NORMAL – As a 15-year-old high school freshman in Columbus, Miss., Brady Davis met the love of his life.
“Obviously, the beauty struck me from the beginning,” said Davis, recalling the story on a Saturday morning in August outside the Illinois State University Kaufman Football Building. “As I continued to get to know her, it was how motivated and determined she was to be successful.”
For Michaela, now his wife of two years, she wasn’t always so sure about the tall kid who sought her attention. You see, she was a junior and already thinking about college when Brady walked in the doors of New Hope High School in Columbus, a town of almost 25,000 people in east central Mississippi, just a few miles from the Alabama border.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘This boy is too young,’” she said with a laugh. “For a while, I thought, ‘This is going to just stay best friends.’ To him, it was always going to be a relationship. And for me, I was always deny, deny, deny.”
Today, two years into their marriage, the couple is enjoying life in Normal, where Brady is one of the top Football Championship Subdivision quarterbacks in the country. They’re nine hours away from home and family – in a place they never imagined they’d be.
But their constantly growing group of friends, Michaela’s rewarding work and the football team’s success has made central Illinois a rewarding chapter in their marriage.
During her senior year, the couple got closer as Brady continued “the chase,” as he calls it.
Hanging out and talking felt like an hour, but it was really five hours.
“We didn’t ever run out of things to talk about,” she said. “It just came natural to us. He’s the most outgoing person I know. He could talk to that plant over there.
“Finally (I realized), every quality I ever wanted in a husband, he had. I know that’s hard to see at 15 and 17. The more I got to know him, I thought, ‘He’s someone I don’t want to be without.’”
The couple married on a scorching hot July day in 2017 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., home of the University of Alabama, Michaela’s alma mater and just a 45-minute drive east of Columbus.
Five years after his chase began, and as a 20-year-old college quarterback chasing a starting spot at the University of Memphis, Brady was a married man.
Young and married
The couple, at least statistically, is an anomaly.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more American men and women are putting off marriage until later in life. According to 2018 data, the average age of a couple getting married was 28.8 years.
Even more rare is the fact that Brady, a redshirt junior in football, is a married college student. Though Illinois State does not keep data on married students, according to the university, a report by CampusExplorer.com notes that approximately 7 percent of undergraduate students in the U.S. are married.
“I think it kind of threw some people for a loop,” Brady said of their wedding plans. “To the people who knew us really well, it wasn’t a surprise. We had been together a while. We wanted to start our life together. It was kind of our Southern Baptist background.”
“It made sense,” Michaela said. “We knew it was what we wanted to do. It was the right time. All of our friends were in one area.”
Off to college
Michaela’s college choice came down to two schools – Southern Mississippi and Mississippi State.
Technically, it wasn’t much of a choice.
Growing up 30 minutes from Starkville, Miss., the home of MSU, she and her family were regulars at Bulldogs football games. Her father works as the university’s postmaster.
She began working toward a career in sports broadcasting, even volunteering for the ESPNU television network when it broadcast Bulldog sporting events.
Brady transferred to Starkville High School as a senior, eventually earning a scholarship at Memphis.
At the same time, Michaela decided she wanted a better academic opportunity at Alabama.
“Bama had a bigger program, more equipment and the program was more established,” she said.
Though she eventually changed her major to communications, Michaela graduated, got married in 2017 and joined Brady in Memphis, a city they both loved.
Making Memphis home
The newlyweds quickly adjusted to being in Memphis, where Brady was competing to start for the Tigers.
Brady’s father is originally from Memphis and there are family members in the area. The couple also had friends galore living in west Tennessee.
“The first year of marriage was pretty easy for us,” Michaela said. “We had a great group of friends that were a good support system. Our family was two hours away. Everything kind of fit perfectly in Memphis.”
Everything, except the football side of things, that is.
Brady redshirted in 2015, then suffered a knee injury that caused him to sit out the 2016 season.
