Daris Steen had been dating his future wife, Samantha, for months before he realized her father was Sgt. Rodney M. Davis.
That they were even having dinner at his Los Angeles home all those years ago was unexpected because she had stayed away from men who served in the military. But when Steen started talking about his time in the U.S. Marine Corps and pointed to his ribbons hung on a nearby wall, Samantha spoke up.
“She was looking at the wall and she says, ‘My father has the Congress Honor Medal. He served in the Marines, too,’” Steen said. “And I said, ‘The Congress what? He got the Congressional Medal of Honor?’ And she says, ‘Yes.’ And I says, ‘Wait a minute, what’s your father’s name?’ And she says, ‘Rodney Davis.’ I said, ‘You mean Sgt. Rodney Davis, the … USS Davis?’
“She’s like, ‘Yes.’”
Steen, by coincidence, served in the same unit — the 5th Marines — and lodged in the same billet that Davis had. Every time he walked into the Hall of Honor of his regiment, there was Davis’ picture. Steen had to know the name of every Medal of Honor recipient in the Hall if he was to be promoted.
But he had never, to that point, made the connection to Samantha.
“I didn’t have a history of dating men in the military, so it was almost something maybe that I avoided because of my history and experience,” she said. “That was definitely unexpected.”
Samantha Steen (nee Davis) was only 13 months old when her father was killed in action in Vietnam. But she knows the story of how he died from the numerous accounts she has heard or read since: Davis, at the age of 25, jumped on a grenade to save five fellow Marines during a firefight on Sept. 6, 1967.
“I understood what he did and that he was a hero,” Samantha said recently. “What he did was selfless. There was a great pride and honor that I had that he did that. But on the other hand, I did miss my father a lot. I had great uncles and aunts … and my mom was the best.
“But every little girl wants her dad.”
Tyler Steen said he was around 5 when he first heard about his heroic grandfather. But it wasn’t until he was 11, when he and two younger brothers traveled with their parents to Seattle to board the first U.S. Navy warship to be named after a Black Medal of Honor recipient, that he started to understand the sacrifice Davis made — like the many who were remembered this Memorial Day.
“I didn’t know the magnitude of it until I got to go on the ship and meet the crew,” said Steen, who was drafted by the Eagles last month. “And then I started to realize what he meant to people in the military. That’s when I started to change my perspective and see what kind of hero he was.”
Steen’s family history wasn’t likely mentioned in predraft scouting reports. Those write-ups are focused more on football — like the Alabama offensive lineman’s ability to bend, or his nasty on-field disposition, or that he would likely have to transition from tackle to guard in the NFL.
But the Eagles were certainly aware of his background, and more important, how his parents used their experiences in raising Tyler. While the Steens didn’t encourage their sons to follow a path into the military, they did instill in them the discipline Daris said he got from his decade-plus in the Marines.
Some characteristics are learned, some are inherent. Samantha said she has often wondered what could have compelled her father to act so courageously. But through her mother and her father’s parents, siblings and friends, she has heard countless stories about his protective nature growing up in Macon, Georgia.
Daris Steen said Davis’ eldest brother, Gordon, also told him tales of how he would shield his two younger brothers and sister from the injustices of living in the Jim Crow South.
“I remember hearing a story when he went into a store and they had to go in the back of the store, he made them wait outside so they didn’t have to deal with that,” Daris said. “He had issues where he didn’t want to sit in the back of the bus.”
And yet, when that grenade landed in a trench 8,000 miles away from a segregated America, and the five other Marines within range were white, Davis didn’t stop to think about the inequities he endured at home before giving his life. It’s a lesson the Steens said they have imparted to their sons.
“In life, sometimes you have to make difficult decisions. And we’ve always stressed that to our boys,” Daris said. “And sometimes those difficult decisions have to be made in a split second, like the situation with her father. In talking to her uncles, he didn’t all of a sudden wake up that morning and have that courage later that night.
“He clearly always had that courage if he was prepared for the situation to save those Marines.”
A level of discipline
Daris joined the Marines in 1985, about 25 years after Samantha’s father enlisted fresh out of high school. He said he was naturally drawn to the armed forces. He had relatives who served, including an uncle he said was one of the Corps’ first rescue divers, and lived in Pensacola, Fla., where Marine and Navy flight schools are based.
Including his time in the reserves and inactive duty, Daris spent 11 years in the Corps and toward the end of his military career met his future wife. Despite her father’s past, Samantha said she didn’t know much about the Marines when they started dating.
Her mother, Judy Davis, returned her and her older sister, Nicky, from London, where they were based, to America after her father died. Judy eventually went to college at Fort Valley State, not far from Macon where Rodney grew up, and moved to California with her daughters.
Samantha became an attorney and now practices law in South Florida where the Steens have raised their three sons, Tyler, Blake, and Dylan. They’ve run a tight ship.
“The Marine Corps requires a high level of discipline. And me and Samantha — we’ve pushed that on our sons,” Daris said. “You know, on Saturdays there’s no sleeping past 10 [a.m.]. No video games during the week. We made strict requirements about grade point averages.
“If your grades were great, you had the freedom of your video games on weekends and other things like that. But if you had a C, you lost your privileges.”
Tyler didn’t cause much consternation. He was an A student and as the eldest was mature at a young age, his parents said. But when he transferred from a charter school to St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Florida — a football powerhouse that produced NFL players like Michael Irvin and the Bosa brothers, Joey and Nick — there were challenges.
