SUWANEE, Ga. -- He looks like an oversized Darth Vader pulling up on his black Honda CBR 1100 motorcycle.
Nathan Davis removes his extra-large black helmet and beams when a reporter shows interest in his toy.
"They say it's the fastest production bike ever made," he boasts, explaining how he made his edition even faster by replacing the headers with racing equipment. "I taught myself how to ride, and I've gotten more and more interested in bikes."
The largest defensive player ever drafted by the Atlanta Falcons at 6-5, 320 pounds, Davis needs to show a similar passion for football this summer.
The Falcons chose the Indiana defensive tackle 32nd overall in 1997, believing he would be an immediate starter. But Davis dressed for only two games and finished the season without a tackle. He probably wouldn't have made the roster if not for his three-year, $1.75 million contract and $660,000 signing bonus.
Nevertheless, Davis will get every opportunity this summer. Incumbent starting right tackle Dan Owens left for Detroit as a free agent, and the two players competing with Davis for the job aren't proven starters. Shane Dronett was a top backup in 1998, and Esera Tualo, a recent pick up from Jacksonville, was out of football much of last year.
Neither Dronett nor Tualo has Davis' size and natural athletic ability. Davis was clocked at 4.65 in the 40 at Indiana, which put him among the fastest linemen in the '97 draft. He also was an All-American shot-putter at Indiana, and a 10th-place finisher at the 1996 Olympic Trials.
"I have to get myself in the best possible shape and come in and play like I know I can," Davis said. "If I do that, everything will take care of itself."
DAVIS CERTAINLY FITS the tough-guy mold. There's the mean motorcycle and the goatee and the tattoos -- one of a scorpion on his shoulder and others on his thick arms with the words "Patience" and "Fury."
But Davis seemed dispassionate if not disinterested as a rookie. He arrived overweight and in poor condition, which he blamed on a college injury -- a condition called ostheopubitis, which is a tearing away of a ligament from the pelvic bone.
Even when he was supposedly healthy late in the year, Davis showed little progress. He simply didn't fit in with defensive line coach Bill Kollar's overachievers -- a group that helped the Falcons finish second in the NFL with a team-record 55 sacks.
"He still was not at a (level) late in the year where you would have felt comfortable with playing 20 snaps," Kollar said. "We want our guys to play full speed every down, and that's why we rotate. We don't put somebody in there for the sake of having them in there. They have to earn that opportunity."
Davis says he never had a chance because of the injury.
"I think it set me back a lot mentally," he said. "It was the first time in my life I'd ever not been able to do something. I was used to being able run and jump, and all of a sudden it hurt to get off the couch.
"All of a sudden I couldn't go four plays without being out of wind. And it kind got in my head that I couldn't do it. Then, Kollar was like, `you've never worked hard in your life.' After I while I started to believe it."
DAVIS IS PARTICIPATING in the Falcons' offseason workout program, spending four days a week with strength and conditioning coach Al Miller. That's the good news. The bad news is that he ignored coach Dan Reeves' request that he meet with nutritionists and Duke University for possible admission into a weight-reduction program.
The coaches want Davis to get down to his college playing weight of 295 pounds. Davis has hovered at around 320 since the end of last year's training camp. Somehow, 25 pounds have to go.
"I told coach Reeves that since I got here I've been treated different than anybody else," Davis said when asked why he hasn't made the trip to Duke. "I said I didn't want that any more. I want to come in and work out with the team this summer and be part of the team."
Even if he gives the appearance of a loner at times, teammates, friends and family are important to Davis. In 1994, he successfully located his biological parents after 18 years of separation.
DAVIS WAS BORN in Hartford, Conn., to a black father and white mother who later divorced. His mother gave him up when he was 4 so that she could enlist in the Air Force, and Nathan was placed in an Indiana adoption agency.
Davis was adopted by Tim and Mary Davis of Richmond, Ind., The couple, with their then-9-year-old son, provided Nathan with a good home.
Not until Davis was in college did he start making the phone calls that led him to his biological parents. His father was Nathan Gibbs, a 290-pound truck driver who lives in Atlanta. His mother, Cheryl, was living in Lima, Ohio, with her husband and five children.
Davis arranged a 1995 reunion in which both of his families sat together at the Indiana-Ohio State football game.
"Getting that part of my life resolved was big because I had always known about it," Davis said. "It wasn't that I was just a baby and the family I grew up with was the only family I knew. I knew I had people out there that were my blood, and there were questions I had to answer that nobody could answer but them. I got to meet them and hear both sides of their stories."
That chapter closed, the next in Nathan Davis' life could be the most important.
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