DeAndre Davis clings to it. It’s what keeps him going when the days are dark, when there is tragedy, when there is death. It’s what keeps him chipping away at the greatest problems facing St. Louis, its residents and its children.
Davis clings to hope. The hope he can make a difference. The hope he can save lives. The hope he can help rebuild, one small piece at a time, a community in need.
Davis, 39, is the boys basketball coach at Vashon. A 1992 graduate, he played four years on the varsity for Floyd Irons. One of nine kids, Davis grew up in the heart of North City. He knows what it’s like for the kids that play for him.
He also knows what it’s like to make it out. In August, Davis will finish his 16th year as an officer with the St. Louis Police Department. He has spent the last 10 years as a detective with the juvenile unit. Before that he was a beat cop in District 5, which encompasses North City.
Davis knows all too well the trials and tribulations facing St. Louis youth. He sees it every day. He also knows the joy of watching resilient kids find their way to a better place. It’s what keeps that ember of hope burning in his chest.
Davis didn’t set out to be a police officer. Truth be told he didn’t know what he wanted to do. His family’s financial situation brought him home after his sophomore year at Culver-Stockton College.
“There were nine of us, man,” he said. “I had to do something to keep me busy. I didn’t want to end up doing some crazy things.”
Davis crossed paths with Ray Collins, who was and is still an officer with the SLPD. Area basketball fans know Collins as “Mouse,” one of the area’s better officials. A 1983 Vashon graduate, Collins was part of Vashon's first state championship team.
Collins had known Davis for awhile and thought he would make a good addition to the SLPD.
"He wanted something out of life," Collins said.
With Collins nudging him Davis filled out the paperwork and applied. He was accepted and, after his 21st birthday, graduated from the Police Academy in August 1998. He was assigned to District 5, his old stomping grounds.
“I couldn’t get lost,” he said with a laugh.
Not everyone in the old neighborhood was supportive of Davis joining the force. District 5 is not for the faint of heart, and there were plenty of people who wanted nothing to do with a police officer.
“There were some mixed reviews,” Davis said. “Some guys understood what I was doing. Some didn’t take too well to it. Those were the ones who were actually looking out for the police.”
When he arrived for his first day on the job, Davis was a fresh-faced young man bursting with optimism. He had visions of the neighborhood he grew up in returning to the way it was.
“In 1990 when the police department decentralized and moved out of the neighborhoods, I watched our neighborhood just go to craps,” Davis said. “I was happy to be back there. I just wanted to help push it back in that direction.”
Davis's optimism wasn't unusual. Collins experienced the same thing as a young officer.
"When they pin that badge on you and give you that gun, you think you can just go fix the problems over in Afghanistan," Collins said.
It wasn’t long before his optimism was met with the grisly reality of a fractured community. Every day offered a new lesson, and Davis soaked them up.
“Coming out, I was naïve,” he said. “I didn’t understand how the street worked. I didn’t understand how the court system worked. I just thought we locked up a guy, got rid of them and that was it.”
While assigned to District 5, Davis had the opportunity to do all kinds of police work. He did plainclothes work, narcotics, etc.
“That district itself is a wealth of experience, knowledge and information. That two, three years seemed like 10. It was a learning curve and you had to learn on the fly,” he said. “It was a good thing I had good (field training officers) and good commanders that looked out for me.”
"Once he came out (of the Academy), DeAndre never looked back," Collins said. "Everybody took to him. Everybody thought he was a great officer and a great person."
After five years on the beat, Davis was promoted to detective with the juvenile unit. It was there he found his calling.
Davis sat down at the lunchroom table and watched the kids scatter. He was newly assigned as the resource officer at Vashon, and his badge made him persona non grata.
“My first year I had to break down some barriers,” he said.
There had been a “melee” at the school before Davis arrived. It ended up on the nightly news, and the SLPD needed someone to step in and work with the kids. Davis' name came up.
As a resource officer, Davis helps with truancy, social issues, domestic disputes and gang-related incidents. He also is there to provide support when tragedy strikes. Davis coached softball for two years at Vashon. During that time one of his players and one of Vashon’s brightest student athletes was murdered by her boyfriend. Sarah Walker was strangled by Leonard Johnson on March 12, 2012. She was honored as Vashon's Post-Dispatch Scholar-Athlete posthumously.
Davis was there to provide support and resources to the students in the wake of Walker’s death.
“I try to intervene on things like that,” he said. “I try to intervene on fights with gang members.”
As a resource officer at Vashon, Davis was a presence but still a badge. In 2008 when the boys basketball coaching job came open after Anthony Bonner resigned midway through the previous season, Davis wanted to give it a shot.
