CHARLOTTE — Moments after his strike to Devin Funchess pushed the Panthers’ lead to 25 and secured a trip to Super Bowl 50, Cam Newton stood at the back of the end zone and faced the crowd with outstretched arms, taking in all he could from the defining game of his young career.
Bank of America Stadium turned into a rock concert during the final quarter of the NFC Championship Game on Sunday, and Carolina’s sideline was in on the act. But as players waved their arms skyward or threw them around one another, one Panther stood with an arm tucked against his chest, motionless, as it rested in a black sling wrapped around right side of his body.
Along with Newton and Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis has been at the heart of this team. “He’s the face of the Panthers, really,” Shaq Thompson said after the 49-15 victory. “We all owe it to him.”
Davis is the only Panther remaining from Carolina’s last trip to the NFC title game, in 2005, but since that rookie season of his he’s lived a handful of football lives. He fought through three ACL tears in as many years, the most recent coming in 2011, and over the past two seasons he’s been named the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year and an All-Pro for the first time in his 10-year career.
Knowing that history—along with how well he played through the first quarter and a half against Arizona—made the sight of him walking off the field in the second quarter, his arm immobilized in the hands of Carolina’s athletic trainer, even more heartbreaking. The injury came on a drive that started with Davis knifing into the backfield and planting David Johnson for a loss on the type of toss play no one should try with Thomas Davis on the field. It was the linebacker’s fifth tackle of the game, and the man who plays like he’s on fire was igniting the Panthers’ defense.
Davis confirmed after the game the early prognosis that he’d broken his right arm after colliding with Cardinals tight end Darren Fells, but he maintained that he would be able to play two weeks from now in Santa Clara. That possibility seemed remote as Davis knelt on the field and trainers rushing to his side. “It really did,” Ron Rivera said about his heart going out to Davis in that moment. “But I’m glad it sounds like he’s going to be OK and be ready to roll.”
After all he’s been through, no one would have blamed Davis for cursing fate as yet another injury tore him away from the game, but his history has provided him a special brand of toughness. Rather than fall into self-pity, Davis’s first thought was about practicality.
“He needs to be at the Super Bowl,” Thompson said of Davis, “and that’s what we did for him.”
“I knew something was wrong but didn’t really know what was going on,” Davis said. “But at the same time, it was, ‘Let’s find out what we gotta do. If I’m able to play, let’s do it. If not, let everybody know so the next man up can get in here to play the game.’ ”
When Davis emerged from the locker room, his arm heavily wrapped, that’s just what he did. With a black and blue cap on his head, Davis walked the length of the Panthers’ bench, pounding fists with each member of the defense. One of those players was Shaq Thompson—a 2015 first-round pick, 11 years Davis’s junior—who now had to step in at the season’s most crucial juncture.
“We hugged each other, and I said, ‘I got you,’ ” Thompson recalled. “And he just said, ‘Let’s go.’ My whole mentality was to finish for myself, but really, finish for that man. He earned it. He needs to be at the Super Bowl, and that’s what we did for him.”
The 2011 Panthers season was a pivotal one in franchise history, the foundation upon which this Super Bowl-bound team was built. That was Cam Newton’s rookie year and the first for Rivera as head coach. Davis had been in Carolina for six years by then, but that season would include the moment that dictated the rest of his career. His third ACL tear came that September. “In the beginning, when everything was going down, I didn’t even think I would be able to play again,” Davis said.
During the closing moments on Sunday night, as hugs and handshakes became contagious along the Carolina sideline, Davis embraced Rivera not once, but twice. In those moments, Rivera said afterward, the 2011 season was on both of their minds. For any rookie coach, getting traction with the established players in the locker room is among the first hurdles, but with Davis, Rivera didn’t have to try very hard.
“When I first got here, he was one of the first ones to come up to me and tell me, ‘Hey coach, we’re going to be right behind ya,’ ” Rivera said. “That’s meant a lot.”
Over the past four years, as Rivera took a team that had the first overall pick and turned it into one that achieved a season for the ages (17-1 and a Super Bowl bowl berth), Davis not only overcame what no other player in NFL history had ever done before, but he did so while developing into one of the league’s best players. His ability to chew up ground and stick with tight ends has made him and Kuechly the perfect linebacker pairing for the modern game. But as much he’s respected on the field around the league, it pales in comparison to the way he’s revered in the Panthers’ locker room.
“Thomas Davis is one of the best players on our team,” Kuechly said, “but he’s an even better person, and I think that’s an important thing with him—who he is, what he represents, and what he stands for.”
“He’s the heart and soul of this defense,” Short said. “He’s been here for a while, so he knows where it’s started, where it’s gone, and how it’s changed over.”
Before Davis left the locker room on Sunday, there was one last bit of tending to his arm, as he stood with one foot on a chair while a trainer prodded the injury. Davis had just gotten done trying—and failing—to describe to the media what it means for a player who’s been through what he’s faced to now be in a position like this. Despite all the rehabilitation Davis has come to know, the healing he does over the next two weeks might be the most important of his career. For now, though, it isn’t fazing him. He knows where he’s been, and what it took to just to be here.
“C’mon,” Davis said when asked if he’d be ready. “You know me, right? You know me? Then I’m not missing the Super Bowl. You better believe that.”
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