Cover Stories

As Ashtyn Davis Makes the NFL, His Father Also Has a Santa Cruz Legacy

Sean Davis’ impact on the Santa Cruz community goes well beyond his past struggles with addiction

Santa Cruz high alum and Cal football standout Ashtyn Davis (right) almost had his draft day sabotaged by the Covid-19 pandemic. But when he was chosen by the Jets last month, his father Sean (left) also found himself in the media spotlight.

When the New York Jets called Ashtyn Davis April 24 to inform the standout Cal safety and Santa Cruz High alum they’d be taking him with the No. 68 overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, the small group of family members gathered at his aunt’s Soquel home erupted with joy and relief.

Big-time buzz had surrounded the hyper-athletic safety throughout his senior year at Cal, but a late-season injury had limited his much-anticipated performance at the NFL Combine, keeping Ashtyn from exhibiting his world-class speed. When the Covid-19 pandemic cancelled his Pro Day workout, NFL scouts were forced to rely on existing tape. Most draft pundits placed Ashtyn in the late second or early third round. Others warned his draft stock could tumble.

In addition to speculation about his health and experience, the media insisted on suggesting Ashtyn’s success was a direct result of his father’s addiction issues. Sean Davis, 51, used alcohol and drugs from an early age, habits which devolved into sporadic crack cocaine use as a teenager and eventual full-blown addiction. After his third stint at the Janus treatment center in Santa Cruz, Sean finally managed to hang on to a sobriety date: Oct. 20, 2008. “Ten days after Ashtyn’s 11th birthday, which I’d completely missed,” Sean says now.

When The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman approached Ashtyn’s family to write his insightful August 2019 profile, they decided as a unit to address Sean’s addiction. “We were concerned it could be a distraction, but knew it also had the potential to help a lot of people,” Sean says. By the time the Pac-12 Network produced a 10-minute video about Ashtyn, Sean’s disease had become a dominant narrative of his son’s story.

“I understand the angle. The kid who overcomes a background of addiction is a story that’s familiar to people, but here’s the truth: Ashtyn would be in the NFL whether I went off the rails or not. I guarantee you that. He was driven by a force far greater than his dad,” Sean says.

“Oh yeah, he would have been successful regardless,” agrees Ashtyn’s mother Christine. “But he also made some tough decisions based on the fact that he carries the addiction gene on both sides of his family. Abstaining through high school had a big impact on his social life.”

Fortunately, Ashtyn was also born with an astonishing focus and determination to win, according to his mom. His journey as a student-athlete is evidence enough. After graduating from Santa Cruz High in 2016, Ashtyn walked on as a track athlete at Cal Berkeley, then turned down a scholarship because the money came with a no-football clause. So he simply walked on to the storied Cal Bears football program while continuing to run track. By his junior year, the hard-hitting ball hawk and explosive kick return specialist had earned a football scholarship as well as first-team All-Pac-12 Conference honors.

Ashtyn finished his senior year as a top-three safety prospect in the 2020 NFL Draft and a finalist for the Burlsworth Trophy, which honors the nation’s best walk-on football player. And track? Ashtyn won the Pac-12 110-meter hurdle title and was named second-team All-American as well as an Indoor All-American in the 60-meter hurdles.

Make no mistake: Ashtyn Davis has the talent to make a major impact on America’s biggest stage. And although the media will probably continue to use Sean’s past to explain Ashtyn’s near-mythical rise to the NFL, the father has established his own quiet legacy: a critical impact on hundreds of lives in Santa Cruz County’s recovery programs. 

Something Amiss

“As an eight-year-old boy, my great-grandfather Henry Alston Davis escaped slavery in the Carolinas and made his way north to freedom in North Brunswick, New Jersey,” Sean Davis says. “Two generations later, my father Roy Davis was born in 1928.”

Roy had already served overseas in the U.S. Navy, played semi-pro football, and picked up a sizable heroin habit when he met Susan Lysik, a young art student, at a gallery opening in the city. The couple dated for two years, but racism and New York’s easy access to heroin drove them to hitch a ride to California in 1967.

“People would spit at us as we walked down the street in New York. I wouldn’t always notice, but I could feel him stiffen. All those questions of race, they weren’t supposed to matter anymore, but they still did,” Susan says. “Of course, I was also naïve enough to think that we were headed to this golden land without drugs.”

Since Roy and Susan’s ride was headed to Santa Cruz, that’s where the couple settled down. A year later, Sean was born at Dominican Hospital. But the family didn’t remain a unit for long. Roy’s substance abuse eventually wore Susan out, and the couple separated when Sean was still a toddler. But Sean wasn’t separated from his beloved father for long. Roy remarried, moved to Ben Lomond, and Sean enjoyed transferring back and forth between his mother’s house and his father’s new family, which included two step-siblings.

