Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis has had a pretty remarkable NFL career for a lightly-recruited former safety who was selected by his current team in the first round of the 2005 NFL draft. The Panthers came one game away from the Super Bowl in his rookie season, and he’s been with the team through ups and downs both individually and franchise-related.
Davis is the only player in NFL history to successfully recover from three different ACL surgeries on three separate injuries, and though he’s never made the Pro Bowl (a bizarre factoid if ever there was one), he’s more concerned with the deeds that made him the league’s 2014 Walter Payton Man of the Year.
The Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation has helped with outreach, charity and education in many ways, and it’s a cause very close to Davis' heart. As he reveals in the interview below, his commitment to helping others is rooted in his own childhood, and how he felt alone and out of place.
I’ve talked with Davis before, and he’s one of the NFL’s genuinely good people, which made his opinions about former teammate Greg Hardy in this interview even more surprising. I’ll let those stand on their own, except to say that I spoke with Davis about two hours before the Deadspin article broke, revealing the injuries to Hardy’s victim, and I have no clue whether Davis had seen those photos. It’s not unique to Davis to compartmentalize the actions of a friend or colleague—it happens all the time. Nor should it mar Davis’ own achievements on and off the field; it does, however, create a valuable discussion point for us all.
We started this interview by getting into the specifics behind Carolina’s tremendous defense, the 7–0 record and Sunday’s intriguing matchup with Green Bay. Then, it got a little deeper.
Doug Farrar: Let’s start with this great matchup you have with the Packers this Sunday. What are you seeing from Green Bay’s offense? It’s been a bit up and down this season.
Thomas Davis: Man, they are definitely a quarterback-driven team, and they go as Aaron Rodgers goes, and that’s usually pretty good. I think this year, they’ve only had one game where they didn’t fare as well, and that was last week against Denver. We understand that we have a tough matchup ahead of us, not only with Aaron Rodgers, but with his other weapons on offense. Those guys are playing pretty well, even minus Jordy Nelson.
DF: When you look at what Denver’s defense did to Green Bay's passing game, 77 total yards, what did you pick up?
TD: Denver pretty much left it pretty simple. They played man coverage, and the defensive line did a great job of getting after the quarterback with their front four. I mean, Denver is a special bunch on defense. They have a lot of guys on the back end who can cover man-to-man, and we have to mirror some of the things they were able to do. We have to get pressure on Aaron Rodgers, because if you allow him to sit back in the pocket, he’ll pick you apart.
DF: Well, you have some pretty strong guys on defense yourself, and I’ll start with you and Luke Kuechly. Kuechly came into the NFL pretty well-formed, but how has he developed since then, and how much have you played a part in that development?
TD: Well, the guy came in ready to go. He was a kid that came in ready to learn, and he wasn’t one of those guys, even though he was a top-10 pick, who came in feeling like he knew everything. He did a great job of picking up our defense early, and he came in and played his butt off. He didn’t need a whole lot of training, it was just some little tips I could offer to help make him better. I’m always willing to do that.
DF: On the front, you guys lose Greg Hardy to his drama, and Charles Johnson is hurt, but you’re still bringing pressure, and Jared Allen has been a factor of late, playing maybe twice the snaps people expected. Why is he still so effective at an age when a lot of pass-rushers have already fallen off a cliff?
TD: He’s a true competitor. He’s a guy who comes to work every day. He works his butt off, and he prepares for those situations. He’s one of those guys who's tough to keep off the field, because he's so eager to get back in there and get after it. We’re just excited to have a guy like that on this team.
DF: Defensive tackle Kawann Short is also a big, big part of that front this season. Why has this been a breakout year for him?
TD: When you look at his production, he’s a guy who’s been steady coming on over the years. We fully expected him to go out and do the things he's been able to do, because of how big he is and how athletic he is. He's a guy who's definitely capable of wreaking havoc up the middle, and really messing up a team’s game plan. We’re excited to have K.K., because he takes up a lot of attention, and allows the linebackers to do their jobs.
DF: Well, there are a lot of great defenders on your team, Seattle, Denver ... all over the league. But my midseason Defensive Player of the Year is the guy who wears number 24 for you. Josh Norman is an amazing story because he's been through it. He was benched a couple times early in his career, and it took a while for him to get going. When did the light come on for him?
