Joey Davis has heard all the clichés associated with where he grew up.
Guns, violence, poverty, drug abuse. Story after story, in print and on the television, gives the American public a taste of what Compton, Calif., is like.
As a multi-sport star at Santa Fe High School, Davis grew up in a culture where friends and schoolmates made poor decisions that led to more poor decisions. Meanwhile, Davis was excelling, especially on a wrestling mat. He won California state titles as a junior and senior and has spent time on the mat with Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs. He’s tangled with perhaps the best pound-for-pound man in Division I, Oklahoma State senior Alex Dieringer, a two-time national champion on a 77-match win streak.
Frank Romano was a two-time state wrestling champion for Maple Heights High School in Cleveland, Ohio. He attended Ohio State University where he qualified for the NCAA Championships three times. For the last three decades Romano has coached in Ohio, including a seven-year stint at Kent State. In 2006, he was asked to lead a new program at Notre Dame College, less than a half-hour drive from his high school alma mater. By 2010, NDC was at a championship level, winning the NAIA trophy. By 2014, after transitioning to Division II, the Falcons were national champions.
Two motivated individuals from opposite ends of the country with two very different backgrounds. How did these two paths cross?
Anthony Ralph, named co-head coach with Frank Romano before the 2015-16 campaign, made the trip to Los Angeles to meet a highly-touted high school senior. NDC recruits nationwide ― 18 states are represented on the Falcon roster – and Davis had participated in a few high-level prep tournaments. Ralph had to convince an 18-year-old that Notre Dame College was the right place to be.
“Not really a pleasant place to grow up,” said Ralph of his visit to Compton, part of Los Angeles. “All the stereotypical things you hear … it can be difficult. Joey has told us some stories. But the thing that sticks out is how Joey’s dad (Joey) raised him. From the beginning it was about what we could do for him on an academic level. It was the academics from the beginning, about finding a place where Joey could succeed. The smaller class sizes and all the things a smaller campus can provide. The phone was ringing off the hook while I was there because (Notre Dame College) was not the only program after him. With his talent, that was obvious.”
Davis signed without visiting the South Euclid, Ohio, campus. From the outset, the Californian has been special.
“We knew we had something special, but after that first year when he started winning open tournaments with DI kids, that’s when we really thought he could do something like this,” Romano said. “I think having other kids in the room that have had success, kids that are used to winning at a high level, that’s helped Joey a lot. He is a long way from home, but we have a lot of kids like that who are highly motivated.”
Davis, in these days of transfers and ever-changing rosters, had the opportunity to move to the DI level.
“We gave him that option from the beginning,” Ralph said. “There were a lot of coaches calling him, but Joey fell in love with (Notre Dame) from the beginning and chose to stay with us. He’s been a leader in just about every way possible.”
In 127 career matches the NDC senior has yet to be defeated. Three others have won four DII individual championships, but none of them can claim perfection. Cael Sanderson accomplished the feat while at Iowa State at the Division I level. Augsburg College’s Marcus LeVesseur rolled through four championship DIII seasons without a loss.
On Friday afternoon, Davis will take the mat against Western State’s Brandon Supernaw to begin his final collegiate tournament. The 184-pound bracket is no cakewalk. Newberry’s Huston Evans was a finalist at 197 pounds last March; California Baptist’s Jacob Waste was an All-American in 2015; Pittsburgh-Johnstown senior Travis McKillop, who Davis beat in a Region final two weekends ago, is 31-1 and former NCAA finalist; Augustana’s Aero Amo is unbeaten in 21 matches and will have home support; and Ft. Hays State’s Jon Inman has won 35 of 37 bouts this season.
If Davis wins four matches this weekend, he will stand alone in Division II.
“The waiting is killing me,” said Davis earlier this week. “I’m doing whatever I can to pass the time. Playing a game? That’s not working. Can’t focus in class. Luckily, my teachers have been very understanding.”
One day before taking the mat, at Thursday afternoon’s press conference, Davis talked about what lies ahead.
“I’m dealing with emotions I have never dealt with before in my life,” he said. “Sometimes I can’t sleep, sometimes I can’t focus in class. I know how hard I’ve worked my whole life and I’ve been telling people I want to leave as a legend. Last year I didn’t even know what that meant. Now, as a senior, I can’t even explain what my body is going through.
“I’m just excited to put my hands on somebody.”
“We’ve let Joey be Joey the last couple of weeks,” Ralph added. “There have been a lot of interview requests, all the things you would imagine. We’ve approached this tournament like the rest, just business as usual. There are distractions, but Joey has handled everything really well. He’s focused, wants to win that fourth.”
“We are trying to keep things normal this week with Joey; we are trying to treat it like any other tournament,” he said. “(Davis) had a good (Region) and we will see what happens. I think 184 might be the toughest bracket in the tournament.”
While focusing on his weight class and next opponent, Davis will also have an eye on the team standings. The Falcons finished the regular season unbeaten in dual meets and are among the tournament favorites. An individual title would be nice; a second team championship would be icing on the cake.
And if Davis makes history this weekend, leaves as a legend, the men from Straight Outta Compton will have some company in regards to celebrity status from the old neighborhood.