Susan wouldn’t let Sean play football. An uncle had died in a pick-up tackle game, according to family lore. “Our family just wasn’t into spectator sports. I grew up on skis,” Susan says. Instead, Sean did Santa Cruz State Junior Lifeguards and children’s theater. At school, he was a goofy class clown who lived to crack up those around him. “He was always this radiant, bright ray of sunshine,” says his mother.

Sean also found drugs early, smoking weed for the first time as a student at Bayview Elementary. By the time he attended Mission Hill Junior High, he regularly shoulder-tapped for beer and devoted his Saturday nights to The Rocky Horror Picture Show at Sash Mill Cinema.

As a senior at Santa Cruz High, Sean seemed to have it all. The class vice-president had already been accepted into UCSB and begun hanging out with a cute freshman named Christine Mahutga. The high school sweethearts would eventually fall in love and produce Ashtyn and his younger sister Lexi a decade later. By all accounts, Sean’s friends and classmates perceived him as happy, relaxed, and totally at home in his skin. But something was amiss.

“You’d call it an identity crisis, I guess. I went on this quest for, I don’t know what, for black culture in Santa Cruz. I found criminal culture instead, and wound up confusing the two,” Sean says. “Not long after that, I smoked crack for the first time with Able Al from down the street.”

Sean was careful to keep his new social circles separate from his high school world, but by the end of his senior year, crack had already become a problem. He felt fortunate to be able to leave for college in Santa Barbara.

“He definitely had two different personalities—Sean at school, and Sean away from school,” Christine says.

“I knew Sean was looking for something,” says his mother Susan. “I just didn’t know what to do about the black side of things. That was supposed to be his dad’s department. I had friends with mixed children who moved away from Santa Cruz so they could grow up in a mixed culture, but that wasn’t possible for me.” 

The Legend of CODE III

At UCSB, Sean grew dreads and designed his own independent curriculum in Black Studies and Environmental Studies, eventually writing a 300-page thesis on ethno-environmentalism after living in the West African countries of Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, and Benin. “In a nutshell,” he says, “my thesis was about how different cultures view themselves in respect to the surrounding life and landscape.”

After graduation in 1991, Sean enrolled in an Ethnic Studies master’s program at San Francisco State while living in Santa Cruz and working construction, partly to be close to his father. Roy, now in his 60s, had kicked heroin but struggled mightily with liquor and tobacco. Eventually, Sean’s stepmother moved Roy into the El Centro Apartments on Pacific Avenue, made sure his SSI check was forwarded to the correct address, and moved on with her life.

“There was nothing more she could do,” Sean says. “I’d regularly stop by to smoke weed with him in an attempt to keep him dry, but most nights he drank until he passed out. He’d fall down steps. He’d forget to unplug his oxygen machine while he smoked and blow himself up,” Sean says. “It sucked.”

Meanwhile, the Rodney King riots were fresh in the nation’s mind. A new type of “alternative rap” channeled the collective anger, promising social justice and good times with Anthrax-heavy guitar riffs and militantly danceable rhythm sections. When two friends asked Sean to front a similar-sounding project, he jumped at the chance. A uniquely Santa Cruz take on the genre, CODE III incorporated surf-punk and reggae. Over the course of its two-year run, the band built a local following opening for major acts like Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, and Body Count at the Catalyst.

“We tried hard to break into the scene. At one point we had choreographers, videographers, photographers. All seven of our members had elaborate character bios,” Sean says. “We’d just started playing San Francisco venues like Slim’s when it fell apart. I was the glue that held the band together, but the drugs loosened my grip on things until I had to let go.”

As CODE III wound down, Sean’s 66-year-old father received his final SSI check on Friday, Dec. 2, 1994. Two days later, Sean found him dead on the floor of his apartment from asphyxiation, airways blocked and alcohol in his system. Confronted by the rigid corpse of his father, another victim of the disease of addiction, Sean crumbled. “Crack owned me after that,” he admits.

By January of 1995, CODE III had disbanded. Their first-and-only CD was completed and mastered, but it would never be officially released. In short succession, Sean dropped out of grad school, lost his job, and was booted from the house by his mother, setting him out on a 13-year period heavily underscored by drugs and alcohol.

Sean Davis’ band CODE III brought the rap-metal crossover sound to the Santa Cruz music scene in the early ’90s.

Lost and Found

Even when Sean’s addiction was at his worst, bright spots existed. He married Christine in 1995 and remained present for Ashtyn and Lexi a vast majority of the time. He built his family a home in Bonny Doon and always worked to financially support his children. He was also instrumental in the decision to let Ashtyn play youth football.

