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A star safety wants to be a captain for NCCU. Will one mistake keep that from happening?

NCCU baseball player Mitchell McCrary back after devastating injury

North Carolina Central baseball player Mitchell McCrary came back to the Eagles lineup seven months after getting hit in the face with a 90 mph fastball.
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North Carolina Central baseball player Mitchell McCrary came back to the Eagles lineup seven months after getting hit in the face with a 90 mph fastball.

In three seasons on the field, Davanta Reynolds has earned just about every accolade a football player can hope for.

The North Carolina Central redshirt senior has been named All-MEAC, an All-American by multiple publications and the MEAC Preseason Defensive Player of the Year for 2018. Last season was his coming out party as Reynolds, considered an undersized safety at 5-10, 206 pounds, was tied for second in the nation (FCS) with six interceptions.

His 81-yard fumble return for a touchdown against South Carolina State was good enough to make SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays. Because of the success of his 2017 campaign, Reynolds, a native of Tucker, Ga., suddenly became the face of the football program.

He’s on posters, media guides, almost anywhere you see NCCU football, there is Reynolds’ mug. Going into his senior year, however, there is one more honor he would love to see by his name: Team captain.

“What people don’t know is every accolade I’ve gotten since I’ve been here, I’ve posted it on my wall, on my phone,” Reynolds said. “I look at it every day and being a captain would be one of the biggest goals. I like speaking everything into existence.”

That honor isn’t up to Reynolds. That will be decided by interim first-year head coach Granville Eastman, who had Reynolds in his positions room for the last three seasons as he coached the safeties. Eastman wouldn’t tip his hand, saying he won’t name the captains until right before kickoff on Sunday when the Eagles take on Prairie View A&M on Sunday (Atlanta, Ga., noon, ESPN).

Reynolds wants to be able to come out of the tunnel with his fellow captains and lead the team, continuing to be the face of the program, like he has been all summer. If he is elected captain, it would lay to rest a day that put a black eye on his illustrious career at NCCU.

OUT OF CHARACTER MOMENT

Reynolds is one of the few players in NCCU history who started right away as a freshman. He never gave up that spot.

Heading into the final week of the 2017 season, Reynolds had 33 consecutive starts under his belt, not a bad accomplishment from a player who was listed as a two-star player coming out of Tucker High, and watched many of his teammates and good friends sign with Power 5 schools in the SEC and Big 12. But Reynolds has made his mark at NCCU, playing through injuries and becoming a defensive playmaker in 2017, a FCS version of former LSU defender Tyrann Mathieu.

Heading into the season finale at rival North Carolina A&T, Reynolds and his teammates were not in the running for the MEAC title for the first time in three seasons. The Aggies clinched the crown the previous week when Bethune-Cookman upset the Eagles on a last second hail mary pass.

Immediately after that game, and in the week leading up to the Eagle-Aggie Classic, the trash talk on social media between players from the two schools started. It got personal for Reynolds, and by the time the two teams hit the field for warm-ups, emotions were at an all-time high.

NC Central's Granville Eastman discusses the expectations of his first year as the Eagles' head coach before the Pigskin Preview in Cary on July 16, 2018.

A pushing and shoving showdown happened at midfield and when the dust settled, four personal fouls were handed out. One player, Reynolds, would not even make it to the game. He was ejected before playing a down for throwing a punch at an A&T player during the scuffle.

“Definitely emotions,” Reynolds said, almost dropping his head from the memory. “I wouldn’t say a lot of stuff was going on, but there was a lot of stuff going on. I was worked up and I let my emotions get the best of me. That’s really what it was. I learned from it.”

As all hell was breaking lose on the field, outside the stadium, Reynolds’ mom, Tamekia Smith, was trying to make her way inside.

Smith routinely makes the trip from Georgia to North Carolina, and the 2017 season finale was no different. Once she found her seat inside Aggie Stadium, she overheard a conversation close to her. At this point she hadn’t even noticed Reynolds wasn’t on the field with his teammates, but soon enough she heard someone say “that’s messed up what happened to Davanta.”

She had to clarify that the person meant her Davanta, and sure enough it was. Smith found out what happened and immediately sent a text to her son, who was in the locker room. He didn’t respond right away, and came out after halftime to join his teammates on the sideline. It took Smith a while to find him after the game and by that point Reynolds didn’t have much to say.

“Once I found out what happened, we had to have a whole different type of conversation,” Smith said. “I made him go and apologize to the coaches. I told him he should apologize to the whole team, but that he definitely needed to go and apologize to the coaches.”

Reynolds admitted he was embarrassed and Smith noticed right away.

