Coach Davis recovering from surgery. Photo by Joe Ellis/UMMC Photography

By Billy Watkins

       Most people couldn’t believe he was sick.

       “He looks the same to me.”

       “How in the world is he still coaching?”

       “Hard to imagine that man storming the sideline needs a kidney transplant.”

       They didn’t see what went on away from the school.

       They weren’t there when MRA football coach Herbert Davis underwent four hours of dialysis five nights a week.

       They weren’t there when his wife of 28 years, Darla, “did things for me that normal people wouldn’t,” Davis says.

       Like cleaning up the mess during dialysis when the needle came out and shot blood all over the floor, walls and TV.

       And they weren’t there when Darla was on her knees every night, asking the Lord to please send her husband a kidney, and if at all possible from a living donor.

       “There came a time when I really thought he was going to die,” Darla says. “I got real uncomfortable about things.”

       If she was in another room and a few minutes passed without hearing him cough or move around, “I’d go running in there,” Darla says.

       Just to make sure he was breathing.


       Things are easier now. Davis received a kidney from a living donor on Dec. 11. He turned 57 on New Year’s Day. His post-transplant checkups have been good, though he has been given a long list of “cannot do’s.”

Courtesy of Herbert Davis

       “My immune system is still low so I haven’t been around a lot of people yet,” says Davis, who hopes to return to school soon — wearing a mask, of course. “I can’t eat raw meat, like sushi. Can’t put my hands in dirt. Can’t pick up anything heavy.”

       Doctors encouraged him to walk a mile or so a day. He figured he might as well start walking to a nearby deer stand.

       “That was the one thing I could find to compete with,” he says.

       In the first week of the new year, Davis dropped a 9-point he had been studying on trail cameras for weeks.

       “I didn’t have to climb a tree. I was in a ground stand,” he says. “And I had some good friends get him out of the woods for me.”

       He and Darla have been enjoying the nights without dialysis.

       “I’m grateful for (dialysis),” he says, “but there were times I wanted to throw that machine in the Pearl River.”

       Darla, an X-Ray technician at Mississippi Sports Medicine, quietly celebrated the machine’s exit by taking a pair of scissors and cutting up boxes of unused bags that went into the machine.

       “I sat in the driveway and cut and cut until I had blisters,” Darla says. “It was a relief just to get rid of them.

       “We take so much for granted when we have so much to be thankful for.”

       Near the top of their thankful list is the living donor, Leah Cox, whose son, Fletcher, was a sophomore linebacker on Davis’ team last fall.

       Davis didn’t receive Cox’s kidney. Instead, she was the missing link to a complicated puzzle that allowed seven people to receive kidneys in a unique procedure at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. Davis’ kidney came from a man who lives in Louisiana.

       “When they were explaining the seven-way swap to me, I said, ‘I don’t want to sound selfish. But before I do this, you have to guarantee me that Coach Davis will get a kidney. That’s who I donated for.’ And they assured me he would,” she says.

       Cox is doing great. “Having a C-section with my third child was harder than the kidney donation,” she says. “The only time I notice it is when I sneeze or cough, there is a little bit of soreness. But I’ve been released by the doctors to do anything I want.”


       Davis, who has won six state championships (three at MRA) and is already a member of the MAIS Hall of Fame, had been battling stage 5 kidney failure since January 2020.

       He kept coaching, even led his team to state titles in 2020 and 2021 while on a transplant list.

       But he was living a double life — one at school, the other at home and in doctors’ offices.

       He couldn’t travel with the team — couldn’t be around that many people in an enclosed area. Couldn’t be in the dressing room at the same time as the players.

       “Oh, I missed it,” he says, “but I did what I had to do.”

       Davis dug into his Bible.

       “That was the number one thing that got me through it,” he says. “It gave me a peace about things.”

       Davis had always gone to church as a child and was baptized at age 18.

       “I wanted to confirm my faith by the way I lived,” he says. “I think I’ve always been close to my players. But around 2018 I became more intentional about it.

       “Maybe when I got to MRA (in 2014), it was more about winning. Maybe I felt the pressure to do so. MRA had only won one state football championship and that was way back (in 1992). I wanted to get one for them..”

       During the summer of 2018, he and his staff began including a short motivational period before weight lifting and conditioning workouts. A scripture was always included.

       ““I think that was one thing that showed the kids that we’re going to focus on more than just football,” he says. “And that’s the year that we began to turn the program around.”


