James Davis knew it was time to return to Clemson. Again.

The former Tigers running back led the team in rushing yards in each of his four seasons (2005–08) and has remained connected to the University and the football program since his playing days. Through the years, he has accepted invitations to speak to the team, attended games, and taken young athletes to the annual Orange and White Spring Game to give them an up-close look at big-time college football. 

But when Davis arrived on campus last summer, it was for a different purpose: to finish his degree and earn his Clemson diploma almost 20 years after he began. He is on track to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s in sociology.  

Davis cites his children as his main motivator and inspiration, particularly his daughter. A senior in high school, she had been unsure about attending college. Davis wanted to set a positive example.

“She just wanted to graduate from high school and probably go right into work,” Davis says. “But me getting my degree, I just wanted to show her how important it was … and now she wants to go to college. So, I think that helped out a lot.” 

Clemson Athletics’ Tiger Trust program allows former student-athletes like Davis to return to school and finish their education. Since the program was formalized in 2015, 51 former student-athletes have graduated, including 18 football players. IPTAY covers the cost of tuition, housing and associated fees. 

“We want all of our student-athletes to leave Clemson with a degree,” says Matthew Lombardi, senior associate athletic director of athletic academic services. “The times that they do not are largely because they have an opportunity to play professionally. When they decide they’re ready to come back and get that degree, Tiger Trust provides both the academic and financial support to do so.”

Being back on campus offered Davis another opportunity that aligned with his career goals: For the 2023 Clemson Football season, he served as a student assistant running backs coach. Davis has prior experience working in youth athletic programs, mentoring and training high school football players in the Atlanta area — among them Tigers  cornerback Nate Wiggins. For Davis, being around a top college coaching staff presented a valuable learning experience that made returning to school even more appealing.

It also reunited him with C.J. Spiller, his former teammate and the current running backs coach. As the one-two punch in the Tigers’ backfield from 2006–08, the pair was dubbed “Thunder and Lightning” for their complementary styles of play. Regarded among Clemson’s all-time great players, Davis and Spiller rank third and fourth, respectively, in career rushing yards in program history. 

This past season, Davis got an insider’s look at another dynamic Clemson running back duo in Will Shipley and Phil Mafah. 

“I know me and C.J. can relate a lot to those guys, and we can give them the pointers on how it was when we were here and what it takes,” Davis says. “I think just being around those guys and motivating them and just having an extra eye on what I see out there on the field, I think it definitely helps C.J., and it definitely helps the guys on the team.” 

Following the conclusion of the 2023 season, and with his diploma soon in hand, Davis hopes to eventually find his way back to Clemson Football in a professional capacity.  

“It’s my second home,” he says, “so I’m going to always be excited to be around football here at Clemson.”

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