Published September 30. 2013 4:00AM
Davis has put NFA back on the football map
Norwich - It was the day last December when all the finalists gathered for a news conference before the impending championship games, the day after Norwich Free Academy emerged as the talk of Connecticut high school football for its upset of Staples of Westport in the semifinals.
And not that NFA was a party crasher or anything. Surely, there had been good players and playoff teams in previous years. But never like this. The media, coaches and players all went to Rentschler Field with some curiosity.
What transpired that day wasn't just a victory for NFA, but the entire Eastern Connecticut Conference. And it began with Jemal Davis, who is the best advertisement yet for NFA's dignity, earnestness and diversity.
Maybe it was the way Davis was dressed, bright red NFA-colored sweater underneath the snazzy dark suit. Maybe it was Davis' clear, baritone voice during a brief speech. But he left them all impressed.
Davis, now in year six as the head coach at his alma mater, has the Wildcats among the state's best again. They are ranked third in the latest polls and have another legitimate chance to make the Class LL finals. They also have their toughest test of the young season upcoming Friday night at Glastonbury, a four-time state champion since 1984 and playoff participant the last five years.
"When the football job opened, I never posted it outside the school. We are not obligated to. I knew Jemal was the right guy," NFA athletic director Gary Makowicki said. "It's the way he relates to the kids. The way he presents himself as such an ambassador for our program. As a father (Makowicki's son, Steven, was a senior on last year's team) and his supervisor, I'm so happy for what he's done."
Davis, who played for the Wildcats under Brian Mignault, is considered among the program's best players in its history. He was a teacher at NFA even during his first football head coaching job at Woodstock Academy. But there's nothing like coaching at the alma mater.
"This has been everything to me for a variety of reasons," Davis said recently. "It's the rich history I have here. I went to school here. I played here. I was a captain here. The opportunity to play for NFA and represent the NFA community in college, which is more than just Norwich, meant a lot."
Davis earned the ultimate compliment from a former ECC coach recently, who saluted the Wildcats' ascent to the top of the conference. NFA has long been considered a sleeping giant, a large school with resources and considerable population of potential athletes. Davis has cultivated it all.
"He's had such an impact on my life," Boston College-bound NFA senior Marcus Outlow said. "I will never forget him and what he's don for me. Freshman year, he gave me a wake up call, telling me what I needed to do and he's still driving me and pushing me. I'm blessed to have him in my life."