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.