By David Newton | ESPN.com
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.
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.”
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.”