“Absolutely I could tell that, absolutely,” Smith said.”Everybody kept coming up to him and he didn’t even want to talk about it.”

Smith said the moment really hit Reynolds when he found out a board member from NCCU, who mentored Reynolds, drove all the way to Greensboro to see him play, only for him to be ejected. That’s when he realized he had let down not only Smith, but a lot of people.

RESPONSIBILITIES OF A CAPTAIN

Carl Jones was a two-time captain at North Carolina Central, holding the honors his junior and senior season.

Jones, who graduated in 2016, was like Reynolds. He had all the accolades, the All-MEAC, All-American awards, and was considered the best center in the MEAC during his time at NCCU and will surely be in the school’s Hall of Fame one day.

But the greatest honor to him was the moment his coaches elected him a team captain.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” Jones said. “It’s a huge honor, not only from your coaches, but from your teammates. I think it’s one of the biggest responsibilities on the team, if not the biggest, after coaching, obviously.”

For two years Jones served as a liaison between the coaches and players, and that meant dealing with issues on and off the field. Captains do more than just come out for the pregame coin toss. Captains take care of problems before they get up to the coaches. If a coach has an issue with a player, the coach will talk to the captains first, and let them address their teammates. If a coach is torn about kicking a player off the team for disciplinary reasons, a lot of times he will reach out to the team captain and get their thoughts.

It’s a role Jones took great pride in. It’s also a position he can see Reynolds in this season. Jones was at the A&T game last season, and he talked to Reynolds once the team returned to Durham. Jones, who said he took Reynolds under his wing when he arrived on campus as a freshman, still talks to him regularly. They are part of the same fraternity and Jones pointed out, he knows Reynolds “on a different level than most guys.”

“It was out of character and wrong,” Jones said about the punch thrown at the A&T game. “But I think his work and character speaks for itself, but that was just an out of body moment that he probably regrets.”

REDEMPTION

If anyone can turn this around, it’s Reynolds. He says he’s already moved on, doing his best not to dwell on the incident. His play on the field, he hopes, will make the mistake a memory that very few will talk about once the season begins.

Besides, making people forget by playing with an edge is what he’s always done. Reynolds says he plays with a chip on his shoulder and that won’t change in 2018.

For two seasons at Tucker High he played basketball, deciding to finally come out for football as a junior. As he watched some of his best friends sign with FBS powerhouses like Alabama, Ole Miss, Georgia and Oklahoma State, Reynolds entertained offers from one small school after another. At first he thought it was going to be Hampton, but a coaching change ended that. Maybe FAMU, but at the last minute he and Smith decided against it.

Then Eastman saw him on film and knew he wanted the undersized safety to be a part of his defense.

“He had a certain tenacity about him,” Eastman said. “He had a strong confidence, a swag as the young people would say. He didn’t have the greatest highlight tape, he just had a very strong football I.Q. During his redshirt freshman year he could pick up on things, and that gives you more than half a chance to play on this level. We always pride ourselves in trying to get our guys in position, then their athleticism has to come out. I don’t think Davanta ever failed in that area since he’s been here.”

The MEAC leading six interceptions last season came from a lot of film study, Reynolds said. He did admit there were a few that were thrown right to him, but more times than not he was in the right place.

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In 2018, even with all the accolades, he doesn’t expect teams to shy away from him, quite the contrary. Reynolds expects more passes thrown his way from quarterbacks who are trying to prove their wide outs are just as good. He wants to get six interceptions or more in 2018, and if the quarterbacks test him like he hopes, than those opportunities will come.

For the first time since he’s been in Durham, Reynolds is starting a season healthy. Sure, there are the bumps and bruises that come along with fall camp, but in the spring there was no surgery, another off-season first. He’s at the same playing weight as last season, but trimmed some body fat, coming into fall camp a step quicker. He sat out the spring and was able to help out the younger players, taking mental snapshots for his own benefit.

Quiet by nature, he has worked this offseason on being more vocal. Before he reported back for fall camp, Smith had a talk with her son about just that -- leading this team. Even she admitted it would “mean the world” if Reynolds was voted a captain. Even though Eastman wouldn’t tip his hand to who it might be, he did admit Reynolds fits the mode.

“Davanta has always been a leader of this team from day one, in the way he carries himself, for the most part,” Eastman said. “Whether he’s a captain or not, everyone on our team knows he’s one of our leaders and guys are willing to follow him.”

He hopes to lead the Eagles to another MEAC title, which would give him three in his career. What he doesn’t want to follow him is the one lapse in judgment that cost him a game, but hopefully not the captaincy that he so badly seeks.

“I felt like I let my team down because I was the leader out there,” Reynolds said. “We’re all humans, we all make mistakes, but it’s about how we respond.”

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