Nick Davila: End of an era in Arizona

Photo: Patrick Breen/azcentral sports

By Tony Capobianco

The Arizona Rattlers’ 2016 season ended with an unlikely loss to the Philadelphia Soul in the Arena Bowl. While it wasn’t known nor expected at the time, that last Arena Bowl League game in front of 13,390 at the Gila River Arena in Glendale was the last Arena Football game ever to be witnessed in Arizona.

The two teams have faced off against each other in the Arena Bowl three times since Nick Davila arrived in Arizona in 2010. The Rattlers won the first two big games in 2012-13 but the Soul’s vengeance couldn’t be sweeter for them.

The AFL has been through similar turmoil last year when the league’s champion folded, another team folded and one more left for the Indoor Football League, bringing the number of teams to eight. This offseason saw the launching of the Washington Valor but the folding of the Portland Steel, LA KISS and Orlando Predators, as well as the Rattlers moving to the IFL and the Jacksonville Sharks deciding to go solo and do their own thing.

“We couldn’t afford to sit out a year and expect our fans to come back the following year if we were out of football this year,” team owner Ron Shurts told the Arizona Republic. “Maybe the AFL will continue. We couldn’t take that chance with no Rattlers in 2017.”

While the Rattlers will still be around downtown Phoenix and Kevin Guy will still be manning the helm as captain of the ship, two key cornerstones of the franchise will no longer be around. Quarterback Nick Davila and wide receiver Rod Windsor have made their departures. Windsor retired after the season and Davila will remain in the AFL, where despite being down to only four teams, still pays more than the IFL.

“They’re doing what they have to, I guess,” Windsor told the Arizona Republic. “As for me I’m done playing.”

So this is where it ends. It’s not merely the end of the Rattlers presence as the flagship franchise of the AFL but also the end of the Davila era in Arizona.

In all of pro sports in the Valley of the Sun, there has never been a more successful athlete than Davila. In seven seasons, Davila has completed 67.4 percent of his passes for a grand total of 32,616 yards, 766 touchdowns and only 91 interceptions. He was named league MVP for the third time this season and have led the Rattlers to five Arena Bowl appearances, winning three of them. Thanks to him, no AFL team has more championships than then Rattlers.

As an Arena Football quarterback, Davila draws his inspiration from the legacy of Kurt Warner, who went from a great AFL quarterback in Iowa to being responsible for bringing the only Super Bowl championship to St. Louis, which no longer has an NFL team.

“He was a great quarterback because of the Arena Football League,” Davila said back in 2013, “he said that himself. Arena football prepared him for the NFL and made him a better decision maker and slowed the game down for him because he did play in arena football. So I think there’s some quarterbacks in this league that are pretty good and not every NFL quarterback can come to arena football and be good. There are a lot of quarterbacks who have tried.”

It’s amazing how he got to this point. Davila took a long road to get to the point where he is the top dog of all of the AFL.

After a short stint in the junior college circuit at Chaffey College to show major college football programs that he has fully recovered from a broken clavicle, Davila found his way to the University of Cincinnati. Playing for the Bearcats includes the luxury of calling one of the oldest and oddest stadiums in college football home.

“Nippert Stadium is a unique stadium because it’s on campus, right in the middle, you got all those buildings around it and the noise is bouncing off the walls,” Davila said back in a 2012 interview. “There’s a lot of tradition there and it was a great stadium to play there.”

From 2005-06, Davila was a part-time starting quarterback with his mark on a few signature games in recent Cincinnati history.

In 2006, the Bearcats were in a do or die situation where they had to win their last two games of the season. Such games included Senior Night against the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers, who were undefeated at the time, in order to go to a bowl game at 7-5.

Davila started only in two of the 12 games that he played, but it was those two starts, Davila helped put Cincinnati on the map with two signature wins.

The first signature win came against the No. 7 ranked Scarlet Knights in front of a national audience on ESPN, and on Senior Night no less. Davila was 11 of 15 for 277 yards, which is an average of 18.5 yards per attempt. He ran in the first touchdown of the night and effectively sealed the victory with his pass to Brent Celek as the current Philadelphia Eagle tight end rumbled for an 83-yard touchdown.

The second signature win came in the first bowl game ever played in Canada. Davila threw for 214 yards and two touchdowns in a close and exciting 27-24 win over Western Michigan.

