Those words have echoed through all 23 years of Ashtyn Davis’ life.
They’ve resonated in vastly different ways through his family as addiction insidiously made its way through the core of his family.
One more drink.
One more line.
One more smoke.
One more pill.
One more party.
Addiction was the root of his parents’ split when Ashtyn was just 5, and the disease had a profound role in molding him into the young man the Jets selected in the third round with the 68th pick of the NFL draft last month.
If you listen to the people closest to Davis, a dynamic safety out of Cal who has Swiss Army knife set of skills, the Jets have landed someone special, a player who will make a difference.
The Post interviewed more than a dozen family members, friends, teammates and former coaches who’ve played the most significant roles in helping Davis along in his shocking and unlikely journey to the NFL.
One of those people was Davis’ father, Sean, who found his own dad dead as a result of too much drug use then spiraled into his own abuse of meth, cocaine, weed and alcohol. He was so lost at one point that he missed his son’s 11th birthday, not even knowing it had come and gone.
Another was Ashtyn’s grandfather on his mother’s side, Roger Mahutga, who spent some seven years addicted to meth before straightening his life out in time to presciently label his grandson as “special’’ before Ashtyn could even walk.
Given the family history, it’s no accident that Davis, too, would become an addict. He’s addicted to sports, to the adrenaline of competing, to learning and becoming not just better, but the best.
Sports always have been Ashtyn’s “one more” in life.
“He’s addicted to adrenaline,’’ his mother, Christine, says.
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When he was a child, he begged for “one more’’ toss out in the yard with anyone who’d participate until long after darkness fell on Bonny Doon, the hillside enclave bordering Santa Cruz, Calif., the site of his family’s “compound’’ as he calls it.
“He was always saying, ‘One more, one more, please just one more … ’ until it was pitch black out there and the swamp light had to be turned on so he could have one more catch,’’ Ashtyn’s younger sister, Lexi, recalls.
Lexi calls her brother’s story — highlighted by the fact that he was a walk-on to both the track and football teams at Cal before earning a scholarship and getting drafted into the NFL — “unbelievable.’’
“It’s one of those things that doesn’t sound real,’’ she says. “He’s always had a big drive to succeed, and he knew that sports was something that he could do that in. So, he pursued it full force and it’s paid off. Look at him now.’’
There’s a poster on a shelf in Roger Mahutga’s home that illustrates that his grandson has had a plan since he was young.
As part of a sixth-grade art project, Davis produced the poster with a picture of Michael Strahan on it and a handwritten pledge that read: “One day I hope to be famous. My dream is to play in the NFL, NBA and MLB, all at once until I am too old to play. Sports is my hobby and that is all I do. One day I hope to wish upon a star and try to tackle any chance I have at making my dream come true.”
“My most prized possession,’’ Mahutga says.
“That thing is like gold to him,’’ Christine says.
Ashtyn was barely out of diapers when Mahutga told his daughter, “There’s something special about this kid. He’s different. I see it.’’
That’s why there was no part of Mahutga that was surprised when Ashtyn was drafted by the Jets.
“I knew since he was 10 years old he would be a professional,’’ Mahutga says. “I want to write the Jets coach [Adam Gase]. They’re looking for receivers. I’d match [Ashtyn] up against any wide receiver in this country. He can do it all. They just don’t know it yet.’’
Sean Davis’ struggle with drugs and alcohol helped shape who his son is today. Ashtyn says he has never done drugs, drank or even smoked a cigarette.
“Sometimes a bad example is a good example — unfortunately,’’ Sean says with the hint of a melancholic laugh audible over the phone. “I think it really showed him what he doesn’t want to be.’’
Abstaining from drugs and alcohol, however, did not come without its challenges for Ashtyn. Peer pressure in high school can be a very powerful force.
“He started to struggle a little bit in high school, because he didn’t drink and didn’t do drugs,’’ Christine recalls. “He would call me and say, ‘My friends are drinking, I feel super awkward.’ He was definitely frustrated and confused and angry, and he channeled that elsewhere.