He had some coaching experience. He and his brothers were in charge of a middle school aged club team that had some success. Davis said that roster included Jehu Chesson, Durron Neal, Darryl Johnson and Antonio Hopkins. Chesson and Neal are wide receivers at Michigan and Oklahoma, respectively. Johnson plays center for Kansas State’s basketball team.
“That’s when I started to see the hunger for basketball,” Davis said. “I’ve always wanted to be a coach, even when I played for Coach (Irons). I was interested in the nuances.”
As a player, Davis would pick Irons’ brain. He’d ask him why they ran certain things, why some guys got to play and others didn’t. Davis wanted to know why Irons did what he did.
“Coach intrigued me,” he said.
Davis sat down with his wife and asked what she thought about him applying to be the Wolverines coach. She was surprised he hadn’t tried to be a coach before. He then called Irons to see what he thought about it.
“Before I could finish he told me he supported it,” Davis said.
Now all he had to do was clear it with the SLPD. There was no hesitation from the department. Davis was told it would be a great way to reach out to the young people.
Davis was hired by principal Barbara Sharp before the 2008-09 season.
"He was a graduate of the school and with the rich tradition I felt that he was invested in the school and community," said Sharp, Vashon's principal from 2006-2010. "In his role as a resource officer, I recognized the patience that he had with the young people we encountered. He was an active listener. He paid a lot of attention to what the students said to him. I saw that he was extremely fair in his actions with the kids. He didn't try to create favoritism with the students. He was certainly a committed person. Whatever he said he was going to do, he did that. He was committed to the school and the students."
Davis never thought he’d be here, stalking the sidelines at Vashon. For all the glorious runs the Wolverines put together during Irons’ tenure, Davis’ class never found its way to a state title. He always figured there was a long list of grads with bigger and better resumes waiting to take the job.
“I never thought I’d be at Vashon High School. I didn’t win a championship. We were 27-3 and lost to Riverview Gardens, the eventual state champion,” he said. “You got all these guys that won championships. Why would I be the one to go to this school?”
Davis knew the pressure of the job would be crushing. The history and tradition at Vashon is unparalleled in the city. Eight titles that are recognized by the state and another three that were stripped after the program was found to have used ineligible players.
“Because Vashon’s history was so rich and expectations were so lofty, I knew I couldn’t meet all those expectations,” he said. “I had to set some goals for myself. I wanted to be transparent and as open as possible.”
His goals centered around his athletes having good grades and being good citizens. That was a hallmark of Irons’ teams which were, and still are, praised for their discipline.
“I wanted the program to be known as a program with integrity and good young men. Coach (Irons) laid a wonderful foundation,” he said. “There are some things he gave me when I was playing that I still use today.”
That link to the program's powerful history is significant for the past Wolverines. The Vashon family is a tight one and having one of their own in charge matters.
"I think what DeAndre does is bring a lot of credibility and stability to what was once a strong basketball family," Collins said.
Davis found by taking over as basketball coach it gave him another link to the students in the school. It showed them he was going to be around and that he wasn’t just a badge waiting for any opportunity to put cuffs on them.
“Once I got to the juvenile unit I started seeing my work and my relationships becoming impactful,” Davis said. “I wanted to give the kids a new way to look at policemen.”
Changing the way the students looked at the police was important to Sharp. She and Davis worked hard to shift the negative connotations that came with being an officer.
"He was able to bridge some of the negative images that students had about police officers," Sharp said. "As I began to work with him more, he was bringing some of those characteristics with his work. Those were the characteristics I looked for as I considered his position."
On the court the results have been mixed for the Wolverines. Davis is 63-58 since taking over and hasn’t won the Public High League or a district title. He is well aware that success is crucial not only to the kids but also the alumni. He’s confident this year Vashon will have a chance at something special.
“I’m looking to teach our kids to mentally play with a lot of confidence. To let the game come to us. When it all boils down, I love this game, I love the kids that play it,” he said. “I’m optimistic this year.”
Being a coach and a police officer does have its nuances. Davis knows that some of the team’s fans can’t go into certain parts of town for fear of a run-in with rivals. He has to be careful when scheduling games because he wants the fans to support the team but not be in harm's way.
“Some of our fans are gangbangers, and that’s just the reality. They don’t cause any problems and try to do the best they can,” Davis said. “But that element is always there.”
And while Davis is able to make a difference in many kids, he can’t keep them all safe. There is a limit to what he can do. It’s one of the tougher parts of his job.
“I didn’t save all the kids, though. There are kids that are still locked up,” he said. “There are some that got caught up in the (drug) game.”
Davis has to celebrate the victories, no matter how large or small, when they come on and off the court. It’s what fuels him. It’s what keeps that optimism alive in him.
“I’m always clinging to hope,” he said.