Thomas Davis is one of the leading contenders for Sports Illustrated's 2015 Sportsman of the Year. You can see the full list and the entire series of essays that make the argument for each candidate here.
It’s Monday and Thomas Davis is spending it like he spends all Mondays without a game: convening with underprivileged Charlotte-area middle-schoolers in hopes of inspiring them to reach their full potential academically and philanthropically. Davis’s Youth Leadership Academy, which annually awards two college scholarships, is the signature program of his Defending Dreams Foundation, yet it’s only a glimpse into Davis’s outsized heart. He’s always giving. Like two weeks ago when Davis partnered with a local food bank and put together Thanksgiving bags to feed 2,000 local families.
The Panthers linebacker, now in his 11th season, is best known as a stalwart of the community, and the NFL recognized his service by honoring him with the prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year award in January. Davis is driven by an impoverished childhood spent in a single-parent home where Christmas presents were a distant dream and self-blame was omnipresent. Yet there’s an innate nature to Davis that transcends his upbringing.
The philanthropy alone makes Davis a strong contender for Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. No one has embodied the spirit of sportsmanship and seized the fleeting platform he’s been given quite like Davis. But he also happens to be a ferocious football player having the best season of his career.
Davis has quietly succeeded for years, topping 100 tackles for the past three seasons. He’s on pace to eclipse that mark again, by a wide margin, and is currently the Panthers’ leading tackler. Outside linebackers in a 4-3 defense are often overshadowed by their flashier, sack-nabbing edge rushers in a 3–4. But not this year, at least not for Davis. His level of play has been elevated to the point that discerning Pro Bowl voters have taken notice—Davis currently leads all outside linebackers. Other coaches in the league have taken notice, too. After Week 7’s 27–16 win over Philadelphia, Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott got a call from an undisclosed coach to specifically admire one play in particular: Davis dropping shifty speedster Darren Sproles for a one-yard loss.
“That is awesome fundamentals. It’s a lost art,” McDermott told the Charlotte Observer the coach relayed. “To make that tackle in space, with nobody else around, and a back of Sproles’ quality, I think is phenomenal fundamentals and it’s a leader leading by example.”
For Davis, the Pro Bowl recognition, the SI Sportsman of the Year nomination and the sheer appreciation of his mechanics is the culmination of a storied career that keeps reaching new heights.
In actuality, Davis should be retired now. From 2010 to 2011, he suffered three ACL tears in a 23-month time span. On the same knee. Players return all the time from an ACL tear, once in a while they come back from two ACL tears, but never from three. Until Davis.
Davis is the ultimate fighter. The ultimate inspiration. The ultimate leader.
Standing on the stage in Phoenix to accept his Walter Payton Man of the Year award this January, he made a poignant plea to his fellow NFL players.
“Let’s take charge. Dare to be different. Let’s step up and be a village of guys who make a difference. Let’s show these kids how much we care about them,” he said through a stream of tears.
It was a poignant message that dug at the crux of the NFL's current landscape. Davis is unequivocally doing his part and then some, all while performing at the highest level of his career on an undefeated team. Thomas Davis is already the Man of the Year. He deserves to be SI's Sportsman of the Year as well.