SAN JOSE — In his soul, Thomas Davis thought he was finished.
“Nobody comes back from that,” he wistfully thought, his mind racing as he sat on the trainers’ table at Bank of America Stadium.
It was Week 2, Sept. 18, 2011, the second half of the Carolina Panthers‘ 30–23 loss to the Green Bay Packers. But Davis was thinking about the future, his right knee throbbing the way it had twice before. He’d be 29 the following season, he was due an $8-million bonus, and as Davis looked down at the scars beside the kneecap, he knew what would come next: This would be his third ACL tear, and no known NFL player had come back from that before.
“My career is over,” Davis told himself quietly, while more than 70,000 Panthers roared, when then-Carolina kicker Olindo Mare drilled a field goal to cut Green Bay’s lead to seven.
He looked up into the stands to spot his wife, Kelly. They locked eyes. He couldn’t keep his composure long, then he dropped his head.
“I was like ‘All right, we’re done,’” she told herself.
The MRI the next day was a formality. On Sept. 29 he went under the knife for his third ACL reconstruction in as many years.
When he went into the clinic that day, he was just hoping life after football would be okay. When he came out of the post-recovery fog, Dr. James Andrews, who performed the procedure, told him, “Thomas, surgery went well. You can come back and play from this. Let’s get it done. Let’s get it fixed up and play again.”
Davis still wasn’t sure. Ron Rivera, on the other hand, had other ideas. The Panthers head coach arranged a meeting with owner Jerry Richardson and their veteran linebacker.
“I’ve never doubted you, Thomas,” Rivera told him.
So the idea of coming back started creeping into his mind. He came home and spoke to his wife about it. The two prayed together, then consulted with their spiritual advisor. They spoke about it some more. Kelly looked at her husband and told him he could do it.
Davis went back to the Panthers facility and sat back down with his head coach.
“I looked at his face, and I really believed he was going to come back,” Rivera said.
Davis told him, “Coach, all I want is a chance.” Rivera gave him a steely look and replied, “I’ll give you a chance, Thomas. ’Cause I believe in you.”
Davis rehabbed again. Davis came back again. Davis became an all-pro linebacker.
Five years later, Rivera explains his decision quite simply. “I can’t coach what he can do,” the Riverboat Gambler told me in San Jose this week. “He’s got a tremendous amount of athleticism and speed that I can’t coach.
“And,” Rivera added, “he’s the heart and soul of who those guys are.”
“That’s what Thomas is,” Luke Kuechly was saying on Tuesday. “He’s been through the most, he’s seen everything.”
Raised by his mother and grandmother in Shellman, Ga., Davis was offered one of the last scholarships from Mark Richt at the University of Georgia coming out of high school. There, in Athens, there was a mantra in every Bulldogs practice, repeated in team meetings: “Finish the play,” coaches would yell.
Davis has turned that into a life philosophy.
“That’s the way I raise my kids. I teach them the same ways and the same values I learned,” he says. “If you start a sport, if you start any kind of activity, you finish it. And that’s the way I live my life.”
“He pushes right through anything,” his wife told me. “He still helps the kids with their homework, he still helps at mass, he still comes to our leadership council we have. He just does his daily routine as if nothing else has happened. That’s it.”
So when it came to working his way back to the NFL in 2012? “That’s his thing,” Kelly Davis grinned. “Once he starts something, he finishes it.”
Rivera says it this way: “There’s a certain conviction to who Thomas Davis is as a young man.”
Ryan Kalil, Carolina’s Pro Bowl centre, sees it in the facility on a daily basis. Davis is one of the first to show, one of the last to leave. “How to train, how to prepare, how to practise, how to be a pro, it sets the tone for our entire locker room,” Kalil said.
Then Kalil pushed the pool-feed microphone away, and leaned in. “And these young guys, when they see that? That’s how they learn. Now they’re compelled to finish.”
Kuechly hears it on the field if his counterpart has elevated his level, and he hasn’t. “His competitiveness, man. He’ll just throw little barbs at me during the game. It keeps me going. It gives me that energy.”
That extra lift. That extra gear. The afternoon following the NFC title game—in which a freak injury shattered his right forearm—Davis went under the knife again. He had 12 screws and a plate fastened to his arm, and two days later he was in the team facility as if nothing was wrong. On Monday here in the Bay Area, he was practising. Yesterday, he visited with the training staff for three rehab sessions while getting fitted for a sophisticated brace that will help him play in Super Bowl 50.
“After three ACLs, the arm is like breaking a finger nail,” Kelly Davis said.
“Without a doubt, I will be playing Super Bowl Sunday,” her husband said.
Finish the drill. Finish the play. Finish the rehab. Finish the season. Thomas Davis long ago thought he was finished. Sunday, he’ll start. And it’s only the beginning.