We can debate the relative merits of Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson as NFL comeback player of the year candidates until we're as blue as a Seahawks jersey, but shame on us if we don't interject Thomas Davis in the discussion.
After missing the entire 2011 season because of a series of neck surgeries, Manning has led the Broncos to a 9-3 record and first place in the AFC West. Peterson, who suffered a torn ACL and MCL in a game on Christmas Eve last year, has made an amazing return for the Vikings and leads the league in rushing.
Then there is Davis. The Carolina Panthers linebacker has come back from not one, not two, but three knee reconstructions. On the same knee. No other NFL player has done that. While Davis is justifiably proud to conquer such insurmountable odds, his motivation is more altruistic.
"I feel like I'm doing this for guys who are to come," Davis said. "I'm doing it for the guys who are going to go through injuries and the teams that are going to have to make decisions on guys that have been injured. Don't give up on the player. And if you're a player, don't give up on your dreams."
It would have been easy for Davis, 29, to give up last year. In the second game of the season, against Green Bay, he had just planted his leg when a Panthers lineman inadvertently leg-whipped him in the right knee. For the third time in less than three years, Davis' ACL was torn.
When he came into the team facility the next day, Davis told head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion that he didn't think he could cope with going through a third, arduous rehabilitation. Davis already had experienced that after tearing his ACL in a November 2009 game in New Orleans and again after injuring the knee in a non-contact drill during OTAs in the spring of 2010.
"I knew I was on my third strike," Davis said. "Nobody had really been given an opportunity to come back from three knee surgeries. No one had ever tried. So at that point, I just knew it was over. I knew I was done. That's how I felt in my heart."
But Davis went home and talked to his wife, Kelly, about his situation. They prayed together with the Panthers' team chaplain. Kelly and the chaplain encouraged Davis to try to make a third comeback if that's what he wanted.
On the following day, Davis told Vermillion he wanted to go a third time. Davis also sat down with Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and general manager Marty Hurney, who told him that if he were willing to put himself through another rehab, they were willing to give him another chance.
"I had a lot of people questioning the decision, a lot of people telling me that if this was happening now 'you may just want to shut it down because you never know what it's going to do to you later on in life,' " Davis said. "All I knew at that point was how good I felt when I was on the field after the second time. I wanted to see what was going to happen. I didn't know if I would be in a position where I would actually be able to come back and play football. I just knew I wanted to."
Davis' third knee surgery was more complicated than the first two, when doctors had grafted part of his hamstring and, then, a patellar tendon to his right knee. This time, they took a patellar graft from his left knee. So, in effect, Davis had double knee surgery.
Although the third rehab process was much like the first two, the trainers decided to change the strengthening part, based on Davis' body structure.
"I think the biggest thing with my body and the way my knees are made, when I did strengthening squats, my knees would kind of buckle in," Davis said. "So we focused on keeping my legs wider and building the strength from the outside in. I think that made a world of difference."
The Panthers went into this season with a plan of working Davis back onto the field gradually. In training camp, he had been hampered by some nagging pain in his hamstring and calf, but that was residual effects from his muscles firing up. In the season opener in Tampa, Davis played in the Panthers' nickel package and was a gunner on the punting team.
"The coaches did a great job of sticking to their guns and sticking to the plan they had set for me -- pretty much to protect me from me," Davis said. "But the competitive edge started to kick in and it started to get frustrating, because I wanted to be out there competing with my teammates on a down-to-down basis."
After linebacker Jon Beason was sidelined with injuries after four games -- he eventually had surgery for cartilage damage in his right knee and a torn labrum in his left shoulder -- the 6-1, 235-pound Davis returned to the starting lineup at weakside linebacker. He has started eight games and is the team's third-leading tackler (72 tackles, 46 solos). He also has two pass defenses, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
"It doesn't surprise me he's playing well," Panthers coach Ron Rivera told beat reporters in early November. "He's always had the desire, always had that want-to, and he's got tremendous athletic ability. He's got some football savvy, a natural feel for the game."
A first-round draft pick (14th overall) in 2005 after playing three years at Georgia, Davis became a full-time starter in 2006. He started 14 games that season, all 16 games in both 2007 and 2008, and the first seven in '09 before the game in New Orleans, in which he planted his right foot one way, tried to move in the opposite direction, and tore his ACL for the first time.
He missed the entire 2010 season and then played in only two games last year before suffering the third ACL injury. It would have been easy for Davis to have hosted a pity party during any of his three comebacks, but he managed to stay upbeat and motivated.
"Through each rehab, I knew that I had a goal I set for myself, and I knew what it would take to attain it," he said. "I knew I couldn't sit around and pout and be sad about the situation. I knew that if I did that, I would never accomplish the goals I set. I've never been a quitter at anything I've done in my life, and I told myself I was going to make this thing work and make it happen."
Davis had plenty of help during his third comeback. In addition to Kelly's support, he cited Dr. James Andrews for performing the surgery "and giving me a guideline to follow;" Vermillion; and Panthers assistant trainers Mark Shermansky and Greg Hawthorne. But Davis is the one who showed the will to succeed.
That character trait was instilled in Davis while he grew up in a single-parent home -- his grandmother helped him mom raise him -- in the tiny town of Shellman, Ga., where "everybody knows everybody," Davis said. The town still doesn't have traffic lights. Davis played football and basketball at Randolph-Clay High (student population: 471 back then) and received little exposure. The only major college to offer him an athletic scholarship was Georgia. Had the Bulldogs not shown interest, Davis probably would have gone to Grambling.
"I tell people I was going to wear the 'G' one way or another," he said.
After three reconstructions, you would think that Davis' right knee might look like a loopy road map. But the biggest scar is on his left knee.
"You'd be amazed," Davis said. "I have some very small scars [on the right knee]. You might even think that they were just some little scratches I had."
Surprisingly, Davis doesn't think about the risk of suffering another knee injury once he steps on to the field.
"I wear my knee brace and I say a prayer before every game," he said. "I just ask the Lord to protect me and watch over me, and if it's in His plans, I won't get injured. If it's not, then I'll have to deal with whatever happens. As a player, you can't go out there and think about injuries or getting hurt. You have to go out there and play without hesitation. If I'm thinking about knee injuries, then I'm not going to be the best player I can be for this team."
Last year, Thomas earned the Ed Block Courage Award as voted on by his teammates. The award is named in honor of former Baltimore Colts athletic trained Ed Block and is given annually to a member of each NFL team.
This year, he should be a contender for comeback player of the year. Manning and Peterson may be co-favorites, partly because they are more prominent players and put up more distinctive numbers, but let's not leave Davis out of the running.
He has climbed a mountain no other NFL player has conquered.