When Rashard Davis went to work Saturday morning waiting tables at Rocksalt restaurant in Charlottesville, Va., just north of the University of Virginia campus and a little over a mile from Lee Park, there was already a police helicopter pinned low to the sky and a growl of trouble in the air.
It wouldn't have been in character for Davis to get much closer in any event. He would have avoided the area where demonstrators and counter-demonstrators clashed violently at a protest that centered on the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, but which spawned a larger battleground between white supremacists and those who opposed them.
"It was crazy. I stayed out of the way," Davis said. "It's something that just stresses you out if you get involved. I try to just go on with my life and better myself and help the people around me."
Getting involved wasn't an option, anyway. Davis needed to work, and had been a server at Rocksalt for about a month. It is mainly a seafood restaurant, and the top item is a platter that features ceviche, clams, shrimp and oysters from the Rappahannock River. Davis was very aware of what was happening across town, but more aware that he needed to take care of his tables.
"There was one of these before, and the KKK came, and there were a couple of arrests, but it wasn't too much," Davis said. "This one got way out of hand. It's not the way you want your city to get on the news."
On a straight line from Rocksalt to downtown is Charlottesville High School, which is where Davis began to see that football could be a path to bettering himself. He was a quarterback and then a wide receiver, a little guy, but fast enough and talented enough to earn a scholarship to James Madison University, about 60 miles away on the other side of Shenandoah National Park.
Davis became a good receiver for James Madison, but he became a great college punt returner. As a senior in 2016, when the Dukes won the Division I FCS national championship, Davis gained 426 yards on 15 returns, a 28.4-yard average.
Despite turning in a 4.47-second 40-yard dash at JMU's pro day, Davis was undrafted. His size, 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, worked against him, as did the questions about his ability to contribute as a receiver at the next level. Davis went to spring camps with the Jets and Bears, but those didn't lead anywhere. On Saturday, he was back in Charlottesville, working out to stay in shape, waiting for a break, and serving up the stuffed trout while his city was coming apart.
"There is nothing you can do about it," Davis said.
Somewhere in the midst of the lunacy and lunch, Davis got a text from an agent – not his agent, but an acquaintance – who said the Eagles were looking to add to camp competition among returners and the agent had given them Davis' name. Davis also saw he had missed a call from an area code he didn't recognize. And, yes, it had been the Eagles. And, yes, the yellowfin tartare was up and ready.
"I had tables walking in, and the manager was looking for me. I was hiding in the back trying to figure out what was going on," Davis said.
Finally, the connection was made. The Eagles wanted Davis to be in Philadelphia on Sunday for a workout. If that went all right, he would sign and be in uniform for practice the next day. Incredibly enough, that's exactly what happened. Davis took reps from the slot receiver position in practice on Monday and he fielded punts during the special-team drills.
At the moment, Darren Sproles is the team's punt returner, but he's not going to dress during the exhibition season, and it is a taxing role for a 34-year-old. Rookies Donell Pumphrey and Greg Ward were used in the opener against Green Bay, but neither did very well. There's a chance here for Davis, which is all he wanted.
"They said I would definitely get involved in the return game. I guess they saw from college that I could do something as a returner," said Davis, who was the special-teams player of the year for the Colonial Athletic Association as a senior.
There are always players who pass through training camp and then vanish. Many, like Rashard Davis, have one definable skill that is good enough for the NFL. That's what gets them to camp. Often, they lose out because the next guy has two definable skills instead of one. But they got there, and while it lasts, what seemed to be impossible on Saturday is almost within their grasp by Monday.
Davis knows the difference between a bad day and a good one. He's seen them both at close range, sometimes on the same strange afternoon. Monday was good, and he didn't have to check the news for confirmation.