“I think he internalized it a lot and used that to self-motivate. He wanted to take a different path. He wanted to be successful. I think that elevated his drive.’’
Lexi, who’s 18 months younger than Ashtyn, recalls the struggles her brother had in high school with just saying ‘no’ while his peers — including Lexi — partied on.
“When he was in high school, all the girls drank and smoked and he was like, ‘All the girls do it, and I’m not cool,’ ’’ she says. “Now he’s cool because he didn’t do it. People now are like, ‘What? You’ve never drank, you’ve never smoked? That’s awesome.’ ’’
Listening to Ashtyn’s reason for not succumbing to the peer pressure of drugs and alcohol brings you right to the core of his unbreakable focus and drive.
“I figured if there’s another person that’s just as talented as me out there and they’re smoking or drinking, I’d have a leg up naturally without even having to do anything,’’ he says. “At first it was hard because everyone else was doing it and you wanted to try to fit in. But it was like a nuisance being asked [to join in] constantly. After junior or senior year, everyone was kind of used to it and no one was bugging me anymore.
“Then college came around and I had enough confidence in myself and my decisions to maintain that same mindset. That was just me. Take it or leave it.’’
Oct 20, 2008
The low point for Sean and Ashtyn became a powerful turning point.
“A huge part of my story was missing Ashtyn’s 11th birthday,’’ Sean says. “When I missed his birthday, I got sober 10 days later, because that wasn’t the person I wanted to be.’’
Sean and Christine met in high school in Santa Cruz when he was a senior and she was a freshman. He became the front man for a popular Bay Area band called “Code III,’’ which opened for the likes of “Rage Against the Machine’’ and “Public Enemy’’ in the ’90s.
It was during that period when Sean was a recreational drug user, a habit that would spiral into addiction when he found his father dead from addiction.
Ten days after missing his son’s birthday, Sean, who’d been in and out of rehab before, went back for the last time — on Oct. 20, 2008. He hasn’t touched drugs or alcohol since.
Four years ago, on Oct. 20, 2016, Ashtyn and Lexi got matching tattoos on their left wrists to commemorate their father’s sobriety. The tattoos depicting mind, body and spirit, protected by God, include his sobriety date in Roman numerals.
“That was the day we got our dad back,’’ Lexi recalls.
“We grew up without our dad,’’ Ashtyn says. “He was there physically, but he wasn’t really present for our lives growing up. That was a special day for us and figured that was a good way to commemorate it. We treat it like a birthday to him. We tell him how thankful we are for him being back involved in our lives.’’
The day the kids unveiled their tattoos to Sean is seared into all of their memories forever.
“We were all crying,” Lexi says.
“It melted me,’’ Sean says. “The next day, I was at the same tattoo parlor getting my matching tattoo. It’s actually the only tattoo I have.’’
Mike Gipson is as responsible as anyone for discovering Ashtyn, who played on losing high school football teams and took up track as a junior only to hone his speed for football.
“I was at the California State High School track meet to recruit another young man on my radar,’’ the now-retired Cal track coach recalls. “I had never even seen or heard of Ashtyn Davis, and I’m watching the guy I went down there to target in the prelim rounds and here’s this guy in this all-white uniform running step-for-step with him. I’m like, ‘Who’s that kid?’ ’’
Gipson came back the next day and asked Davis, “Hey son, what are your plans for the future?’’
“Well, I plan to go down to University of Redlands and play D-3 football,’’ Davis told him.
“I said, ‘What if I could get you into Berkeley?’ ’’ Gipson says. “He said, ‘I’d be interested.’ I said, ‘Be in my office Monday morning with your transcript,’ and that’s how it got started.’’
By the time Davis left the Cal track program, he did so as a four-time All-American with the school record in the 60-meter hurdles. Gipson says he was approached by agents who wanted to sign Ashtyn to a professional contract.
Turning down track money in pursuit of his football dream was the second time Davis bet on himself.
After walking on to the Cal track team, Davis ran for one year and was offered a scholarship.