But this wasn’t Christine’s first rodeo. She’d already watched her father kick a nasty crank habit in the 1980s. She knew Sean was nowhere near recovery. When her own sobriety was threatened by Sean’s habits, she knew it was over. After seven years of marriage, she and Sean separated, freeing Sean to tumble into ever greater voids of moral, spiritual, and physical depletion. “In the end, I willed my life down to the size of something that fit in a crack pipe,” he says. “That’s what this disease does.”

On Oct. 20, 2008, after years of being crushed by self-imposed crises he could neither postpone nor evade, Sean Davis surrendered. He entered Janus for a third time and sought guidance from a grizzled old New Yorker known to the Santa Cruz recovery community as “Pops.” “Pops comes in and announces, ‘Bottles, bullets, mayhem, and murder. I’m Pops and this is my story,’” says Sean. “Well, I listened to every word he said after that.”

After 30 days in residential treatment, Sean moved into a sober living environment, sharing a 150-square-foot basement room with two other men in recovery. Hour by hour, meeting by meeting, day by day, Sean began to rebuild his life, including his career as a tree-care specialist. “I had to relearn how to do tree work. I had a bad case of the nerves when I restarted. Believe me, it’s a lot scarier climbing 150 feet into the air and blowing out a 50-foot treetop when you’re sober,” he says.

Free of the obsession to use, Sean approached service-based, community recovery with the same single-minded purpose his son would employ to reach the NFL. Over the past 11 years, he’s worked directly with hundreds of men, bringing his message of hope to the Water Street jail, Roundtree Men’s Facility, the Camp in Scotts Valley, the Salvation Army, and Si Se Puede, among many others. Every other Sunday for the past 11 years, he’s spoken to the residential clients at Janus, bringing them toiletries and socks.

“Santa Cruz County is a great place to get loaded, and an even better place to get recovery,” Sean says. “We have a really strong community here.”

Vince, 50, is one of many men in Santa Cruz County who credit Sean with helping save his life. After a four-year term in federal prison in the 1990s for selling acid, Vince spent most of his adult life either shooting heroin and drinking on the streets of Santa Cruz or locked up in one county facility or another. He’ll have four years sober in August.

“Myself, I have a highly distinctive personality. Sean was the first human being I could connect with. Whenever I need to talk to him, I can call him. He’s there. And not just for me. Everyone. Anyone who asks,” Vince says.

Of course, recovery rates are grim, and many addicts never do. Like most in recovery, Sean’s personal list of dead friends and associates is long, which only deepens his gratitude for life.

In 2016, on Sean’s eighth sobriety birthday, Ashtyn and Lexi showed up at their father’s door with matching sobriety tattoos commemorating his sobriety date in roman numerals.

“I was proud and in awe and completely stoked, but I was also looking at the date tattooed there … I mean, you know how recovery can be. Nothing’s guaranteed,” Sean laughs. “But they said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you relapse. This is the day we got our dad back.’”

The following Saturday, Sean went to The Gilded Lily on Mission Street and had Tristan ink a third, identical tattoo on his own forearm.

Ignoring the Chatter

Five minutes after Ashtyn spoke to the New York Jets by phone, ESPN broadcast the pick on air with an introduction that was later criticized for its lazy (and callous, considering Sean’s past) stereotypes: “OK, this is a fascinating pick because Ashtyn Davis has been referred to by Peter King, among other people, as the mystery man in this draft,” jabbered analyst Trey Wingo. “What is he? His hometown is Santa Cruz, California, which is known for two things: surfers and smoking weed. Ashtyn Davis says, ‘I don’t do either one of those things.’”

In addition to being utterly substance-free, Ashtyn is also nearly implacable, which will come in handy under the white-hot lights of the New York media market.

“He’s always ignored negative press. He calls all the chatter, both good and bad, poison,” Sean says. “He never would’ve made it this far if he listened to any of that.”

Yet the one thing Ashtyn can’t ignore is a challenge, according to his mom.

“That’s Ashtyn in a nutshell,” Christine says. “It’s actually something we had to monitor as he got older. There’s no off switch with him. My dad would push him by sending YouTube videos of people doing these crazy acrobatic things with a message: ‘Bet you can’t do this.’ Of course, Ashtyn would always pull it off. Every time.”

It’s this dogged determination and pure physical ability, Christine says, that will make Ashtyn a favorite among the New York Jets coaches.

“He watches so much film. And not just the safety position. He studies multiple angles, different players and positions. He’ll spend hours [observing] tape on a quarterback, looking for an advantage,” she says. “He’s every coach’s dream. Just tell him it can’t be done.”

While uncertainty continues to obscure the 2020 NFL season, here’s one thing you can count on: Eventually someone’s going to tell Ashtyn Davis he can’t win a Super Bowl. Watch out.

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