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Wednesday, December 12 2018 @ 04:08 PM UTC

Rookie could be NFL's first pure Panamanian

Sports Section BY NICHOLAS J. COTSONIKA: In May, between minicamps, Lions rookie Frank Davis took a quick trip home to Panama City. Not Panama City, Fla. Panama City, Panama. "The country," he said. "You know. With the canal?" He held a news conference for the Panamanian media. He received a plaque from Panama's sports minister, Ramon Cardoze. He visited Panama's head of state, Martin Torrijos, in the presidential box at a soccer match. He's just an undrafted free-agent signee. He's just one of several offensive linemen on the Lions' roster. He faces stiff competition when the players report to training camp Thursday. But he's a point of pride in Panama, because if he makes the cut, many will consider him the first pure Panamanian to play in the NFL. Leo Barker was born in Panama and played linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1984-91. But Barker was from the Canal Zone, an area under U.S. control -- and Americanized -- at the time. Davis was born in New York, but his Panamanian mother brought him home when he was 3 months old. He grew up in Panama City. He played in Panama's club leagues and played for Panama's under-19 national team.

"We feel like he's one of us," said David Samudio, executive producer of sports at RPC-TV in Panama City. "We feel like we're now represented in the NFL with a Panamanian player.

"He can talk to the people in Spanish. He can inspire kids here in Panama with his history, of being brought up very poor and then going and having a chance to play football in the United States."

Football has a following in Panama, but it lags in popularity behind baseball, soccer, boxing, basketball and even horse racing. There are no high school programs, only club teams.

It wasn't Davis' favorite sport at first. Far from it. He preferred soccer and basketball. He was so big and so good at basketball, he got the nickname "Little Shaquille."

Then he drew the attention of a Panamanian football coach, Guillermo Suarez.

"I told him, 'Frank, you should really go out for football,' " Suarez said. "He said, 'Well, I'm not into touching guys and grabbing guys.' I said, 'You could have a very good future if you just try.' "

Davis didn't really try football until his senior year of high school, and he didn't last long. He suffered a hand injury.

"He was very uncomfortable with that," Suarez said. "He said, 'This is not for me.' "

Suarez stayed after Davis. Then Panama was invited to the 2000 Global Football Championships, an international tournament for teenagers to be played before Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta. Suarez was named coach, and he recruited Davis hard.

Davis rebuffed Suarez for three weeks, then finally gave in.

"I said, 'I'll make you a deal. I'll take you to practice, and I'll bring you back, and I'll feed you if you play for the national team,' " Suarez said. "He said, 'Yep. I'll do it then. If you do that, I'll do it.' "

Both lived up to their promises.

Suarez got angry at Davis because Davis kept taking off his shoes during practice -- until someone told him Davis wore size 14 shoes, and the biggest cleats they had were 11s. Suarez bought Davis a proper pair of cleats on a trip to the United States, but he could do only so much. Davis' helmet and shoulder pads didn't fit, either.

"We didn't get that much support from the government," Suarez said. "It was more local people offering money. We had used equipment."

Though Panama was pummeled in Atlanta -- going 0-2 and getting outscored 58-0 -- schools like Alabama and Florida State noticed Davis. There was only one problem: They wanted him to go to junior college first.

"I didn't know what that was," Davis said.

Suarez became Davis' godfather and helped set him up at the University of South Florida in Tampa -- a place with real equipment.

Davis arrived as a defensive lineman -- and was confused when he was issued gloves because he wasn't a receiver. He had never seen gloves for a defensive lineman before.

He quickly moved to the offensive line. He redshirted his first year, gradually gained playing time the next two years, then started his last two years and grew to love the game.

"It took about a year and half to where he really understood what was going on," South Florida offensive line coach Greg Frey said.

Had he played in American high schools, "... I believe he would have been a top-round pick, personally," Frey said.

"The longer he hangs around, the better he's going to get, and the better he's going to get, the more of a chance he'll have to play at that level. I really believe his football's ahead of him."

What chance does Davis have of making the Lions?

Physically, he's fine. He's big and strong. He once worked with Panama's Olympic shot put coach. The Lions list the 24-year-old at 6-feet-4, 326 pounds, and team president Matt Millen says he has great feet. The Lions like him in pass protection.

But he has played so little football, he has so much to learn. The Lions wonder about his run blocking.

"I've got the athletic ability to do it," Davis said. "I've just got to basically get the mental part down."

Considering how raw he is and how many offensive linemen the Lions have, Davis seems a prime candidate for the practice squad.

You never know, though.

"I think Frank has a chance to be a good football player down the road," Lions offensive line coach Larry Beightol said. "How long is that going to take? I have no idea.

"But we're not trying to pick any practice squad guys right now. We're trying to see who can help the Detroit Lions play and win this year."

Davis is ready for anything.

"Where I come from, everything that I get is just a blessing," he said. "I just take advantage of it as best I can."

Contact NICHOLAS J. COTSONIKA at 313-222-8831 or ncotsonika@freepress.com.

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