The Man Amongst Men

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Fresh off earning the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis challenges his fellow players to make a difference.

By Jenny Vrentas


Thomas Davis didn’t play in Super Bowl XLIX, but the Carolina Panthers linebacker still made an impact on Super Bowl weekend. On the eve of the big game, Davis received the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, and used his platform to send a message to players around the NFL. “To the guys in this league, I just want to say to you, let’s take charge,” he said that night. “We are a village. Let’s step up and be a village of guys that make a difference.” On the field, Davis is known for coming back from three ACL tears between 2009 and ’11 to post three consecutive 100-plus tackle seasons. Off it, he and his wife Kelly lead the Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation, which reaches thousands of underprivileged kids with programs like Christmas gift giveaways and a Youth Leadership Academy that annually awards two college scholarships—programs that didn’t exist in the tiny, impoverished town of Shellman, Ga., where he grew up in a single-parent home. The MMQB talked to Davis about the meaning behind his message, the feedback he received, and what it’s like to be an active player in the stands at a Super Bowl.

VRENTAS: Why did you decide to use your acceptance speech to send a message to your fellow NFL players?

DAVIS: It really was an on-the-spot thing. It wasn’t rehearsed or thought up. I was just speaking from the heart. In sitting there looking at the video [during the presentation], thinking about the words that I said about the way I grew up, and what it took to really mold me into the man that I am, I just focused in on that. And I thought about, if we got together as a group of players, and did it in a village-type style, and gave back to the community, and gave back to the kids, we could change the world and make a difference. And that’s really how it came about. I hope to motivate guys that are doing things to do more. And the guys who are not doing anything, step up and let’s do something. Because we are a powerful league, and we can make a difference, and we do have a huge voice, and it’s all about us using that voice in the right way. That was the message. Trying to get guys to do that.

Thomas Davis (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Thomas Davis (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

VRENTAS: After a year in which the NFL has faced a lot of criticism because of off-the-field events, you also talked about taking charge as players. Are you frustrated by the perception of all NFL players being painted with a single brush?

DAVIS: Absolutely. Because we are a league, and we are in this thing together as players and coaches and owners, we all kind of get put in the same box. And if something goes wrong, then we all get looked at negatively. That’s not right. There are so many guys doing so much good, and there are so many more guys doing good than bad, but you don’t hear about those guys, and you don’t get to see that stuff. That was the message. And even to the reporters, let’s report on some of the good things that are going on in this league and not always focus on the negative stuff.

VRENTAS: What feedback have you received from your fellow players since the speech?

DAVIS: It has been all positive. A lot of guys really feel like I said the things that needed to be said. I said some things that some people are afraid to say sometimes, but definitely needed. And it was a challenge. I am definitely looking forward to guys stepping up to the challenge, and hearing about all the positive things these guys are doing in this league.

On the field before the Super Bowl, I got introduced as the Walter Payton Man of the Year, and it was an awesome feeling to be recognized for that award in front of that crowd. Then we got to sit in a suite and watch the game and enjoy the company of Ms. Condoleezza Rice and Jim Kelly throughout the game. Mr. Kelly was talking about the speech, and how much he felt like it was needed, and how great a job that I did. Hearing that coming from him, it was definitely an honor.

VRENTAS: What emotions do you feel, as an active player, when you are sitting in the stands and watching the Super Bowl be played?

DAVIS: Oh man, I hated it. I hated it. Because we made the playoffs, and we played Seattle, and we ended up losing to them. So to go out there and watch them play in the Super Bowl and have that chance in the end to win the game, it was just one of those things as a player, you really felt like that could have been you. It was definitely tough. I hate going to watch other people play. But it’s the Super Bowl, and the last game of the year, so you wanted to pay homage to that.

VRENTAS: You played Seattle in the divisional round, so you know their offensive tendencies well. Surprised they didn’t run it with Marshawn Lynch on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line?

DAVIS: I was definitely expecting Beast Mode to get the ball. But you know, if the play goes another way, and they trick everybody, and everybody plays the run and they throw the pass wide open, then it’s a different story. But at the end of the day, the kid from New England made a great play. He studied his film, and he broke on the ball, and he made a play that ultimately ended up in them winning the game.

VRENTAS: How much motivation do you take from being in the stadium and watching another team win a championship?

DAVIS: You have no clue how much motivation going to that game and watching those guys play has given us. For me, as soon as I came back from Arizona, the next day I was in the weight room working out, trying to get ready for this upcoming season.

VRENTAS: How much extra effort do you put in during the offseason to keep your knees healthy after all the injuries you have endured?

DAVIS: I work on it year-round. That’s something that has become a part of my routine. I understand how important it is for me moving forward, because I’m coming off of three ACLs, so I have to make sure my legs are as strong as they can be. I spend a lot of time strengthening my legs. A lot of leg extension, leg curls, squats—you name it.

VRENTAS: Your team’s season ended with a loss, but before that the Panthers delivered a record-setting defensive playoffs performance, stifling the Cardinals for just 78 yards of total offense. How much carryover can a performance like that have into 2015?

DAVIS: You absolutely hope to build off of that momentum. We finished our season strong, despite the loss to Seattle. We feel like we definitely turned the corner; our season wasn’t going the way we wanted it to go, but we fought back, and gave ourselves a chance in the end. In this league, that’s all you can ask for—a chance to go on and continue to play. We’ve just got to figure out a way to start our season faster and stay strong throughout and finish the way we did. We need to continue to mature as a group, continue to stay healthy and go out and compete at a high level.

VRENTAS: What’s next for you and the Defending Dreams foundation?

