ESPN College GameDay host Rece Davis abhors hyperbole and deflects attention. So when he says, “They had to revive him, he almost bled out,” you believe him. Then he starts choking up.
“Give me a minute here,” Davis says, taking a deep breath and letting out a loud exhale before recounting one of the worst days of his life. It started with watching his son play college baseball 18 months ago—he went 2-for-3! But hours later, Davis was banging on a hospital door. On the other side, his 19-year-old son had vomited, lost his sight, and slid out of his chair, unconscious.
Chris Davis nearly died doing what his father loved.
Growing up in Alabama, Rece would lay on the floor each fall Saturday, listening to Bama games, and Auburn games, and anything else he could find on the dial. He’d watch whatever was on TV and enjoy the rest on a Grundig radio. In high school, his top two “Life Time Goals” were (1) study sports broadcasting and (2) become a successful sports broadcaster. After graduating from Tuscaloosa, he worked his way up from a Columbus, Ga., TV gig to a Flint, Mich., station to ESPN in 1995, where he continued to rise.
Davis went from hosting ESPN2’s weekend night programming to calling college football games and hosting a weekly college basketball road show with Digger Phelps and Jay Bilas. In 2015, he started hosting ESPN’s Emmy-winning College Gameday football touring show. Along the way, the idea of moving up to the pros would come up—to covering the NFL. He’d never say never. But he’s passionate about college football and basketball. “I tell people, I like all sports but I really love two,” Davis says, “not counting whatever team Christopher is on—that’s my first love.”
Ironically, Chris grew up an Auburn fan. With Dad working on Saturdays, Rece’s wife, Leigh, would watch her alma mater Tigers at home, teaching Chris to chant “War Eagle!” (Rece wouldn’t make the same mistake with their other child, 18-year-old Alabama fan, Elizabeth.)
Each fall, Chris would play football, and in the winter, basketball, but it was baseball he fell in love with because it was in the spring and summer when Rece could play. “I always wanted to go to the cage with him,” Chris says. “I always wanted to go the field with him. A lot of my great memories of my dad from when I was a kid were at Little League baseball fields.” Chris led a state championship team when he was 10 (Rece was an assistant, in charge of bringing the “can of whoopin’” to each game) and he continued developing, setting his sights on a career like his dad did as a teen. He wanted to play at an SEC school initially, but ended up getting recruited to Princeton instead.
The first thing Chris remembers about March 18, 2017, is the sun. The previous day in College Park, Md., had been cloudy with temperatures in the 40s. He’d come off the bench, singling as a pinch hitter in the series opener against Maryland. In the second game, his mom would get to watch Chris start in centerfield for the first time (he’d missed the previous season with a shoulder injury). And he wouldn’t have to wear an undershirt.
Then came the sixth inning fly ball from Terrapin third baseman AJ Lee. Running to his left, Davis recorded the out but then collided with right fielder Nick Hernandez. Davis instantly bounced up and threw the ball in, keeping a runner at third. “It hurt but I didn't think there was anything seriously wrong,” Davis says. He stayed in the game, adding a single in the seventh and otherwise hiding his pain from his coaches.
On the bus following the 6-2 defeat, Davis pulled out his phone and pulled up WebMD. After an off-handed remark by teammate Cody Phillips, he looked up the symptoms of a ruptured spleen. “All right,” he thought, thumbing through the page. “Well, I've got pain in my side and in my shoulder, but that’s because I ran into somebody. If I get dizzy, then we'll have an issue.”
The team and all the parents gathered that evening at Washington, D.C.’s Busboys and Poets for a celebratory dinner. To start, each player got up and introduced himself and his family. When Chris’s turn came, “I just remember the room was absolutely spinning,” he says. Afterwards, the players went to get food, but Davis wasn’t interested. “For me,” he says, “That's a big deal when I don't want to eat.” Minutes later, Rece was taking his son to the hospital.
Leigh was sitting right next to Chris when things turned dire. A nurse was measuring his weight and taking his temperature one minute. Then, “He said, ‘I can’t see, I can’t see, I can’t see anymore,’” Leigh recalled, “And he kept getting louder and louder because he couldn’t really hear either.” Rece rushed through the door and into the room as several people lifted Chris onto a stretcher and turned him on his side so he wouldn’t throw up on himself. Confirming what Phillips had feared hours earlier, they told Rece and Leigh that the hospital wasn’t equipped with the surgery equipment to repair their son’s spleen. They wanted to fly him to a trauma center, but a helicopter wasn’t available.
Instead, Leigh got into an ambulance with Chris while Rece drove Elizabeth. “Not knowing during that 15-minute drive, that was one of the more harrowing times I’ve ever had,” Rece said. Only later would he learn how alarmed the nurse in the ambulance was about Chris’ sinking blood pressure, telling the driver to go faster. Faster. “There are images from that night that I will probably never shake. Things my wife and daughter and I experienced that night that I’m not sure you’ll ever quite put to bed.”
Doctors at Washington Hospital Medical Center immediately went to work on Chris. He needed six pints of blood (more than half a healthy person’s total volume). At 2 a.m., a surgeon stemmed the bleeding.
