OSWEGO – No more cornfields. No more country roads with vanishing points.
The quiet rural life is no longer an everyday scene for Drake Davis. That life now consists of busy boulevards with green grass, and a strip mall every couple of miles.
“It’s a big change,” Davis said. “You got neighbors right next to you, and down there you don’t have a neighbor for another half-mile.”
Most rural high school football players work hard to get to a point where they move on from their stomping grounds to play on a college gridiron. That point, moving on to a much bigger stage, typically comes after high school graduation.
The big time for Davis, a former Bureau Valley quarterback, meant moving on to a bigger high school: from the smallest competitive level of Illinois high school football to the largest. The Davis family made the move from their rural Manlius home to Naperville during the past school year.
At 1A Bureau Valley, Davis was the starting quarterback for 3 years. At 8A Naperville North, Davis put up a senior season that nearly dwarfed his years with the Storm. The huge jump for the senior was no problem, as he threw for 2,724 yards and 23 touchdowns his senior year with the Huskies, whom he led to a 6-4 season.
“He’s played with kids from up here for a long time, and he adapts real well no matter what he does,” said Spencer Davis, Drake’s father and former Storm football coach. “I think that’s what makes him the kind of football player he is, too. He never really gets too high or low. Just the kind of kid he is.”
During his first year with the Storm, Davis’ right arm became his biggest asset. He led the Sauk Valley area with 1,828 passing yards and 21 touchdowns during his freshman year in 2014.
The season started out slow with an 0-3 start, and losses to perennial powers Hall and Newman early on showed what things were going to be like at the high school level.
The peak moment of Drake Davis’ freshman year came in a Week 8 home game against Riverdale, where he threw for 336 yards and seven touchdowns. From that point on, folks in the Three Rivers knew that something special was developing at Bureau Valley.
“In 1A, I believed that I played in the best conference in the state,” Davis said. “The Three Rivers is great, and you play multiple teams that play in the playoffs and make great runs every year.”
To further develop his skill at quarterback, Davis started to train at the Quarterback Farm in Naperville, and soon earned a spot on the Midwest’s premier 7-on-7 club, the Midwest BOOM. In the summer between his sophomore and junior year, Davis became part of an elite group of Illinois high school football players that won a pair of 7-on-7 national championships.
Davis knew he had an arm, but when his junior year rolled around, he was also called to run quarterback keepers more often. He fell 34 yards short of 1,000 yards rushing while passing for 1,732. He threw for 17 TDs, ran for 16 more, and led the Storm the playoffs.
However, there was still more room for improvement.
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With his senior season ahead of him, the future looked bright for both Davis and the Storm. However, getting into better situations wasn’t just limited to Davis’ quarterback abilities.
When the opportunity came to relocate to the Chicago suburbs, Spencer Davis pounced on that opportunity. Not only would it mean a lot for the family, but also for Drake’s quarterback skills as he would be playing in a more fast-paced environment.
Not too long after the end of his junior year, Spencer Davis resigned as head coach of the Storm and the Davises moved to within the city limits of Naperville. Moving from the country to the city is a challenge for most kids, but Naperville is Illinois’ third-largest city in a metropolitan area of over six million people. This definitely wasn’t the cornfields of Bureau County.
“He’s been received very well up here,” Spencer Davis said. “The kids have been nothing but great to him. The school has really taken him in, and my whole family as a matter of fact. It’s a great move for our family. Bureau Valley was a great place. I think it’s been a good transition for him.”
Whether the 1A style of play would help or hurt Davis at the 8A level with Naperville North wasn’t too much of an issue, having played on the BOOM teams, and other programs with elite athletes from similar schools. When the first day of practice came, Davis was among over 100 kids on all levels in the Huskies program.
The Huskies’ Week 1 game was at Edwardsville. Getting there meant driving down Interstate 55 clear from Chicagoland to the St. Louis area, and looking outside the bus window gave Davis reminders of the life he had not too long ago. For some of his teammates, this was a lifestyle they had never been used to.
“When we drove by the cornfields,” Davis recalled, “everyone would say my name and say, ’So Drake, this is where you come from, huh?’ ‘Yeah, this is what it looks like.’”
Any nerves Davis had didn’t show during warmups. They didn’t show as the Huskies got off to a very poor start, as 28-0 turned into 35-0, and that turned into a 42-0 hole before halftime. When it looked like his Huskies debut was going to turn into an embarrassment, it was only the start of what made the game one of the most memorable in all of the 2017 Illinois high school football season.
“I told everyone that I don’t really get too nervous,” Davis said. “The guys around me on the sidelines and stuff were very supportive. We went into halftime and we had a talk-over about what we got to do. The guys all stood up and started saying that we all had to start believing in each other. We had to take it play-by-play, drive-by-drive, and score as many points as possible.”
No fingers were pointed at anyone at halftime, where the Huskies trailed 42-14 after a small comeback.
“Most teams, at that point, they don’t think they’re going to win,” Davis added. “We never stopped believing. The guys never stopped believing they were going to win. I think that’s what made us win. We never stopped.”
