PRINCETON, N.J. -- Damien Davis will be only the third freshman defender in 13 seasons to start for Princeton when he comes to Homewood Field for tomorrow's season opener at No. 3 Johns Hopkins.
But Davis always has had the tendency to dive right in and go after things.
Reginald Davis calls Damien "the most independent and fearless" of his four children, including James, 22, Alex, 21, and Allison, 13.
Marilyn Davis recalled how 2-year-old Damien, longing to follow his father to work, set out on a two-block trek, all alone, before friends brought him home.
His father has a similar story about teaching his son to swim. "When Damien was about 3, I was working with him on breathing techniques, going under water, dog-paddling" at the shallow end of a pool. Then a toy of Damien's floated into deeper water, and the youngster went after it.
"The water got up to his chest, then his chin," said his father. "He didn't hesitate, look back for me to get it for him. Just took a deep breath, like he was taught, waded into the water that was over his head, grabbed his toy and came back.
"I think that's going to be his approach to life at Princeton. Damien knows we're here to support him, but he wants to do it on his own when he can."
Davis, a Gilman graduate, will be among three freshman starters for Princeton, along with McDonogh's Owen Daly, a midfielder, as the No. 4 Tigers begin their quest for coach Bill Tierney's sixth NCAA crown since 1992.
The previous freshman defenders to start were Davis' mentor, assistant coach Kurt Lunkenheimer, and John Harrington, four years ago.
"Starting for Princeton, man, it's a dream come true. They've had some of the best defensemen and some of the premier defenses," Davis said. "I realize I'm fortunate to be where I am, that it can be taken from me at any time."
Princeton's lineup is also likely to include Josh Sims (Severn), Chris Berrier (St. Paul's) and Ryan Mollett (Boys' Latin). Joe Rosenbaum and Brad Dumont, both from McDonogh, also should see action on one of the youngest squads in Tierney's 13-year tenure.
At Gilman, Davis earned All-Metro honors in lacrosse, wrestling and as a football running back. Davis also was The Sun's first two-time Male Athlete of The Year. But the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Davis, who runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, has given up football and wrestling to concentrate on lacrosse.
Davis' social life revolves around the players and his roommate, Nate Lindell of San Diego, a wide receiver who still wants Davis to play football next fall.
Last week, in their cramped dorm room that Marilyn Davis describes as "smaller than my walk-in closet," the Hunt Valley resident spoke about Princeton academics and his life as an African-American lacrosse player.
Last semester, Davis earned B's in math and physics, an A-minus in Spanish, and a B-minus in writing for a cumulative 3.1 grade-point average. When he struggled, the business major got a math tutor or routinely made trips to the writing center. This semester's course load includes music and black history.
Princeton has a minority enrollment of 28 percent, including Latinos, Asian Americans and African-Americans such as Davis and his former Gilman football teammate, Chisom Opara.
Being in the minority is nothing new for Davis, who can look back to Baltimore for one of the last African-Americans, Amiel Bethel, to wear a Princeton lacrosse uniform.
A junior partner to Davis' father, Reginald, who is in his 10th year as chief of neurosurgery at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, Bethel, 35, played on attack through 1987.
"I never talked to Damien directly about it, but I talked to his mom and dad," said Bethel, the son of a professor in African-American studies at Rutgers University.
"If Damien's experiences are similar to mine, his best friends are the lacrosse players, and that can transcend race."
Davis seems undaunted by his college experiences, though he occasionally longs for the comforts of home.
"I miss the home-cooking -- the creamed corn, ham, homemade pizza. My mom's sweet potato casserole is pretty good," Davis said. "You've got to learn how to live with another person, but it's not a huge adjustment, because you get more freedom and can have your room as clean or as dirty as you feel."
After meeting Bill Tierney, who has two sons on the team, Marilyn Davis had little trouble letting go of her youngest son.
"Everybody that knows me knows that I'm a hands-on mother," she said. "But, of all the coaches [who] were recruiting Damien, I felt [Tierney] really cared most about Damien as a person."
And of all the schools recruiting Davis, Princeton was the right choice for Davis, said Tierney.
"Damien's athleticism is geared more to our style. And he's taken this God-given, athletic body and this great intellect and put it together brilliantly, just like the rest of his life," said Tierney.
"He has a rare ability and drive to absorb, understand, and he's rarely going to make the same mistake twice."