made the one-hour drive to Muncie.

Was that insulting? "One team showed up. But I couldn't take it too personally," Davis says. "All you need is one team to fall in love with you. That's the way I looked at it. I just kept on praying to God that things would work out for me, and I kept on working hard."

Turns out the team that fell in love was San Francisco, which may have scored one of the steals of the 2009 NFL Draft by making Davis the 171st pick overall.

The 49ers, who selected Davis with the second of their two fifth-round picks in April, saw a player with a great arm, tremendous pocket awareness and -- yes -- some unique challenges. To that end, 49ers coaches also employ a film-rich study plan and visual scheme similar to Ball State's, meant to help the quarterback digest their playbook.

"It's done in pictures," Davis says of his playbook, "and that's one thing that's helped me a lot. They put everything in pictures for me and that's helped more than anything."

On the field, Davis takes note of the number of a specific play that's dictated to him, and he visualizes it through the pictures he studied in the playbook. It's a lot to process, but it's working.

"Nothing has been confusing or complicated to me so far," Davis says.,feedConfig,localizationConfig,entry&id=700397&pid=700396&uts=1252000747
San Francisco 49ers Photos
San Francisco 49ers running back Kory Sheets goes over the top of the pile to score a touchdown in the second half of a preseason NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2009 in Arlington, Texas. Cowboys linebacker Steve Octavien (53) and center Matt Spanos (78) are shown at front. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

San Francisco 49ers Photos

    In this photo taken on Aug. 29, 2009, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) looks to pass as San Francisco 49ers defensive end Justin Smith (94) pressures during a preseason NFL football game in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Donna McWilliam)


    ARLINGTON, TX - AUGUST 29: Running back Kory Sheets #30 of the San Francisco 49ers celebrates a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys at Cowboys Stadium on August 29, 2009 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Kory Sheets

    Getty Images

    ARLINGTON, TX - AUGUST 29: Runnng back Felix Jones #28 of the Dallas Cowboys runs the ball against Dre' Bly #31 of the San Francisco 49ers at Cowboys Stadium on August 29, 2009 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Felix Jones;Dre' Bly

    Getty Images

    San Francisco 49ers fullback Brit Miller (47) runs for extra yardage as Dallas Cowboys safety Pat Watkins (25) attempts to bring him down in the second half of a preseason NFL football game Saturday, Aug. 29, 2009, in Arlington, Texas. The 49ers won 20-13. (AP Photo/Donna McWilliam)


    Dallas Cowboys tight end Martellus Bennett (80) is upended by San Francisco 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown, bottom, as linebacker Diyral Briggs, rear, assists on the tackle following Bennett's reception in the second half of a preseason NFL football game Saturday, Aug. 29, 2009, in Arlington, Texas. The 49ers won 20-13. (AP Photo/Donna McWilliam)


    Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) walks off the field following the Cowboys' preseason NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2009, in Arlington, Texas. The 49ers won 20-13. (AP Photo/LM Otero)


    DALLAS - AUGUST 29: Tashard Choice #23 of the Dallas Cowboys runs against Isaac Sopoaga #90 and Mark Roman #26 of the San Francisco 49ers during the preseason game at Cowboys Stadium on August 29, 2009 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Tashard Choice;Isaac Sopoaga;Mark Roman

    Getty Images

    San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Singletary, center, shouts instructions to his team in the second half of a preseason NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys as running backs coach Tom Rathman, left rear, and quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson, right rear, look on, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2009, in Arlington, Texas. The 49ers won 20-13. (AP Photo/Donna McWilliam)


    San Francisco 49ers fullback Brit Miller, left, celebrates with running back Kory Sheets (30) following Sheets' touchdown in the second half of a preseason NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2009, in Arlington, Texas. The 49ers won 20-13. (AP Photo/Donna McWilliam)


    Dallas Cowboys safety Courtney Brown, right, is called for interference while defending the San Francisco 49ers' Jason Hill, left, in the fourth quarter. The 49ers defeated the Cowboys, 20-13, at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Saturday August 29, 2009. (Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)


Offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, the veteran coach who joined the 49ers staff this season, treats Davis as he would any rookie quarterback.

"It is not creatively by design that he has plays specific for him. We try to limit some of the formations, motion and shifting when he is in there, and some of the longer calls," Raye says. "But other than that, we give him the same rack of plays going into the game. We may cut down some of the things that are a little more difficult for him to call.

"The fact that he can take the ball in the design of what he calls and find a guy who is open and completes it has been very, very, very refreshing. I think as he goes forward, he'll be able to handle more because he hasn't seen as much pressure and blitzing from the other team. As he can handle more, I think his development will be good."

In high school and college, Davis also developed as a compassionate person, spending hours working with disabled students, including those with autism and learning challenges similar to his.

So many have worked to get Davis where he is, he feels obligated to reach out and pay it forward.

"All my life, people have helped me. Because I have had problems. I need to give back, too, and let people know that I'm not just an athlete. I'm a caring person. I was taught to care for people," Davis says.

"It doesn't matter -- you can be one of the worst kids in the school but I'm still going to talk to you. Just because you're a kid that doesn't have a lot of money, or other kids put you down, or don't understand you. I understand."

When Davis found out he had earned a job with the 49ers, one of the first people he called Tuesday was Sampson, the patient and creative tutor who unlocked the puzzle in his brain.

"She was very emotional. When I talk to her, she gets teary-eyed," Davis says. "Especially over this. She was very excited for me."

Sampson, indeed, was overwhelmed by the news. "I'm just thrilled for him," she says. "He demonstrates the kind of tenacity that I love in students that I work with. It just ... it leaves me speechless."

Davis' story, especially his perseverance, should be an inspiration to others who struggle with learning disabilities, Sampson says.

"He and I have discussed this, and I think that is why has been so open to telling people he has a learning disability," Sampson says. "He is not ashamed of it. He knows it is just a part of who he it -- just a little part. It doesn't define who he is.

"I told him, 'Nathan, someday, you and I are going to write a children's book about this,' Because I do think the way he is with children, the way he is with others who have disabilities, he's the kind of person who reaches out. It's important to him. And this could be another way he could help people."
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