By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
At 6 feet 6 inches, 365 pounds and one of the strongest dudes to ever play in the National Football League, Dallas Cowboys' Pro Bowl offensive lineman Leonard "Bigg" Davis could crush me with his thumb.
Instead, he's going to play me a lullaby.
"This puts my daughters right to sleep," Davis says, pushing his amp to the max while belting out a bass line more suitable for a Godsmack concert than the family room of his Frisco home. "Especially when I crank it up. They love it... unless they're trying to watch SpongeBob. Then I have to turn it down."
Meeya and Mariya might be the only two people on the planet who can bully Davis.
At Wortham High School in a tiny East Texas town of 150, he led the basketball team to a state championship. Playing football at the University of Texas, he was an All-American and a finalist for the Outland Trophy. He was the second overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals and in '07 signed a seven-year, $49 million contract with the Cowboys. Couple years ago he received a Compassionate Award from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for pulling a horse out of neck-deep mud. And last month he played in his third consecutive Pro Bowl as one of football's most dominant guards.
You think his band—Free Reign—is a novelty act sure to flop? Go ahead, tell him. Be my guest.
Truth is that Free Reign, consisting of Davis, Wortham buddy Justin Chapman and Cowboys teammates Marc Colombo and Cory Procter, is not only Affliction T-shirt intimidating, but damn good.
"This isn't just some fun band, this is serious music," says legendary Dallas bassist Dwayne Heggar, a member of the wildly popular Emerald City for 20 years, as he finishes another weekly lesson with Davis. "They're going to get played on the radio. They're going to sell some records."
That Davis is in the middle of it all is downright shocking.
On this recent night, he's in music mode. Diamonds as big as doorknobs in both ears. Jeans. Nike sneakers. Knit cap pulled low almost over his eyes. He's built for power, not agility. For breaking defensive necks, not massaging guitar necks. And Free Reign is heavy, down 'n' dirty metal alongside Disturbed. Davis is, well...he's...
"I get it all the time," he jokes. "A big, black guy in a rock band. I know. But I love it."
He grew up listening to rap and R&B. Run DMC, Young MC, the works. When Chapman cranked metal bands like Guns N' Roses or Metallica, Davis was initially unimpressed.
"Just sounded like a bunch of loud noise," he says.
Eventually Davis softened—or hardened?—on metal, especially guitars. He began listening to everything from Staind to Stevie Ray Vaughan, dreaming of someday owning and playing his own instrument. Christmas '06, his wife, Amanda, nudged him toward his hobby, buying him a bass guitar complete with all the trimmings.
"I loved it, but I just didn't focus on learning to play," he says. "I got other priorities, you know?"
Took Davis two years, but he eventually brought the guitar from his home in Arizona to Texas. Without knowing how to read music or recognize a chord, he plugged in his iPod and began learning the hard way. His training wheels song? Bon Jovi's "Dead or Alive."
"Lot of times I just tried to keep the rhythm," Davis says. "I didn't know anything. I'd just put my fingers here and here and see how it sounded. I'd stop a lot and say, 'Man, that ain't right'."
Confident enough to at least leave his house with his new skill, he lugged his bass to Wortham for some jam sessions with guitar virtuoso Chapman. Davis improved. And salivated.
The following Thanksgiving Procter offered an impromptu invitation to Davis to play former Cowboys' linebacker Kevin Burnett's party at Sullivan's steakhouse on the Tollway.
"There were only about 100 people there," Davis says, "but I was more scared than when I started my first NFL game. I made it through. I guess I did all right."
From there Davis and Procter teamed with Colombo and Chapman and got serious about Free Reign. Practicing in the entryway of Davis' house—they're not a garage band, but a foyer band—they got better. They got attention. They got gigs.
One night they played at the Glass Cactus night club out at the Gaylord Texan hotel in Grapevine, opening for Emerald City. Before the show Davis was approached by a man he didn't recognize, but had known all his life.
"I lost track of him for a long time, but when I found out he was the same Leonard Davis from Wortham, I was excited to reconnect," says Heggar, himself a Wortham product. "Shoot, I knew Leonard when he wasn't even big. Back when he was 1. He'd always run up to me and pull my Afro."
Heggar dated Davis' sister for two years, often playing with baby Leonard on visits to their family home. An awkward reintroduction. A quick trip down memory lane. A handshake. A friendship. A teacher-student relationship.