After tearing his ACL three times in three years, Thomas Davis fought back. The Panthers linebacker now is having his finest season as a pro, but his greatest achievement doesn't have anything to do with football. Plus, a reader mailbag
We’ll see about Tony Romo’s availability Sunday night, though I’m trusting Adam Schefter saying he’s out and facing surgery on a herniated disk, despite Jerry Jones assertion to the Dallas Morning News Monday night that, “There is nothing structurally that will rule him out if he feels good and is cleared to play—nothing.” Two things: You’ve got to hand it to Romo for playing with a back problem for some or most of Sunday’s game, and for leading Dallas from a nine-point deficit with eight minutes to play to the win at Washington. And this is why they paid Kyle Orton like a borderline starter before the 2012 season. I thought Philadelphia would win Sunday’s game before the injury anyway, but this just puts an exclamation point on it.
Every year, I am asked to vote in the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year balloting. Each team nominates one player, and the bios of 32 players are sent out (with what a player does off the field as important as, or moreso than, what he does on the field), and I digest the information and vote for my top three. Each year, this gives me a chance to see some of the good people in the league and the good deeds they do.
This year was a strong year for the men of the year. I decided that, in this Christmas Week, I would take a column and write about one of the players who impressed me this season, and let him represent the good guys in the NFL who do a lot and don’t get noticed very much for it. I spoke with Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis last week, and he’s got quite a story to tell.
Davis, from the small town of Shellman, Ga., was a first-round pick of the Panthers in 2005. He was having a good but not spectacular career when, midway through the 2009, he tore his ACL in his right knee playing for the Panthers. The following June, working out in the Panthers’ off-season program, he re-tore the ligament, a devastating blow. But that gave him all of the 2010 to rehab the injury, and the knee felt strong entering the 2011 season. In his second game that season, against Green Bay, he tore it for a third time.
Last season, Davis played well—and didn’t aggravate the knee. This year, through 15 games, he’s having the best year of his pro life. His 117 tackles, four sacks and eight passes defensed are career bests, and his athletic, leaping interception of a Drew Brees pass while dropping into coverage was a huge play in Carolina’s NFC South-changing victory Sunday.
“After my third time (tearing the ACL),’’ Davis said, “I just figured that day, ‘I put up a good fight. It’s over.’ But when I went home that night my wife asked me if, in my heart, I thought I was done with the game. And I just figured I had to have surgery regardless. Why not try?’’
That’s the way Davis lives his life. In his words, what he’s doing with his Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation, and why he’s made it a part of his every-day life:
“It was never about starting a foundation and letting somebody else run it. It was about being involved with something I believed in, and touching as many lives as I can. I call it the Defending Dreams Foundations because these kids have dreams and aspirations, as I did. But so many of them, like me, financially can't get things done. I was that way, growing up in a small city of 900 or 1,000, Shellman, Ga. Kids there don’t have much. They don't feel they can achieve their dreams. The poverty level is high there. My mom struggled. She was a single parent. We’d have Christmas without getting a gift. It was tough. That’s one of the things we do—we get gifts for at least 300 kids now. In Charlotte, as soon as I leave practice today, I go out and purchase all of the gifts with my board members, and we put them in a U-Haul, 5 board members, and try to help those kids. We do it for the kids in Shellman too. I couldn’t go this year but my wife, who is the executive director of the foundation, drove there and helped four or five families in dire need.
As a young kid, I knew my circumstances, I didn't have the opportunity. I know as a leader of the community, I can give back. I want to be part of the solution.
“Every summer we do a book bag giveaway ... 300 kids. We go out and buy the book bags and all the supplies: pencils, rulers, papers, crayons, all the school supplies you can think of, and we put them together in my living room. At Thanksgiving, we took the 160 women at the Salvation Army Center of Hope, rented a bus, and took them in two shifts to a restaurant that closed down so we could give them a real Thanksgiving dinner. We take them out of their circumstances for a few hours and try to put smiles on their faces. All they are thinking is enjoying a real meal at a restaurant and getting out of their circumstances for a few hours. It is so good to see.
“What am I proud of? … Well, Shellman, Ga., never had a playground when I lived there. Not even a simple, tiny playground. That really was disappointing to me. So we decided to go back and put in a huge playground—swings, slides, monkey bars, grills—and the city put in a drinking fountain. So now they have somewhere the kids can go and play. The city is divided by railroad tracks, and I think the playground, which is used by all kids, has helped bring some parts of that city together. Driving by, I get so excited for the kids, having something I never had.
