It happened not long after Domenique Davis' GPS reboot of a journey through Division II and the USFL brought him to the Bengals just as the last training camp began.
The first NFL player in the history of North Carolina at Pembroke had butted heads with Bengals' estimable right guard Alex Cappa a few times when Cappa suddenly asked, "Where did you come from?" When Davis told him it was Pembroke and Division II, Cappa, a Division II player himself from clear across the country in Humboldt, Calif., asked him another one.
"How?" because it sure seemed like the 6-2, 326-pound nose tackle was a Division I guy.
This is how. The guy who had to learn to walk again without a limp barely two years ago looks to take another step Friday (7:30-p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) to keep the dream alive for another week when the Bengals take their talented defensive line into Atlanta.
"I'm just now getting accustomed to flying. It beats 12 hours on a bus," said Davis, who once rode that long to play in Wilberforce, Ohio.
Davis didn't have to leave Paycor Stadium last Friday night to fly around the Packers. After spending all but two games on the practice squad as a rookie last season, he bolted out of 2023 with a big hit on rookie quarterback Sean Clifford that forced safety Tycen Anderson's pick-six and later recovered a fumble in the dying moments of one of those obscure preseason openers that can give life to careers.
Davis almost laughs when asked if his seemingly improbable battle to make the roster is discouraging. His older brother B.J. is autistic and calls him every day to see how he's doing.
"And he's calling me to see how I am?" Davis asks in wonderment. "He's inspiring to me."
Davis works on a depth chart stacked with such defensive tackles as his fellow North Carolinians DJ Reader and B.J. Hill, a Pro Bowlish duo who are backed up by a trio that played so well last year off the bench in Josh Tupou, Zach Carter, and Jay Tufele. Tupou is the most tenured Bengal on the line. Carter is a third-round pick. Tufele was the first pick of the last day of his draft.
The numbers? They're nothing. A late bloomer who never thought he'd go to college, Davis, a defensive end in high school at nearby Laurinburg, N.C., played at a tiny historically black college, Raleigh's Shaw University, before transferring to Pembroke.
"All the things I've been through, this isn't discouraging. I've been through the worst," Davis says. "All I'm going to do is work every day. I don't need to put on a display or anything. I just play as hard as I can."
That's how he got here from Division II.
"He's got a story to tell," says his mother, Mechell Davis. "We called him, 'Dominator.' All he wanted to do was get to the NFL. His training, his working out, he's something else. He's an inspiration. To see him live out his dream is fascinating. It brings me to tears."
As quickly as the dream began, it almost ended. In his second game of his senior year, he charged into the backfield and stepped awkwardly. He was already playing with a torn labrum and now there was something wrong with his foot.
He sat out the next game but returned to play despite a handful of X-Rays throughout the season that couldn't determine the injury. All he knew is he had to play with what amounted to a steel plate in the bottom of his shoe and he couldn't participate in any bowl games because of the labrum surgery.
Then COVID descended and his 2020 pro day was canceled. But he had enough nimble big-man traits to be signed after the draft by the Jets. Except his physical revealed what was in his foot, the dreaded Lisfranc, a devastating maze of broken bones and ligaments in the middle of the foot.
The Jets released Davis and the nightmare continued. The surgery didn't heal and one of the metatarsals had to be re-broken.
"It took a long time to rehab. I can't even tell you how long. I was more focused on trying to walk normally than running," Davis says. "There are so many functions in the foot starting right at the bottom with the balls of your feet. I had to force myself to put all those functions together and walk without a limp. Then I started running."
By late 2021, it began to come together. Quitting football never crossed his mind. There had been too much pain playing hurt in that senior year. And there was too much inspiration from BJ, his mother, a sixth grade science teacher, and his own son, now four.
"I'm family first," Davis says. "I'm going to do whatever I can for them. They're my inspiration. I kept myself going. And they did, too."
Plus, getting paid to play is a driving force. His story is not five-star blue chip but all blue collar. He worked at Wendy's for a long time in high school. When he played at Shaw, he worked at Big Lots. To supplement his scholarship at Pembroke, he worked summers on campus doing everything from painting to maintenance.
"I don't want to go back to doing anything else," Davis says.
The nightmare began to break when the USFL appeared in the spring of 2022 just as he was back on the field. He hooked up with the Houston Gamblers and in ten games had 3.5 sacks.
Finally, good fortune gave rise to good turns. The way Davis remembers it, the Bengals were looking at Gamblers edge Chris Odom, the USFL Defensive Player of the Year. But they told Davis he kept popping up on the screen, so they signed him late last July after they brought him in for a tryout.
Cleveland signed Odom a week later and he tore his ACL a few weeks after that. Meanwhile, Davis had an active preseason with ten tackles and half a sack to earn a practice squad spot. He got promoted for two games midway through the season when a spate of injuries up front opened the way for his first 38 NFL snaps.
"We love Nique. He shows up every day and listens and works," Reader says. "You can never have enough hard-working guys in the room."
Davis says Reader has become a mentor. So has the edge Sam Hubbard. He lives in Charlotte now, where he worked out with Hill in the offseason.
"B.J. helped me with technique and up here, Sam is giving me tips on how to take care of my body," Davis says. "Things I had never seen before. I'm learning on the fly."
He may be flying now, but he got here by bus. That's how he got here and that's how he plans to stay. Somewhere.
"Just keep my head down," Davis says, "and keep working."