In 2017, he backed up Riley Ferguson, one of three Memphis teammates who was in his wedding, then felt like his big break would come in 2018.
Soon, he began to feel unsure about his future after the 2017 season.
“He wasn’t himself,” Michaela said. “It’s hard to watch someone you love put so much work and passion into something and get nothing back.”
They began to talk about options, but Brady decided to complete spring practice early in 2018.
“I would come home and she’d say, ‘How’d it go?’” Brady said. “I’d say I was the best one out there. There’s no doubt I’m going to start. All my teammates want me to start.”
After being in competition for the starting job, Brady said the spring game included time spent only with the third- and fourth-string teams.
“He came home and we looked at each other and said, ‘It’s time to go,’” Michaele recalled
Making a new home
Brady admitted his football resume wasn’t exactly robust.
“I had one carry for one yard in my college career,” he said. “So I hadn’t done anything.”
Plenty of schools called--“five or six” in the Missouri Valley Football Conference--including ISU.
“I felt like I was his manager,” Michaela said. “I did all this research. We emailed all this film. I’d go sit in the meetings with the coaches.”
In the end, an established coaching staff led by Brock Spack and a talent-laden roster made Illinois State his choice.
“Playing for this coaching staff, that’s the best part for me,” Brady said.
He beat out previous starter Jake Kolbe, then threw for 19 touchdowns and only five interceptions last fall.
While Brady helped the Redbirds score nearly a touchdown per game more than the previous season, it was Michaela who felt out of place.
She decided to delay getting a job, stay at home and take care of their two Huskie dogs during last season.
“I about went crazy,” she said. “The first six months, I probably cried every day. It was awful. Moving back to a college town, I thought, “Man, I feel old.’ … He would come home and be the happiest I had seen him in years. I felt like I was being very selfish.”
She missed seeing her 10-year-old brother, her two sisters and the rest of her family. She joked that maybe a long-distance marriage might be the answer.
This time, it was Brady who offered encouragement during tough times.
“It was hard to come home and see how sad she was,” he said.
The wakeup call for Michaela was simply waking up one morning.
“One day, I just stopped feeling sorry for myself,” she said. “I said, ‘I’m going to get a job and go find a community of people.’”
She bonded with Aubrey Moore, the girlfriend of ISU defensive end Romeo McKnight, who transferred from Iowa and joined the team at the same time Brady did.
“We’ve been attached at the hip ever since,” Michaela said of Moore.
Michaela and Brady joined a Bible study group on Thursday nights at Vale Church in Bloomington with young couples just like them.
She now works at Bloomington’s Luxe Boutique as a fashion product photographer and appreciates the immense knowledge she has gained from her boss, Erin Dillard.
“She took me under her wing and showed me the ropes of fashion,” Michaela said. “I can’t imagine my life without her.”
Michaela recently started a second job, doing social media work and photography for Special Olympics Illinois.
Like Brady’s renewed football career, Michaela has plenty to be happy about.
“We have a great group of friends,” she said. “We have ‘family’ dinners, we like to call them.”
On the move again?
The future has plenty of unknowns, but Brady’s football fortunes are promising.
The Redbirds have a strong chance of returning to the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2016 with Brady at the helm.
He was recently named to the Senior Bowl Watch List of FCS players in the running for the annual postseason showcase for NFL teams.
Pro scouts know his name and are finding their way to ISU games and practices.
“If you would’ve told me two years ago that (I’d) be on the Senior Bowl Watch List and shaking scouts’ hands …,” he said. “I definitely see a brighter future.”
Michaela said Brady thought about quitting football two years ago, but the game has provided plenty of joy since coming to Normal.
“It’s surreal to me,” she said. “He’s in such a different situation now.”
There’s one situation, though, that the couple hasn’t solved in central Illinois.
“If there’s one thing, it’s sweet tea, man,” Brady said, shaking his head. “They don’t have any good sweet tea around here.”