Ashtyn Davis’ hands still were shaking an hour after the Jets drafted him. That's because the Cal safety had to leap plenty of hurdles to reach that point.
At Cal, Davis was a walk-on in football, a track star hoping to make the team. He wound up being a third-round pick in the NFL Draft, No. 68 overall, because he pushed and persevered to make what seemed like a fairy tale a reality.
“Being in football for 20-plus years, you come across some fantastic people and unbelievable stories,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. “This one is as good as it gets.”
Davis wasn’t recruited by a Division I school while at Santa Cruz High School. He could have gone to the University of Redlands, a Division III program in Southern California, but he wanted more, and he chased his dreams.
As a senior, before running in the 110 hurdles at the California state meet, Davis introduced himself to everyone wearing Division I school gear. He told them his times and that he would like to walk on at their school.
Davis knew track was his path to playing football.
Suddenly, the University of Washington, Cal Poly, UC-Santa Barbara and the University of California showed interest. Davis eliminated Washington — his family couldn’t afford the out-of-state tuition — and UCSB, which doesn't have a football team. He picked Cal.
“I chose the school that had the most competition,” Davis said. “I thought I could compete with the best of the best, so I chose to go there.”
Davis was talking about football, but he showed he could compete with the best of the best on the track.
He was a four-time All-American and Pac-12 champion as a hurdler, but football was Davis’ true love. Once he got his shot, his athleticism, determination and drive enabled him to blaze his own trail on the football field.
The 6-1, 202-pound Davis became a leader of the Golden Bears' defense and one of the top safeties in the country.
“He’s a fearless dude,” Wilcox said. “The whole track guy narrative — Ashtyn is a football guy that happened to do track.”
As a redshirt freshman in 2016, Davis played special teams and started the last three games at cornerback. One of the best kick returners in the country, he was named Cal’s special teams MVP in 2016 and 2017.
Before the 2017 season — Wilcox’s first at Cal —- Davis got his football scholarship. He became a full-time starter midway through that year and was All-Pac-12 as a junior and senior.
“In offseason workouts, we watched the guy run and do drills and you think, ‘Man, this guy is pretty athletic,’ ” Wilcox said. “Then we started spring football, you saw the tangible skills, the agility, the speed, the quickness.
“We got an appreciation in a short amount of time what type of athlete he was. We didn’t give him anything. He earned his scholarship very quickly. He played a lot early in that first season that he became a starter. He’d just taken off from that.”
Former NFL safety Gerald Alexander, who played one game for the Jets in 2011, was Davis’ position coach his last three years. Wilcox and Alexander decided Davis would be better at safety than cornerback. Davis would meet Alexander early in the day, sometimes at 5:30 a.m., to watch film and learn to play safety.
“He was a guy that was trying to fight for an opportunity,” Alexander said. “He did everything possible. He really has a burning desire to learn how to get better.
“Just the amount of time he put in, just his dedication, his passion, everything he did to become the player he ended up being. Years ago, you started to see this guy gets it. He has the athleticism. He’s still raw. Just the drive and all the actions he showed, you knew, man, this kid had an opportunity to really do something special with his career.”
The Jets saw that same determination and they love Davis’ versatility. They envision using him in three-safety sets with Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye and on special teams.
“His best football is ahead,” said Alexander, now the Dolphins' defensive backs coach. “His best football is going to be played beyond Berkeley.
"It doesn’t really matter how you get into the door and into the building. Once you get to this level, it’s about staying there and it’s about making the most of the opportunity you have in front of you. I anticipate that he’s going to do so.”