Steven Davis loves making a trip back to “the woods.”
The longtime football coach has come a long way since he lined up for the Blue Flashes on Friday nights, and he continues to afford young athletes the same opportunities he capitalized on when he spent Fridays and Saturdays under the lights.
“I love coming back home because I get under the tree, and I’ve got my cousins and my friends, and it just reminds me of the days I was back in Calhoun Falls,” Davis said.
Davis is the head coach of James B. Dudley High School in Greensboro, North Carolina. He’s won four 3A state titles with the Panthers and was named the head coach of the North Carolina team for the 2018 Shrine Bowl, which will take place Dec. 15 in Spartanburg.
The Shrine Bowl comprises all-star teams from North Carolina and South Carolina high schools. Many NFL players and Super Bowl champions have played in the game.
“I told the assistant coaches when I first got the head coaching job (of the Shrine Bowl), I feel kind of guilty because I was able to get with some real successful assistant coaches,” Davis said. “To be named the head coach of those guys is an honor.”
Davis played for Calhoun Falls during the program’s glory years under coach Dennis Botts, who left to coach Abbeville High School later in his career. He played quarterback and defensive back, and spurred a Division III opportunity at Chowan University in Murfreesboro, North Carolina.
Davis later transferred to play defensive back at North Carolina A&T, a historically black university that competes in the Division I Mid-East Athletic Conference (MEAC). Playing at that level, Davis grew proud of his small-town beginnings.
“When I went to Chowan (University), I saw a lot of All-Americans here, All-Americans there, but then when we got out on the football field it was like, these guys aren’t better than the guys I played with in high school,” Davis said.
“But because they came from a more city-type atmosphere, a bigger population, they were able to get that notoriety that we didn’t get back in, I call it, back in the woods — Calhoun Falls. But just for me being able to do that, it’s very humbling.”
After joining Dudley as an assistant in 2001, Davis was promoted to the head coaching spot in 2004. He quickly found success with a state championship berth in 2004, which Dudley lost. Davis went on to lead the Panthers to state titles in 2007, 2008, 2013 and 2016.
Calhoun Falls football assistant coach Earl Wright helped raise Davis, along with his wife and Davis’ grandparents. When Wright and his wife worked night shifts, Davis babysat his cousins at their house.
Wright said Davis was always a good student and athlete. Davis was an all-state basketball player and also played baseball.
“What it will do is let somebody else know that, hey, just because you come from a small town doesn’t mean that you have to have small-town dreams,” Wright said. “With you having the mindset to go ahead and do the best you can, and continue to strive to move forward, you can do anything. The world can be your home.”
Today in Calhoun Falls, however, the same opportunities might have diminished. Calhoun Falls’ population fell from 2,491 to 2,004 from 1980 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census. It’s estimated to have fallen further to 1,934 in 2017. Employment in Calhoun Falls has fallen 6 percentage points from 2010 to 2016, and the median household income fell from $31,048 to $25,761.
Davis said the decline has changed Calhoun Falls.
“I think the biggest thing is, when the economy took a hit some years back, when all the mills and plants closed down, I tell everybody within a 25-mile radius we probably had six plants shut down where a lot of people in Calhoun Falls, Abbeville and Due West made a living, where they could provide for their family,” Davis said. “But with those mills shutting down and not being able to give back to the schools and everything, people moved out. And I think that’s what’s happened to Calhoun Falls.
“We were never a big school at the beginning, but we managed to be really competitive in every sport we played, and when I was in high school we were very competitive. ... Things have slowly continued to spiral down. I think for that to come back, there’s going to have to be some revenue there where people can make a living and they don’t have to move out of town.”
At Dudley, Davis continues to unlock opportunity for young people in the same way he worked to reach his current position. Dudley is a historically black high school, and Davis said it’s important to give his players an example to work toward.
“Football and athletics itself was just a way out for me. And I can honestly say, if I didn’t play athletics, I don’t know if I would have went to school. It was one of those things where the opportunity presented itself and once I got in there I think I was fortunate enough to take advantage of it and here I am today.”
When Davis returns to “the woods,” he’s welcomed back by a family that takes pride in his accomplishments.
“It’s just fun and it’s a thrill to know,” Wright said. “I can’t say I had a big hand in it, but he kept striving and striving to do better.”