Leo Davis has heard what people have said about American Indians. He's heard it whispered in the hallways of schools, he's seen the statistics, he's felt it shouted in his ear on the football field.

And that's why he's standing at Montana State University, serving as the president of the American Indian Council, playing offensive tackle and smiling.

"Kill' em with kindness," Davis said. "That's what my parents always taught me to do. If they're gonna stare, give 'em a reason to stare. Show your beautiful smile."

Davis said most people would be surprised at how often racial slurs and profiling are thrown his way. It's all the more reason why his people need warriors, which is exactly what Davis said his father brought him up to be.

"Being a modern-day warrior is about being your own person and standing up for what's right," Davis said. "We're the last of a dying breed. There aren't too many of us left and we don't have a lot of role models. A lot of people don't understand that."

Even tougher to understand is Davis when he's breaking down all of his tribal affiliations. He claims relation to six tribes in all - Southern and Northern Piegan, Blood, Blackfeet, Lakota and Colville.

It's important to him to keep track of his heritage so he has a strong sense of self. And so he can find the right girl someday.

"You bump into a lot of pretty girls at pow wows," Davis said. "You've got to make sure you're not related."

Davis doesn't mind being surrounded by his relatives, though. In fact, he estimates that he has somewhere around 400 of them scattered around the state.

"Nine times out of 10, I'm probably running into a kid that's my relative, at least in the Indian way," Davis said. "In our culture, if you're blood, you're blood. It doesn't matter if you're a sixth cousin or a first cousin."

Right now, Davis is surrounded by some of that blood. Aside from having 12 cousins that are currently enrolled at MSU, he lives with his fourth cousin, Dave, and spends a lot of time with his brother Steven, who plays basketball for the Bobcats.

"You can throw a rock and you'll hit a Davis," he said. "It's like wherever you go, you have a home away from home."

It wouldn't have been that way had Davis followed the path he originally set out for himself. Determined to test the Football Bowl Subdivision waters as a vaunted defensive end at Billings Skyview - he once had five sacks in one game - Davis verbally committed to Colorado State.

Thinking about his extended family, he eventually decided to change his decision. But he didn't dream about changing his position.

Davis doesn't regret the transition to offensive line, which he made after his redshirt freshman season a year ago, but it hasn't come without some growing pains. And yes, he still occasionally finds himself daydreaming about rushing the passer.

"If I had to go against myself from back in the day in high school, I'd definitely get worked over," Davis said. "But I'm getting better. Hopefully this year I can have a coming-out party."

That wasn't exactly the case for Davis last year. But it's hard to blame him. It would be tough for anyone to party before, during or after a battle against a team like Michigan State, let alone someone who was making his first career start at left tackle.

"It didn't take long for Leo to find out how good Big Ten defensive ends are," offensive line coach Jason McEndoo said. "The kid has 18 practices and then gets thrown out there. That's the definition of baptism by fire."

Things improved as the season went on, but Davis' growth was tapered by an injury - his second in three years as a Bobcat. This one, however, (a meniscus tear) was by far the most serious.

It forced him to miss the season final eight games and kept him out all spring.

"It feels like I can never just tweak an ankle or sprain a finger," said Davis, who has also had surgery on a torn labrum. "I've got to get surgery every time I get bruised up."

But the time off has given Davis a chance to bulk up - he now weighs 270 pounds.

"When I recruited him as a slender 225-pound defensive end, I never thought he'd end up being a 300-pound mauler," McEndoo said. "He's done a phenomenal job in the weight room and battling back from injury. He's a classic lunch pail kind of guy."

McEndoo thinks that added size and a move from left tackle to right tackle will help Davis even more this fall. But the thing that will help him the most is the people around him.

"Football and life are all about relationships," McEndoo said. "And Leo's built some great ones. He's in charge of the whole spring pow wow here. I went down one afternoon and just watched him work and about 50 people made a special point to go up and talk to him.

"Here's more than a role model for Native Americans. He's a role model for this whole campus."

Will Holden can be reached at wholden@dailychronicle.com and 582-2690.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Projected Starters: RT: Leo Davis (6-4, 295, JR), RG: Ben Tauanuu (3-4, 317, SO), C: Alex Terrien (6-4, 285, JR), LT: Conrad Burbank (6-4, 280, JR), RT: Mike Person (6-5, 295, SR)

Could surprise: Casey Dennehy. The former Butte High running back will get the first start of his career with Tauanuu suspended for week one. He'll also be the team's primary backup at both guard and center.

Strength: Experience. Every member of the first team unit has started at least four games for MSU. Terrien, Burbank and Person all have at least 22.

Weakness: Depth. No member of the team's second or third units has a single career start on the line.

Quoting a coach: "It seems like every year I've been here, we deal with depth issues," McEndoo said. "But we don't always have the kind of experience that we have this year. I'm really excited about this group."

 

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