As Chris spent the next day in ICU, doctors told the family he was recovering. But he was still so pale. Leigh couldn’t look at him without crying. “Dad,” Chris asked Rece, “Are they not telling me something?” His vital signs were in the normal range, but, 24 hours after his surgery, a nurse convinced the doctors that a Division 1 athlete should be in much better shape than “the normal range.” Chris’s fitness had probably helped him survive the previous day’s massive blood loss. But now it was obfuscating further damage. At 5 a.m., Chris went back into surgery. This time, doctors cut Chris from his sternum to his belly button to find the root of the problem. They discovered another laceration on his spleen and decided to remove the organ entirely. By midday Monday, 48 hours after the collision, color finally returned to Chris’s face.
“Rece has always hated calling coaches or anyone about personal stuff,” Leigh says. But in the hospital, she implored him. “Honey, now’s the time,” she told him. “They would want you to.” Two days after getting knocked out of the NCAA Tournament, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon made connections for the family at the medical center. In the middle of the Sweet Sixteen, Jay Bilas got longtime friend and Washington Hospital doctor Wanda Pak to help the family navigate the system.
With Chris needing to get back to school or risk missing the semester, “We were trying to do a month’s worth of work in a week,” Pak said. “I wanted all of them to understand that even though they removed his spleen which was the source of him bleeding, he was still an infection away from problems.” Even today, a mild fever represents a serious threat for Chris, as the spleen plays an important role in the immune system.
Leigh got an apartment in Princeton to monitor Chris and help carry his bags as he returned to campus. Rece, through Alabama trainer Jeff Allen, reached out to Dr. Bill Meyers—who has operated on athletes from Adrian Peterson to Justin Verlander—to manage Chris’ rehab. “People say, I’d do anything for my kid,” Bilas says. “They’ve proven they’d do anything.”
Along the way, the Davises learned how many other families had dealt with similar injuries. Twenty minutes from where Chris grew up, Rockies outfielder David Dahl lost his spleen due to an outfield collision while playing in the minors. Forty miles from Princeton, Evan Murray died from a spleen injury suffered during a high school football game. Level 1 trauma centers across the country see an average of 200 to 300 blunt trauma splenic injuries every year.
How often does Chris think about the injury? “I mean, I’ve got this big scar down my whole stomach basically that’s a bit of a reminder,” he says. Each new summer ball team he joins comes with an explanation of what happened to him the first time he changes in the locker room. A leadoff hitter for Princeton last season, Chris still wants to play professionally. He’s worked on his swing angle and hopes to avoid the injury-prone tag. “If I go out and pull a hamstring in our scrimmage tomorrow, unless I can’t walk, I'm not going to let coach know I did it,” he said. “I don't think it's changed the way that I would go about that. I think that's still just a competitive thing.”
Leigh gets nervous watching baseball whenever there’s a collision in the outfield or between bases. She went to the Ohio State-Penn State football game with Rece and watched 19-year-old receiver K.J. Hamler crumple to the ground after a blow to the head. “It was hard for me to be there and see that,” she says. “I feel it more now.” Witnessing hits to the midsection sometimes gives Rece flashbacks, but not usually. More often, it is balls to right-center that leave him thinking of the dangers.
Going through the recruiting process as a parent didn’t dampen Rece’s lifelong love for amateur athletics. But seeing first-hand the work that goes into playing even a non-revenue sport reaffirmed his belief that big-time players ought to be able to better capitalize on their contributions. Then came the injury. “I do have a lot more sympathy and empathy for parents of players who step up and take control of the player’s health and wellbeing,” Davis says.
“I learned the lesson that it’s okay to question, it’s okay for players and families to take ownership,” he adds. “And not only on medical issues. Just generally speaking, I have even less of a problem with a person doing what they think is best for them.” Davis brings up Clemson QB Kelly Bryant’s decision to transfer. “He’s taking ownership of his future,” Davis says. “I have zero problem with that.”
With their new perspective, and having now heard so many stories from others, Leigh encouraged Rece to write something about their experience. He could explain what happened, warn other parents, and advocate for better health education among players. It’s not just hits to the head that can cause serious problems, Rece would write. But he hasn’t. “I have learned a lot but I’m by no means some kind of expert on when to recognize a spleen injury,” he says.
“He’s the most respected voice on our crew,” Bilas says, because he knows how to pick his spots. However, Leigh says she’s noticed her husband become more comfortable sharing his opinion.
“I think there’s an aspect of this story that’s not being examined well enough,” Davis said on stage at an August ESPN media event when asked about the death of Maryland football player Jordan McNair. That was the beginning of an articulate, passionate plea for athletic training staffs to receive more autonomy, resources, and institutional support. “I think it’s incumbent on administrations to make sure this happens,” Davis said.
He mentioned all of the trainers he’d queried recently about what happened to McNair, just like he’d done after Chris’s injury. He even referenced his personal experience in extending sympathy to McNair’s family. Recognizing that he could not truly understand how they felt losing a child, he still connected with their deep frustration and knew, deep down, that his family had been fortunate to avoid a tragedy. “That was a young man who died who didn’t have to,” Davis said in August.
And when he was done speaking, Davis apologized. “Sorry for the soap box,” he said.