“When he started, I said, ‘Look, I’m not going to be the one getting you up every morning, making sure you’re ready to get out of this house on time. I will take you there and I will make sure you get there on time. But you’re the one who has the responsibility of getting up, getting yourself together, and making sure your grades are right,’” Samantha said.
“That was all on him.”
Tyler did well enough in both academics and athletics to attend Vanderbilt. He switched from the defensive line to offensive line early in his tenure and finished his career in Nashville by starting in 33 straight games. He transferred to Alabama as a graduate student and started the entire 2022 season at left tackle.
In April, the Eagles drafted him in the third round with the 65th overall selection. A week later, he credited his strict upbringing.
“As it was happening, I didn’t really appreciate it. I think now I appreciate it a lot more,” Steen said ahead of Eagles rookie minicamp. “But what [my parents] put me through and the discipline they instilled in me, I think it’s done a lot to help me get to this point and I think it’s going to do a lot to help me throughout my career.”
He has set an example for his brothers. Blake is a rising sophomore guard at Virginia. Dylan will be a high school sophomore in the fall. The boys, about 3 1/2 years apart, are naturally competitive, which has led to some epic brawling at the Steen home.
“Aw, man, you have to see it. You have a couple black belts, the baby boy is a national champion in taekwondo. … You had a bunch of boys that could fight,” Daris said. “And so, it’s constantly pulling them apart. They just look at one another and they tear into each other.”
Just recently, Daris said, he had to fix a busted-up wall after the youngest two tangled. But the brothers are businesslike in competition outside the family, their parents said. And they aren’t demonstrative on the field, which Daris said was by design and borne from his time in the Marines.
“Tyler’s not a rah-rah guy. He’s more about getting the job done, doing what he needs to do, putting in the work and going home,” said Daris, who was a walk-on football player at LSU. “None of my sons are rah-rah guys. I coached them in different sports and I didn’t allow cheering.
“You score a touchdown or make a basket, nobody on the team would cheer. All they would do is slap hands and walk back and get ready for what was next.”
‘Hell of a man’
Samantha doesn’t remember her father, but she has heard enough about him from her mother and uncles and aunts to see that her sons have some of his traits. There’s the physical: Davis stood 6-foot-5 and played basketball. Tyler is 6-6, 321 pounds. Blake is 6-5, 340. And Dylan is right behind them and catching up.
And there is the psychological:
“That protection nature — he had,” Samantha said of her father, “he had it before he joined the Marines. I don’t think that was something that was taught. I just think it was something in him. And I do see that in Tyler — that protectiveness in his brothers.”
Davis had been in Vietnam for only three weeks when his unit, Company B of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, entered the Quang Nam province on a search and clear mission during “Operation Swift” and came under heavy fire from North Vietnamese forces in early September 1967.
Davis, who was Bravo Company’s third-highest ranking member, disregarded “the enemy hand grenades and high volume of small-arms and mortar fire” and “moved from man to man shouting words of encouragement to each of them while firing and throwing grenades at the onrushing enemy,” according to his Medal of Honor citation.
When an enemy grenade landed in the trench the Marines had retreated to and amidst his men, Davis “instantly threw himself upon the grenade, absorbing with his body the full and terrific force of the explosion,” the citation read.
Lance Cpl. Gary Petrous, who was an assistant machine gunner in Bravo Company, recounted what eyewitness Pfc. Randy Leedom told him.
“He says, Sgt. Davis bumped him and landed on the grenade,” Petrous said during a short documentary on Davis’ Congressional Medal of Honor Society page. “And he said, ‘I could see him like he had recovered a fumbled football.’ And he said the grenade went off, he lifted off the ground like this and came back down.”
Samantha said she didn’t know that all the Marines her father had saved from injury or possible death were white until much later in life. She has met some of the survivors, but said her uncles and aunt Debra Ray Davis were the ones they mostly kept in touch with since Rodney’s death.
On a visit to Davis’ gravesite in Macon more than a decade ago, Leedom noticed that Linwood Cemetery was in disarray. He and other Marines started fundraising and along with community leaders were able to erect a new monument to Davis and rehab the burial grounds.
They were also able to fund a scholarship in his name. There are many landmarks in Macon — from a civic center to part of an interstate — that honor Davis and keep the memory of his valiant act alive for others to be inspired.
“When I was thinking about how Rodney would perceive his legacy, it came to my mind that he would be the first one to say, ‘I don’t need all of this,’” Debra Ray said during the documentary. “He made a sacrifice to save people. He didn’t ask anybody, ‘How long have I known you? What color’s your skin? What’s your religion? What’s your sexual orientation?’
“I think that’s the legacy I want. I want people to come together and see each other as people.”
The Steens have tried to uphold that legacy. Daris noted that Tyler’s draft party was diverse and without an ethnic majority. But Samantha acknowledged that she’s still ambivalent when talking about her father. As Daris noted, a medal and ship can’t replace the fact that she lost him at a young age.
It’s probably why she initially didn’t tell her future husband about her father.
“She kept it a secret for like four or five months. Never even a whisper,” Daris said. “I can definitely say now that I stopped pulling out the Marine Corps stories or whatever I did after she finally told me about him.
“But it was a hell of a story. And he was a hell of a man.”