“He turned it down, because he wanted to play football,” Gipson says, explaining that, by NCAA rule, accepting the track scholarship would have ruled him ineligible for football without giving up the track scholarship.
Lexi recalls “a really heavy talk with my mom, my dad and him’’ about whether to accept the free Cal education or pursue his first love.
“Football gives me the most joy,’’ Ashtyn told his parents.
“OK, we’ll eat your tuition for however long it takes,’’ they said.
“And look how it worked out,’’ Lexi says.
It was during his first year at Cal running track, 2015, when Davis set the second part of his life plan into motion. First, he had to find out who to call in the football program to ask if he could try out for the team.
He and his father used Google to track down the person to call — Andrew McGraw, the director of operations for the football team.
To this day, McGraw shakes his head when he thinks about “the gift that fell into our laps’’ as a result of Ashtyn persistently hunting him down.
Sonny Dykes, then the Cal football coach, didn’t have a lot of time for Davis, but he did allow him to walk onto the team. That was all Davis wanted or needed — a foot in the door.
One of the overriding narratives to his story is how, despite his athleticism and irrepressible drive, he’s been overlooked all his life.
When he first walked onto the football team, Dykes kept accidentally referring to him as “Jake,’’ confusing him with teammate Jake Ashton.
“I corrected people once or twice and after that I didn’t care,’’ Ashtyn recalls. “I was there to play football and do what I wanted to do. So, if people were going to call me ‘Jake’ I didn’t really care anymore.’’
New coach, new opportunity
The NFL might not have happened for Davis had it not been for Justin Wilcox, who was hired as the Cal football coach in 2017, a year after Ashtyn’s “Jake Ashton’’ season with the program.
It was on Wilcox’s watch that Davis went from an occasional special teams player who was used on defense as a nickel corner in a pinch to the starting safety and kick returner the Jets drafted.
“Being in football for 20 years, I’ve come across some unbelievable stories and Ashtyn’s story is as good as it gets,’’ Wilcox says. “We didn’t give him anything. He earned his scholarship.’’
Davis vividly recalls the moment when he first truly believed the NFL was a possibility for him.
“It was my first start at safety in 2017, the very first play of the game against No. 7 [at the time] Washington State,’’ he says. “I came up and I hit somebody on a running play and everybody cheered and I didn’t feel like a walk-on anymore. I just filled the gap and it worked out perfectly. That was my moment of realization.’’
For Davis, the draft was a nervous time. A groin injury late in the season, for which he needed surgery, prevented him from playing in a bowl game or performing at the NFL combine, and COVID-19 prevented him from having a pro day. Those issues likely pushed him back a few spots in the draft.
“On draft night, I was outside sitting on a stool watching Ashtyn through the window inside sitting on the couch,’’ Christine says. “As it got later, I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know how this is going to go.’ So, I came in and sat with him.
“He was frustrated. He was super-quiet and then he said, ‘My phone’s ringing. I’m getting a call.’ He was so quiet about it, I thought he was kidding. He slowly put his hand in his pocket and grabbed his phone.’’
It was the Jets.
“I was emotional and started crying,’’ she says. “He was shaking a little bit.’’
Though Davis is humble and low-key, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t confided to those closest to him about his displeasure for all the times he’s been overlooked.
Gipson says Davis was “bothered’’ by the fact that, ahead of the draft, he wasn’t one of the 60 or so collegiate prospects for whom the league set up home video hookups to record their reactions to the broadcast once they got drafted.
“It seems like they’re trying to find a way to count me out,’’ Gipson recalls Ashtyn telling him. “I don’t care what round I go in. Somebody’s going to get a first-round guy.’’
When asked about that conversation, Davis doesn’t back away. He doubles down.
“That’s exactly what I told him,’’ he says. “I feel like any team that picked me, regardless of whether it was in that first-round area or later, that I was going to give them first-round value. I honestly felt that way and I still feel that way.
“All I ever needed was my foot in the door, and I keep that same mindset. Now my foot’s in the door, so none of that’s stuff even matters anymore. It’s just time to play football.’’
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