“I do things like that because I love to see kids have smiles on their faces. As a young kid, I knew my circumstances, I didn't have the opportunity. I know as a leader of the community, I can give back. I want to be part of the solution.”
Now for your email, which was heavy on another Panther:
YOUR TWEETS STINK. In case you haven’t heard, your tweets about Cam Newton have really angered a lot of people in Charlotte! It’s very obvious that you dislike Newton and were rooting against him during the game. Would you have said the same about other QBs in the same situation? I don’t think so. Your bias was very evident and it leaves me (and I’m sure others) questioning your credibility.
—John King, Charlotte
Did you watch the game? At the time of my tweets, in which I said Newton was “failing miserably,” he was failing miserably. Four straight three-and-outs. Twelve possessions on the day to that point, and only the one-play, 43-yard touchdown drive (a DeAngelo Williams run) for the offense in the first 59 minutes. After the game, Newton admitted he was frustrated by not putting the performance he wanted. In the last minute of the game, Newton put a terrific five-play, 65-yard drive together, with two of the three passes tough, clutch throws.
So … would you, and the general public, prefer I not tweet during sports events, wait till the end of the game, and then state my opinion at the end of the game? Or should I tweet only positive thoughts that wouldn’t be offensive to anyone? This was the game of the day in the NFL, and I was watching at NBC, and I had a few observations, and I made them. You won’t get an apology out of me for expressing my opinion.
AM I BIASED BECAUSE CAM NEWTON DOESN’T TALK TO ME? You mentioned your tweets about Cam Newton during the Saints-Panthers game, and Deadspin mentioned them as well. What do you say to critics who say that your writing and opinions are biased based on who you're close with? I personally believe that no matter what you (or anyone else) write, someone will always find something to complain about, but it'd be interesting to hear your thoughts. Thanks and happy holidays.
—Steven W., New York City
That’s a good question. All I can say to those who say I am biased toward Cam Newton is that, although I have not spoken to him since before the 2011 draft, I approach him with an open mind. If I criticize him, as I did during the fourth quarter Sunday, it’s because I thought he was playing subpar football. Am I closer to some players than others? Yes, as are most reporters who cover the NFL. I try at all times to not let my relationships with players influence what I write, and sometimes it’s hard. But in this case, all I can say is I was trying to write what I saw in a football game. That’s not going to change.
I SHOULD NOT HAVE IGNORED TONY ROMO. Not a word about Romo, eh? Wonder why he gets such a bad rep? His mistakes are magnified and he doesn't get credit when he does something good. He single handedly (and on one leg) saves his team's season (perhaps temporarily), but not a single word about it. Are you going to tell me it wouldn't be one of your lead stories if he had thrown an interception to likely eliminate them from the playoffs? There's nothing juicier than that.
—Kirk, Fairfax, Va.
People read a lot into what I write about, and what I don’t write about. I try to write four or five chunks of the column about distinctive things that happen in the weekend’s games, or on topics around the NFL, and I can’t get to all of them. I like Romo, and I have what I think is a good relationship with him. Ignoring what happened at the end of the game Sunday was not a knock.
THE CARDINALS DESERVE A SPOT IN THE PLAYOFFS. If the Arizona Cardinals reach 11 wins and do not make the postseason, then this will be twice in the past decade that an 11-win team does not make the dance. This exposes a major flaw in the way the NFL rules handle playoff seeding and it needs to be fixed. My proposal is this. The two division winners with the best records get the bye. The other two division winners get lumped into the Wild Card hunt and get no automatic entry into the playoffs. Not only will this ensure the "best" teams make it in, it will also lead to more competitive weeks 16 and 17.
I think every team that wins a division should make the playoffs. I am actually okay with the occasional Arizona not making it, because there has to be a premium for finishing first in a division. Where I would like to see the system changed: The fifth seed in the NFC could be a 12-game winner and could have to travel to an eight-win fourth seed, if Green Bay beats Chicago Sunday. I am in favor of seeding based on record, with no regard to division winner. If you win the division, you deserve to be in the postseason, but you do not deserve to host a playoff game if your record is inferior to another team’s.
HE THINKS PEYTON MANNING AND THE BRONCOS RAN IT UP. Congratulations to the affable and marketable Peyton Manning breaking yet another NFL passing record. My question is why Peyton gets a pass on running up the score and passing late in games. I seem to remember certain media members questioning Bill Belichick/Tom Brady for ‘bullying’ lesser teams in the search for the record in 2007. Seems odd that the Sportsman of the Year gets no guff.