TD: Josh has always been a tremendous athlete. With his ball skills and his size, I think he had the intangibles to be really, really good. But now, he's putting it all together. He’s studying a lot more, and he understands the guys he’s going against. When you put all that together, and he goes out on the field with the competitiveness he has, it’s tough to beat a guy like that. We're excited at how he’s matured over the years, and he’s playing the way a lot of us thought he was capable of playing.
DF: One of the things I attribute to good coaching is when older guys hit a team, and everyone thought they were on the wrong end of the age curve, and they prove they still can do it. You have that with Allen, with Roman Harper, with Peanut Tillman, and I don’t think defensive coordinator Sean McDermott gets nearly enough credit for that. Why is he the right coach for you?
TD: Because Coach McDermott truly understands his personnel. He understands what it takes to put players in positions to succeed. That's something he’s been able to do the whole time he's been there, and I think it really shows when you see a guy like Luke Kuechly or myself leave a game, and we don't have any falloff. Other guys come in and take their places and were still able to operate as a defensive unit—and still go out and be successful. That really shows what he's capable of doing.
DF: You've seen success with this franchise. You were one game away from the Super Bowl in 2005, your rookie season, and you were 12–4 a couple years ago. What's different about this 7–0 Panthers team?
TD: I think this team is different for a lot of reasons. One being, we’re definitely a team that’s battle-tested. We went through a lot last year, and we’ve continued to grow since Coach Rivera has been here. I truly think we understand how to win games. In the past, we were finding ways to lose, but now, this team has grown up. We go out and we compete, and we understand that in order to win football games, we have to do it as a complete unit. Not just offense, defense or special teams, but in all three phases.
DF: Let’s talk about the Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation. What does it stand for, and why is it so important to you?
TD: The Foundation is able to help so many families not only in the Charlotte area, but also back in Georgia and South Carolina with my wife and family as well. There are so many kids and families in need, with me being in the position I am, and growing up the way I did, I understand that need. We’re trying to do everything we can to help and reach everybody. We’re going to put in all the work to try and reach as many people as we can. Because no kid should have to go through what I went through, and feel like I felt when I was growing up.
DF: How did you feel when you were growing up?
TD: You know, I really felt like a lot of the things I was going through, and the struggles my mom was going though were because of me and my younger sister. Not really understanding from a financial standpoint how things worked. Growing up in the area I grew up in, where there were not a lot of jobs or opportunities, having to grow up on government assistance, and knowing that you only receive money for food once a month. That’s extremely tough. When you’re a young kid, and you see everyone else around you getting so many different things, everything they want, and you don’t really don't know why you're in a situation where you can't have those things. It eats at you, and it bothers you, but with me, I just want to make sure these kids have opportunities they might not normally have.
That was the real reason for setting up the Foundation. It’s definitely gone bigger and better than I ever imagined.
DF: It must feel great to not only help all those people, but to feel the gratitude from the families that get the help your family didn’t when you were a kid.
TD: Absolutely. It definitely feels great. That’s why, when I do the work in the community that we do, every event and everything we plan, I’m hands-on with it. Every Monday night right now, we have our Leadership Academy and I’m there for every session. I’m there for every meeting, making sure the kids understand that this is not a foundation or group that's been put on by a professional athlete—I’m actually there making sure they know that I genuinely do this because I care about them. I want to see them succeed.
DF: What are your feelings about Greg Hardy? (NOTE: Again, I asked Davis this question about an hour before the Deadspin story came out; unfortunately, I have no idea whether he's seen the photos or not).
TD: I think Greg Hardy is a great football player. I think he’s misunderstood a lot of times. Just from bring around him, I know he can be a good guy. I know he’s fiery, he's truly competitive, and he’s a guy who, from a football standpoint, you would love to have on your team.
DF: What about from a personal standpoint? Would you want him back on this team?
TD: From a personal standpoint? I mean... with him being him and what he’s capable of doing, we would have loved to have kept Greg Hardy back on this team. But unfortunately some things happened, and there’s not a whole lot that we as players can do about it, so we just keep it moving. Greg is in Dallas now, he’s enjoying his success, and we’re enjoying our success here in Carolina.