DAVIS: We started our foundation in 2008. We started doing some events in 2007, but we wanted to do more. We wanted to make it bigger, and we wanted to impact more lives, and that was the real reason for starting the foundation. It was the best way that we felt like we could impact the most people. I’ve learned that people are definitely in need, and that we can make a difference. And that’s what it is all about: Understanding that there is a need, and going and filling those needs for those families, and trying to help as many people as we can. The next event we have coming up is with our Leadership Academy. We’re taking the kids to a community service event, at Second Harvest Food Bank, and we’re going to stuff some bags for some needy families. I’m just as involved with the foundation during the season as I am during the offseason.

Thomas Davis awarded key to the City of Charlotte

CHARLOTTE – In a private meet-and-greet session with Charlotte City Council members Monday evening, linebacker Thomas Davisintroduced his Youth Leadership Academy to those gathered for the special occasion.

It was a big night for Davis, who received the key to the city moments later. But the event also served as the weekly meeting for the children of the Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation and as another chance to positively impact their lives.

“I’m excited to have these kids here,” Davis told council members. “They sit in a classroom setting and hear me and our board members talk all the time about the importance of being a leader and of doing things the right way.

“Well, tonight is a true representation of what can happen if you do things the right way, of what can happen if you put in work and put in the extra that’s called for and the extra that’s not even called for.”

Again Monday, as was the case three weeks ago when Davis won the prestigious Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, all eyes were on him. But more importantly to Davis, he could still see his challenging childhood in the eyes of the students his foundation assists.

“He’s not looking for awards,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “To understand it, all you have to do is understand where he’s from. Once you know that, you know these are things he truly wants to do. It’s impressive.”

Davis, who grew up in poverty-stricken rural Georgia, has grown into a leader on and off the football field and now yearns for similar success for the youth his foundation mentors. In recognition of his continuing efforts, the Charlotte City Council presented Davis with the most prestigious honor a city government can grant.

“Mr. Davis was selected with the 14th overall pick in the 2005 draft from the University of Georgia, and he’s made a major impact on and off the field. It’s his impact off the field, especially, tonight that we recognize,” Charlotte mayor Dan Clodfelter told those gathered for Monday’s city council meeting. “In recognition of Mr. Davis’ contributions and his extraordinary generosity, it is my pleasure at this point to present him on behalf of the city council with the key to the city, presented to you as an esteemed citizen and a trusted friend.”

After posing for pictures with his wife, four children and council members, Davis graciously accepted the honor, flanked by the children of his Youth Leadership Academy – the signature outreach program for his far-reaching foundation.

“Everything that we do in the community, all of the lives that we’ve been able to impact, it hasn’t been just me,” Davis said. “I’m the guy that gets the recognition, but there are so many others that put in countless hours to make sure that everything we do goes according to plan. My board members are huge in everything we do.

“I also want to take the time now to thank Mr. Jerry Richardson for bringing me to the city of Charlotte. In 2005 when I came here, I was a young 21-year-old who didn’t really know anything about the city, having only been here twice, but the city embraced me. It was a good feeling. It felt like home, and here I am now 10 years later, and Charlotte will forever be home.”

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Panthers’ Thomas Davis wins biggest honor of his career

By David Newton |

There were tears. There was a challenge to dare to be great. There was an embrace with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

If you didn’t know what Carolina Panthers outside linebacker Thomas Davis was all about before Saturday night, you did after watching him receive the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award at the fourth annual NFL Honors awards show.

Davis was overlooked in 2012 as the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year after successfully returning from reconstructive ACL surgery on the same knee for a third time, something no other player in the league had done.

Thomas Davis

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers’ Thomas Davis said he wants the NFL to “be a village of guys that make a difference.”

He was shunned by the Pro Bowl the past two seasons because he plays in a 4-3 system that doesn’t put him in position to collect dozens of sacks as a 3-4 outside linebacker does.

But being recognized by the NFL for what he does off the field with his Youth Leadership Academy and the Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation more than made up for that. As Davis told me earlier in the week, winning this award would be the “highest honor I’ve ever received as a player.”

The rest of the NFL world saw just how much it meant during a video in which Davis shared his story. It showed how he grew up in economically-challenged Shellman, Georgia, with a single mom, how he had to boil water to take a hot bath and run an extension cord from a neighbor’s house to have light.

Goodell called the video a powerful and motivational message. He said it showed “why Thomas Davis is the exceptional man that he is.”

The rest of the NFL world also saw what this award meant as a teary-eyed Davis thanked his wife, Kelly, who helped start his foundation in 2008.

“There’s a lot that I’ve had to deal with and she’s been there for me through everything I’ve gone through, injuries and everything,” Davis told the crowd in Phoenix. “So often in my career I’ve been the guy that came up just short. But receiving this award tonight signalizes and capitalizes everything I’ve tried to accomplish.”

Davis went on to congratulate the other two finalists — Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and San Francisco’s Anquan Boldin — and the other 29 players that were nominated across the league.

Then he challenged the entire NFL to “dare to be different.”

“We are a village,” Davis said as he looked into the audience. “Let’s stand up and be a village of guys that make a difference. Let’s show these kids how much we care about them. Then give the media something positive to talk about instead of always bashing our league.”

The entire crowd stood and cheered as Davis tried to thank the Payton family.

Before leaving the stage Davis hugged Goodell, who has come under fire this season from the way he handled the domestic violence issues involving Baltimore running back Ray Rice and Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy.

I asked Davis by phone later to elaborate on his challenge to the league.

“There’s not enough media going to the guys that are doing the great things,” he said. “We had 32 guys that were nominated for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, some of them you’ll never even hear about.”

Davis hopes the award helps more hear about his cause with underprivileged children, battered women and other causes with which he and his wife are involved.

He received a $50,000 donation in his name to a charity of his choice from the NFL Foundation and Nationwide.

“It’s a huge honor,” Davis said. “I just hope that I can motivate more kids and change lives more.”