Thomas Davis: Man of the Year every day

Posted Jan 28, 2015

Bryan Strickland, Senior Writer

CHARLOTTE – Countless NFL players use their fame and fortune to better the lives of those less fortunate than themselves.

Linebacker Thomas Davis, like many of his peers, coordinates a Christmas gift giveaway, a Thanksgiving meal and a school supply drive every year through his foundation. Repeatedly, Davis and others like him generously open their wallets.

Few, however, open their heart and their schedule quite like Davis.

“He’s here every Monday night,” Davis’ wife, Kelly, said during the latest gathering of the Thomas Davis Youth Leadership Academy. “Unless he’s got a Monday Night Football game, he’s here.”

Davis’ commitment to his community will be shared with the world Saturday night when he is highlighted as one of three finalists for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, presented by Nationwide, during the fourth annual “NFL Honors” awards show (9 p.m., NBC). A finalist for the second consecutive year, Davis is joined by Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin.

Davis’ flight from the awards show and Super Bowl XLIX the next night in Arizona won’t arrive back in Charlotte in time for Monday’s leadership academy meeting. On the rare occasions he is unable to attend, he typically shoots a video message for the kids.

“It would mean so much to us for him to win this, but we all think of him as Man of the Year already. We think everybody else is just now recognizing it,” Kelly Davis said. “Off the field, he’s always doing stuff, not only in the community but also within his family. He never gets any free time.

“Sometimes I just sit back in awe, thinking, ‘How can he be so strong? How can he do all the things that he does?’ On his days off with everything he does, I sometimes say, ‘Hey, you need to take a break.’ But he’s just always thinking about what he can do.”

Davis’ drive comes from many sources, among them his own challenging set of circumstances as a child in Shellman, Ga., as well as his appreciation for the opportunity that being a star NFL player now affords him.

But when it comes to the Thomas Davis Youth Leadership Academy, the signature outreach program that he and his wife started one year after founding the Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation in 2008, Davis’ motivation is simple.

“If you see how these kids walk in for the first session to how they walk out after the last session, it’s night and day,” Davis said. “We enjoy every minute of this, getting to work with these kids.”

At least 16 Monday evenings in a typical school year, the same 25 Charlotte-area middle school students spend a couple of hours with the Davises and their fellow volunteer board members. This school year, their weekly meetings are at the Charlotte School of Law in uptown Charlotte.

Lisa Thaxton, executive assistant to the president at the law school, has a son in ninth grade at North Mecklenburg High School who is aging out of the academy.

“Darryl has really blossomed over the past couple of years,” Thaxton said. “He was kind of shy and timid, didn’t really like to speak up, but going to the academy has really helped him develop confidence in himself.

“He’s looked at Thomas as a role model in terms of what Thomas has been able to accomplish. My son is an athlete, too, so he really gravitates to what Thomas is saying when he talks about resilience and overcoming adversity.”

Darryl Thaxton said that interacting with someone as accomplished as Davis opened his eyes and ears to Davis’ message of responsibility and respect. Playing in the NFL has opened up an opportunity that isn’t lost on Davis, who once walked in Thaxton’s shoes.

“I didn’t have anyone in this capacity to help me out and show me the things I needed to know at this age,” Davis said. “It wasn’t until later on when I got around some high school football coaches that really showed me the way. I didn’t have a male figure at home growing up – it was my mom that taught me and my younger sister the things we needed to know, along with my grandmother.

“As NFL players, kids are listening to us. We have a voice, and it’s up to us how we use that voice. I’m trying to use my voice in a positive way by showing kids that I care about them and want to see them succeed. I’m taking time each Monday to be here with them. I genuinely care about them.”

Kelly Davis marvels at how her husband finds the energy to do all that he does.

“He’s 31,” she said, “but it’s like he has the mind and body of a 19-year-old.”

That could also apply to the Davis that Panthers fans have seen on the field the last three seasons.

Davis possesses the ultimate object lesson about resilience to share with the students in his leadership academy. After not one, not two, but three torn anterior cruciate ligaments in his right knee, Davis has played arguably the best football of his career since his remarkable return.

And he’s not done yet.

“By missing those years, I feel like I’ve added years to my career,” said Davis, fresh off his third consecutive 100-tackle season. “I’m excited, because the way my body feels now, I’m able to play fast and play at a high level. It’s truly been a blessing. I’m just trying to take advantage of every second I have left.”

While the Man of the Year Award primarily focuses on a player’s off-the-field contributions, on-the-field contributions are considered as well.

“This award means so much to me because it’s a community service award and also an award for what you’ve done on the field. It ties both of those together,” Davis said. “There is only one guy selected for this award each year. To say I was the Man of the Year would mean an awful lot to me.”

Davis doesn’t often promote himself for such honors, and in this case he did so only while mentioning what the award would mean to his fellow foundation leaders and the foundation itself.

“It means a lot to me and the Panthers organization, but it also means a lot to my board members. Those guys put in a lot of work to make everything we do possible, and it doesn’t go unnoticed,” Davis said. “This also raises awareness. Being nominated for the second year in a row, if we’re able to win the award this year, it will educate people more on what we’re doing and maybe make more people be willing to donate.

“The more money we have, the more we can do for these kids, and the bigger impact we can have on this community – Charlotte, Georgia, and South Carolina as well.”

Davis can only imagine how the kids in his leadership academy will respond if he wins. One student’s mother already knows how she’ll react.

“As a parent, it fills my heart with joy. As a citizen of Charlotte, it fills my heart with joy,” Lisa Thaxton said. “They’ve come to this city – it’s not their home – but they’ve embraced it, and the city has embraced them. To give back in the manner that they do, it’s wonderful.”

And that, regardless of what happens at “NFL Honors,”, is reward enough for Davis.

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The Man Amongst Men

Talking Football
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.

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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