Lights, Camera, Action
Nov. 15, 2007
by Jeff Smith
Phil Davis is perfect for Hollywood.
He shines in the spotlight and has fans that adore him. Yet when the lights go out, he is quiet, shy, and often gets lost in a crowd, even when that crowd is a group of his friends.
That is the way he likes it.
In an odd comparison, the Penn State wrestler likens himself to actor Tommy Lee Jones.
"Many people may not put me in the shy category, but I feel like I am," Davis said. "When I am on the mat, I get to be someone I don't necessarily get to be. Tommy Lee Jones may be a bad guy on the screen, but he's not in real life. I like to be that personality, that guy."
Off the mat, Davis admits that when he hangs around with a group of friends, he is far from the center of attention and rarely says a word.
Troy Sunderland, head coach of the 10th-ranked Nittany Lions, calls his senior standout a "fun-loving charismatic kid with all the leadership qualities you could hope for."
Davis is a quiet leader, one who is known to invite the underclassmen over for dinner or join them for a weekend workout. Often time he strolls into the coaches' office in State College in his laid back manner just looking to see what is in the works for that day's practice or competition.
While wrestling in high school in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pa., Davis did not draw much attention from college recruiters. In fact, Sunderland and his coaching staff were on hand one meet to watch one of the Nittany Lions' incoming freshmen. That particular grappler was wrestling Davis, then a sophomore at Harrisburg High. Sunderland was quickly impressed by Davis' ability and still to this day is reminded by Davis' parents that he was the only coach who saw potential in him when no one else did.
Despite being impressed by Davis' skills on the mat during the prep tournament, Sunderland was sold on the future prospect when he read in a story about Davis in one of the local papers. While in high school, Davis hopped on a bus, traveled to a tournament by himself, wrestled, and then boarded the bus and returned home. That stood out to Sunderland and it convinced him of one thing in particular.
"This kid wants to be something great and he's going to find a way to get there," Sunderland recalled.
Once at Penn State, Davis redshirted his first season but immediately made an impact on the team. Having never even won an individual state championship in high school, the coveted recruit spent his first season perfecting his skills and preparing for his freshman season.
In his first season as a starter, Davis led the team with a 37-10 record, equaling Jim Martin's 1985-86 mark for the most wins ever by a PSU freshman. After finishing fourth at Big Tens, the unseeded grappler stormed through the NCAA Championship bracket at 197 pounds and finished seventh to earn All-America accolades.
"That development throughout his redshirt season and then becoming an All-American his freshman season says a lot," said Sunderland, who admits that Davis quickly became a fan favorite at Rec Hall.
Davis points out that the crowd, both at home and on the road, is something that he enjoys competing - and performing - in front of.
"It's one of those rare instances where I don't mind having all the attention on me," he said. "I feel like I'm going to go out and wrestle hard. The crowd is a lot more influential than they know because I like both the positive and negative attention. I like to hear the fans go against me on the road. Their guy will go for a single-leg (takedown) and I'll rip (his hands) away."
Reading those words might portray Davis as arrogant. His thoughts before the match, although they are kept to himself, may also be an indication that he is a little cocky. He tells himself that he is the best and the training he has put in has made him the best wrestler on the mat.
Even he admits that it is "stuff he needs to hear," but also points out that while it may not be the truth, one can "still make it a reality" for himself.
In reality, Davis cares more about his opponent than anyone cares to realize. Some look at the sport as barbaric or just down right thuggish, while critics counter with the incredible athleticism and technique for which the sport demands.
When preparing for his matches against ranked opponents, Davis knows that the possibility of getting hurt is much greater. He admits it. But before he steps onto the mat and inflates his ego, he says a prayer.
For both of them.
"I always say a prayer that I don't hurt anyone and they don't hurt me," he said. "I pray that the match is safe, fair and fun."
Amazing. Davis' sophomore season was too. The 197-pounder returned in 2005-06 to post a 25-4 overall record, which included a 14-1 mark in dual competition. He was a perfect 8-0 in Big Ten and claimed the 197-pound title at the conference championship. He ended the season in the national finals, dropping a decision to three-time national champion Jacob Rosholt of Oklahoma State. For the second-straight season, Davis earned All-America honors.
"At that point, I had All-America once and for me, it was like I wanted All-America again to prove that I wasn't a fluke," Davis said. "That was the mentality that I took going into matches. Halfway through the season though, I felt that I was doing good and controlling the upper-ranked guys. At that point it was like the All-America mentality was just a saying, and I thought, `You need to start training for a national championship.'"
From an average college wrestler's perspective, Davis' junior season was a success. He finished fourth in his conference and fifth at the NCAA meet, completing a season 28-5, 16-1 in duals, and earning his third consecutive All-America accolade.
To Davis, last year was not only a disappointment, but ironically, it was his best season yet.
"I have had this conversation with my teammates," he explains. "It was probably the best season of my life. I went to Big Tens with one loss, which was a one-point loss to a returning All-American from Hofstra. I think it was a combination of things, but mostly I was not ready to wrestle in a national tournament. I think this year I have to peak at the right time."
This season could be a historic one for the kinesiology major who is currently ranked No. 2 in the nation at 197 pounds. While winning a national championship is the goal for him this year, he is also vying to become only the fourth four-time All-American in Penn State's 100-year wrestling history.
Still, Davis' humility sets in: "I don't think of myself as one of those legendary wrestlers."
If he feels four All-America honors does not place him among the former Nittany Lion greats, he should know that he will still be remembered at Penn State.
"His technique, expressions and mannerisms throughout the match make him an entertaining one to watch," Sunderland said. "He likes to put on a show, entertain the fans, and compete under the lights."
A small-town unknown grappler comes to Penn State and becomes a star on the mats...
Throw in a national championship and you have the perfect Hollywood script.
One that Tommy Lee Jones might like to see.