Those two games were pivotal in Cincinnati’s 2006 season but Davila would admit that his most important game was the game that happened in between. Before Cincinnati could punch their ticket into the International Bowl, the Bearcats had to go up north and beat Connecticut.

“I actually didn’t get to start after the Rutgers game,” Davila said. “When I came in and brought the team back and we won, that actually put us in the international bowl game.”

Davila came into the game against the Huskies in place of the injured Dustin Grutza and threw for 232 yards and two touchdowns, including one to Dominick Goodman late in the forth quarter to tie the game. A last second field goal by Kevin Lovell won the game and punched the ticket to the International Bowl.

“That was probably the most important game for our season as a team to get a bowl bid,” Davila said. “Those three games are probably the games that I got DVR.”

After his college career, Davila went undrafted in the 2007 NFL Draft, Davila was able to get a mini-camp invite with the Cleveland Browns but was cut shortly after.

After a year away from football, Davila signed on with the Spokane Shock of AF2, which was considered as arena football’s “minor league”. He would find immediate success, compiling a 38-3 record and two championship game appearances. However with the disbanding of the league and the Shock moving into the Arena Football, Davila once again found himself jobless.

Arizona Rattlers general manager and head coach Kevin Guy convinced Davila to come over to the AFL with him and the two became the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick combo of the Arena Football.

Davila met his former team in the opening round of the 2010 AFL playoffs. He and the Rattlers were then just a hurdle leaped over by the Shock on their way to their only Arena Bowl title.

Davila came back with a vengeance in 2011, winning his first of three MVP awards by setting AFL records in touchdowns and yards, and reaching the Arena Bowl in 2011 as the host team. It was supposed to be the first of many Arena Bowl championships for Davila and the Rattlers, the start of their dynasty, but it was instead snatched away on a last second touchdown from a grizzled veteran quarterback thirsty for a moment of celebration after 15 years in the league.

Nevertheless, the season Davila had could have led to an NFL opportunity, but he got derailed after recovering from of an end-of-season surgery.

“When I won the MVP, the next couple weeks I had to have surgery on my elbow so that threw out some of the scouts,” Davila said.  “I feel I have the ability to play at that level and play with those guys and I have in college. Coming from outdoor to indoor, the game is so much quicker, you have to make decisions really fast and the windows are way tighter for your throws. You don’t have to fire the ball all the time. You can have great anticipation and touch. That’s one thing I think that can transfer over to the NFL. There’s not too much drop off from our team to the NFL.”

Having to recover from injuries from the five-month AFL season, which ends just in time for NFL training camp largely kept Davila from the NFL. Because of that timing, it is very hard for those to make the transition from the AFL to the NFL.

But it was also the success he harvested in Arizona that kept him in the AFL. He was the league’s lone star. As the Rattlers were returning to Arena Bowl after Arena Bowl after Arena Bowl, his dynasty grew. Twice in 2012 and 2013, Philly wanted to let their Soul glow, but the Rattlers said no. Before the return of LeBron James and and the Indians appearing in the World Series, the Gladiators were Cleveland’s best hope in 2014 to bring the long suffering sports town their title. Davila and the Rattlers stormed into town and denied the Gladiators their moment of glory.

With ESPN and CBS Sports Network televising the games and Arizona receiving the lion’s share from both networks, it seems as though the AFL would be best served as an emerging summer product as long as the Rattlers continue to win.

Tumultuous offseasons followed the AFL when the Rattlers failed to reach the mountain top. The San Jose SaberCats folded in 2015 after defeating the Rattlers in the playoffs to reach the Arena Bowl and claiming the title in a high scoring affair against Jacksonville. The AFL started this past season with eight teams and after the Rattlers lost the Arena Bowl in Glendale, the league is now down to four.

Despite the AFL going into 2017 with four teams, looking like the first season of the short-lived United Football League, it still pays higher than any other professional football league not named the National Football League or Canadian Football League. Which is why Davila will remain as a free agent a pick the best offer from either Philadelphia, Cleveland, Washington or Tampa Bay.

As for the Rattlers, there will be a couple familiar foes such as the Iowa Barnstormers and Spokane, who changed its name from Shock to Empire upon defecting from the AFL in 2015. There will be a rival from Utah, Colorado and somewhere in Texas, just like the good old days.

It really doesn’t matter. Thanks to Davila’s dominance over the past six years, the Rattlers are a big enough brand locally to draw a respectable crowd to Talking Stick Arena now matter who or what is on the other side. That is his legacy.

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