As defensive coordinator Sean McDermott made his way through the locker room Monday night, he noticed one of his players wasn’t celebrating with the rest after the Carolina Panthers’ 24-20 win against New England.
Linebacker Thomas Davis, who had 17 tackles against the Patriots, was too spent, McDermott said.
McDermott said the scene almost brought a tear to his eye.
“That’s why we do what we do,” McDermott said. “That’s the sport. That’s the great part of what we see.
“And (Monday) night, you’re talking about great moments in sports, that was a great moment in sports.”
Davis’ play through 10 games – 83 tackles, three sacks, an interception and a forced fumble – has coach Ron Rivera calling for him to be named to the Pro Bowl.
That Davis is in this moment at all, bolstering Carolina’s third-ranked defense, is amazing.
The nine-year veteran is believed to be the first NFL player to return from three reconstructive surgeries to the same knee. His resilience – he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in 2009, 2010 and 2011 – has inspired teammates and opponents alike.
“He’s just a born leader on and off the field,” Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “You look at what happened to him on the field and how he overcame that and still plays hard and is playing the best football of his career – to me, it’s overwhelming.”
But what Davis does off the field may be just as overwhelming.
When Munnerlyn was drafted in 2009, he says, it was Davis who helped him adapt to the NFL and showed him where to go – and where not to go – on the field and off.
“He’s like a big brother to me,” Munnerlyn said. “If I have any problems or need someone to talk to, I go to T.D.”
Davis, also the team’s NFL player representative, has similar bonds with other teammates. He’s the godfather to wide receiver Brandon LaFell’s 3-year-old son, B.J.
LaFell said Davis and his wife, Kelly, immediately took in LaFell and his fiancé when the receiver was drafted by the Panthers in 2010.
LaFell acknowledges he needed the help. He says he sometimes was late as a rookie, didn’t take care of his body as well as he should and didn’t handle off-the-field distractions well.
“He was one of the guys I looked up to because he was so positive with the stuff he does in the community,” LaFell said. “T.D. showed me how to become professional and how to handle myself on and off the field.”
That includes in the community, where LaFell was taken by Davis’ professionalism and generosity.
Last week, Davis and his foundation packed 2,000 Thanksgiving bags at a Harris Teeter for families in need.
Tuesday, after the Panthers’ trip to Miami to play the Dolphins on Sunday, Davis’ foundation and several Panthers players will feed the women and children living at the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope.
For Davis, it’s all part of the deal. He says he takes the responsibility of being a team captain very seriously, and tries to pay forward the help and advice he got early in his career.
“When I came in, without a doubt I had some great veteran leadership and guys to show me my way,” Davis said. “Mike Minter, Mike Rucker, Julius Peppers and those guys. We had a great veteran team, so I looked up to those guys as a young one.
“Now I’m one of the older guys on this team, so I just try to return that to those guys.”
Misery has company
Davis is the first player to come back from three ACL surgeries to the same knee, but he’s no longer the only one.
New York Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas joined the short list this year after tears in 2005, 2011 and 2012.
The players met two years ago at a Pro Athletes Outreach convention, a Christian-based conference for players and coaches. Davis said he reached out “immediately” to Thomas, who said Davis was just a phone call away throughout the rehab process.
“It was good for the fact that I knew mentally, physically, financially, everything that I was experiencing, he’s been through and overcame, and it could give me peace of mind,” Thomas said this week during a teleconference. “It was great the friendship was already developed, and just his words of wisdom, his encouragement and him reaching out definitely helped me throughout my process.”
Davis told Thomas to take it slow, listen to his body and not push his knee.
Davis and Thomas spoke before and after Carolina’s 38-0 win against the Giants in Week 3 of this year. Davis had five tackles and a sack in Carolina’s dominating performance. Thomas, whose Giants were winless at that point, wasn’t in the best of moods after the game.
Still, Davis had more advice.
“He was telling me, ‘Make sure when you’re covering this route and you put yourself in that position, you got to take that extra step. You can’t play like you used to because you’ll put your knee in a vulnerable position,’” Thomas recalled.
“He literally grabbed me and showed me. That’s just T.D. at his best.”
Three weeks later, Davis had two sacks and nine tackles in a 35-10 win against Minnesota. The performance earned him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
“I watched his game when they played Minnesota, and he had a lot of tackles and he was flying across the board, and I was like, man, he’s getting back to his old self,” Thomas said. “And I really didn’t challenge myself but I said, you know what? You can do that. If he can do it, you can do it.”
Two weeks later, Thomas played in every snap of the Giants’ 16-7 win against the Eagles, recording 11 tackles and a sack that caused a fumble.
He was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week.
After missing most of three years with knee injuries, Davis had a 118-tackle season in 2012. That had Panthers teammates and coaches calling for him to be named Comeback Player of the Year, an award that eventually went to Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
Manning and Vikings running back Adrian Peterson had been considered the runaway favorites for Comeback Player of the Year, a realization that bothered Davis.
Partly because of the snub, Davis said, he doesn’t have high expectations for the Pro Bowl this year. Despite selection-worthy numbers, he isn’t in the top 10 in fan voting for outside linebackers.
But he said he knows why.
“I understand what’s going on in the league as far as the guys who are pass rushers who go and get 10 or 12 sacks, they get the outside linebacker positions,” he said. “The 4-3 (defense) linebackers really get looked over because those guys get all of those spots. It’s unfortunate but it’s where we are in this league.
“But I just play this game for the love and try to win games.”
He has done that this season. The Panthers are 7-3, and Davis has been key despite a gnarly, month-old laceration on the bridge of his nose that gets deeper with each game.
He’s tried five or six different helmets, but they haven’t kept him from re-aggravating the cut, which has quarterback Cam Newton calling him Buster Douglas, after the former heavyweight boxer.
Davis tried stitches once, but the cut opened up again after the first hit of a game.
“I’m not focused on it,” Davis said. “It’s something I have to deal with. My wife still loves me with my nose like this.”
And it’s not like Davis hasn’t had worse injuries.
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