       Davis met with his coaches on Sunday, Aug. 6, four days before the 2023 season opener at Parklane. 

       “When I got home and started trying to hook up to the dialysis machine, my heart started racing. It got up to 170 beats a minute.”

       He phoned Darla, who was two hours away, visiting one of their three children in the Clarke County town of Pachuta.

       “He said he felt like an elephant was sitting on his chest,” she says. “I actually told myself ‘This is it.’ “

       Davis called for an ambulance.

       “I didn’t know what was going on,” Davis recalls, “but when I saw them break out those paddles that shocks your heart back to beating, I said, ‘Oh, Lord.’ ”

       The place where the needle was inserted during dialysis — “a souped-up vein,” Davis calls it — had become infected, causing his heart to work overtime.

       Davis was hospitalized for four days. He tweeted just before leaving the hospital: “I’m going home!! … I truly have felt the power of prayer.”

Photo by Robert Smith

       A few hours later, his team walked off the field at Parklane with a 48-25 victory in a rare Thursday night game.

       He was at home only three days before his blood pressure dropped to 70 over 50, then 60 over 40. Back to the hospital.

       “Scary times,” he says.

       Doctors drained a liter-and-a-half of fluid from around his heart. They feared it might happen again, so Davis remained hospitalized.

       MRA headmaster Termie Land, who hired Davis, sent out an email to parents and students, asking for prayers.

       “People were talking about it on Facebook,” Darla says. “The stories and the witnessing that people shared … it was profound. It was like we had one big circle of people praying for us.”

       Two of those prayer warriors were Leah Cox and her husband, Jason. They celebrated when Davis was released from the hospital after a week-long stay.

       But they had no idea how their lives were about to affect their son’s football coach.


       The Cox family had only been at MRA since the 2021-22 school year.

       “Our son Fletcher wasn’t happy at his previous school and asked if he could go to MRA,” Leah says. “I didn’t meet Coach Davis until last July when they hosted a thing for football moms.

       “It was fun. But what I really took away from it was seeing Coach Davis’ heart and passion for the sport and how he felt about leading these kids on and off the field. It gave me great peace.”

Coach Davis and Leah Cox before surgery Submitted by Cox Family

       After Davis’ two bouts in the hospital, Leah and Jason considered being tested to see if they might be a donor. They were physically fit, having run marathons and completed Ironman Triathlons.

       “We could sense the urgency from the MRA leadership,” she says. “We could see it affecting the other coaches. It was affecting Fletcher, too.”

       Leah read a story on our Mississippi Scoreboard website on Aug. 25 entitled “Somebody Out There Can Give MRA Coach Herbert Davis the Gift of Life.”

       It emphasized the immediate need and also profiled a Mississippi Scoreboard photographer, Robert “Bob” Smith, whose life was saved by a kidney donor 24 years ago.

       “After we read that, it solidified that we were doing the right thing,” Leah says.

       She went through the preliminary screenings. A social worker noticed on the paperwork that she and Jason had sons 18, 16, and 14. Leah was asked, “What if 10 years down the road, one of your sons needs a kidney and you’ve already donated?”

       “I told her that I don’t live in the ‘what if?’ world,” Leah says. “I live in the moment and do whatever God wants me to do right now.”

       Late in the football season, Davis heard a rumor that a donor match had been found. He had heard this once before so he didn’t allow himself to get too excited.

       “But one day right before practice, my phone rang and the voice on the other end said, ‘It’s a go and we’re thinking about doing the transplant on Dec. 11. Are you good with that?’

       “I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t say anything during practice about it. I told Darla and the kids that night. Told my coaches the next day.”

       He soon found out Leah was the donor, but he didn’t approach her immediately.

       “What do you say to someone willing to do that? ‘Thank you’ just doesn’t seem to be adequate,” says Davis.

       Following the final pep rally of the season, Davis walked over to Leah. Both started crying.

       When Davis tried to find words, Leah stopped him. “We both know we’re here because the Lord put us here,” she told him.

       Leah thought she knew why Fletcher had asked to enroll at MRA. “But now we know the real reason,” she says. “God had a plan. I tell Fletcher he is just as much a part of this story as I am.”

       Now Davis is itching for spring practice to begin in early May.

       And next season can’t get here soon enough to suit the coach, when he can once again ride the team bus and walk among his players in the locker room.