Davis threw three TD passes in the second half and clawed all the way back to a 49-46 deficit with less than 1 minute to go. After Davis lunged for a 1-yard TD with 7.9 seconds left, Naperville North defeated Edwardsville 53-49; behind Davis’ 391 passing yards, 4 passing TDs and 2 rushing TDs.
“It gave us a lot of confidence,” Davis said. “It showed everyone that we just won’t give in. The guys ever gave up. We’ve had a couple of last-second touchdowns this season. We never give up. That goes all the way back to the summer, back to when we were running stairs, running on the track, lifting weights. Our team shows a lot of guts, and that game showed us that all of those things worked out for us. It showed us that we could do that throughout the rest of the year.”
The Huskies got to 4-0, but only after another come-from-behind win against Lake Park, 21-14, in Week 4. After back-to-back losses, Davis led the Huskies to another comeback win against rival Naperville Central, a 44-41 victory. Following a Week 8 loss to Waubonsie Valley, the Huskies closed the regular season with a 28-21 win against Wheaton Warrenville South.
The 6-3 regular season could have been 3-6 if it weren’t for heart and grit. When Davis transferred, he found himself playing different teams from a Three Rivers schedule, but in a similar conference situation in terms of overall strength with the DuPage Valley. Naperville North, Naperville Central, and WWS have won multiple state titles; just like Morrison and Newman.
“The DVC is the best conference in 7A-8A, possibly the state, and these guys make great runs,” Davis said. “I’ve played against the best guys and best teams in the state – high As to low As. I’ve personally benefited most from playing against the best guys in the state.”
Speed is the biggest difference between the small-school football game and the large-school football game. Rosters are also much larger, meaning more people are playing one-way on the field. Still, that doesn’t mean Davis wasn’t called upon to enter the game on defense every now and again, usually on 3rd- or 4th-and-long pass plays at safety. He has also punted the ball when his offense comes up short.
“The guys up here are a ton faster,” Davis said. “They’ll knock down the guys down there. There’s a lot of fast guys up here, and they don’t have to play both ways. Down there, you’re killing yourself going both ways. Up here, everyone has a lot more energy and lot more time to get rest throughout the whole game. Everyone up here is basically full-go the whole time.”
Davis played in the postseason for the second time in his high school football career, this time in an 8A opening-round game in Oswego. That would be Davis’ last game, however, as the Panthers came from behind to defeat the Huskies 28-14. Davis had his team up 7-6 at halftime, but the game’s turning point came in the third quarter when, on his way around right end from 1st-and-goal, the ball slipped out of his hands and was recovered by the Panthers – who went on to score on that drive.
The team that came back in three games this season to escape with big wins couldn’t get any magic going this time.
“We just can’t stop. We just got to keep going. We can’t let them back in the game,” Davis said after the game, not too long after being greeted by a small group of Bureau Valley players and friends who made the trip. “This team’s got a lot of guts and we never stopped believing. It’s basically been the story of the year for us.”
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In a 4-year career, Davis racked up 9,878 yards of total offense, with 7,686 coming in the air. Both are good for eighth-place all-time according to the current IHSA records. His 77 passing TDs ranks in the top 15 in the state, and he has scored 108 total touchdowns (including two on interception returns at Bureau Valley).
Combined with his quick-maneuvering play, one that got even quicker while on the 8A level, Davis and his father hope the numbers are staggering enough to warrant a few more Division I college offers. Eastern Illinois gave Davis his first offer in July, and Western Michigan offered Davis a preferred walk-on spot on Oct. 23.
“He’s a special kid,” Naperville North head coach Sean Drendel said. “When he played out there, he was special there. He’s special here. He’s a guy that does everything we ask and wants to be a part of it. He’s all-in. It’s going to be tough losing him. He’s as good a kid as we’ve had at quarterback. We didn’t have a whole lot of time with him, but the time we had was super special. It’s going to be tough to see him go.”
While Davis is currently enjoying the suburban life, the rural atmosphere comes calling every now and again. Most folks at Bureau Valley were supportive of the Davises when they moved on to greener pastures, and are definitely welcoming them back for a round of early morning hunting or fishing.
“We do miss that stuff,” Davis said, “but they got some ponds up here, and I have friends up here that fish and hunt as well. There are people up here that will show us the ropes, but when we go down there … I still like it down there. We can go a mile down the road and go fishing or hunting.”
Perhaps no Bureau County native has made as many trips across the nation for high school football as Davis has, and came back with a certain level of national accolade. His tale, from the cornfields to Chicagoland, will certainly be one of the most interesting stories told in local football lore.
“This season has been awesome. It’s been a lot of fun,” Davis said. “We made a historic run in Week 1 coming back from down 42, to finishing 6-3. It’s been fun. The guys around me have made it fun. The coaches around me have made it fun. It’s been a great year.”
School: Naperville North
FYI: Transferred from Bureau Valley to Naperville North during 2016-17 school year. … Ranks 8th all-time in total offense and passing yards. … 3-year starting QB at BV, starting QB at North. … Named DuPage Valley Conference most valuable quarterback this season