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'It's Genuine.' Thomas Davis Leads Carolina Panthers On, Off Field

The Carolina Panthers enter the playoffs with the NFL’s best record at 15-1 and the best record in their 20-year history. Players and coaches say at the heart of the team, leading on the field and off, is Thomas Davis. Davis has come back from three major knee surgeries since the Panthers drafted him a decade ago. Despite that, he's now among the NFL's best linebackers. But that's just one piece of his reputation in Charlotte, where his work with kids is what stands out to many.

At Piedmont IB Middle School, eighth-grader Bryson Ellis says he was somewhat shy when the school year started. Last month, he was elected student council president.

"I didn't go into this year planning to run for anything," he says. "But then I got a self-confidence boost and everything, so I ran."

That self-confidence boost came in part from Thomas Davis. Every Monday, Ellis and about 20 other middle-schoolers meet with the Panthers linebacker and other adults to learn about leadership and community service.

Tracy and Tim Ellis say it’s been wonderful for their 13-year-old son. 

"He's definitely more comfortable in a leadership role now," Tracy says. "I definitely feel it has benefited him, and in that particular way, by helping him to win the student council president of the school."

"He's become more assertive and more aware of what being a leader is and doing the right thing," Tim says. "I definitely think that's been a positive event for him."

The lessons have included packing boxes for homeless people at a food bank and working with others on a team, Bryson says.

"If you didn't communicate and if you weren’t, you didn't make sure your voice was heard then, it's not that you didn't contribute, but you weren't going to do that well," he says. "Because if everybody is too scared to say anything, then you can't get anything done."

Bryson says that’s been a theme from Davis: speak up, but also listen and work together.

It’s something the Panthers co-captain does every Sunday. Davis often hypes up teammates before games. Once they start, he delivers some of the biggest hits for one of the NFL’s best defenses.

Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards calls Davis one of the hardest working guys on the team.

"He sets the tone for us, and we follow his lead," he says.

Davis is a leader on and off the field, says veteran safety Roman Harper.

"He is Mr. Carolina, let me tell it," Harper says. "He's a great guy, upstanding citizen. At the end of the day man, he doesn't just talk the talk, he walks it as well."

He’s also one of only two NFL players to come back from three ACL tears, one of the most serious knee injuries.

Fellow Panthers co-captain Ryan Kalil says a lot of guys would write off their careers after what Davis went through.

"Thomas is somebody who's time and time again said no, I'm not done; I'm not done," Kalil says. "He really is one of the elite defensive players in this league, and given the circumstances, it's pretty incredible."

Coach Ron Rivera calls Davis the emotional heart and soul of the team.

"Based on where he came from and the things that he's had to go through his entire career and to be where he is right now, he’s a great example of what perseverance and resilience means," Rivera says.

Davis won the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award last year, which recognizes excellence on and off the field. A video from the ceremony shows Davis walking through his hometown of Shellman, Georgia, population 1,000, where he and his younger sister were raised by their single mom.

"This is one of the many houses we stayed in growing up," he points out. "To take a hot bath, I would have to boil water on the stove. We had to run an extension cord from one of our neighbor house just to have a light."

On Christmas, he says there were years he woke up without a gift.

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Credit Michael Tomsic / WFAE News
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WFAE News
Thomas Davis wears a Santa hat and gives children toys in Charlotte around Christmas.

Last month, Davis unloaded dozens of boxes of toys so other kids wouldn't have that experience.

In Charlotte, Shellman and his wife’s hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, Davis’ foundation gave presents to about 700 kids, including Sha'quianna and Knyana Gaston.

"I got a portable DVD player, a candy carts on the go, a pencil holder and a paddle ball," Sha'quianna said.

"I got two dolls!" Knyana said.

Their mom, Towanda Gaston, smiled at them.

"It means a lot to me because sometimes you don't have as much as you want to do as much as you need to do," Gaston says, "so for me, it's a blessing, honestly."

At the toy giveaway and at his leadership academy for middle-schoolers, Davis doesn’t just provide money, take a few photos and take off. Bryson Ellis, the eighth-grader, says Davis is there "100 percent."

"He really cares - it's genuine," Bryson says. "There are some people who are just going to do it and forget about it. But he’s actually a really nice person."

For Davis, the motivation comes from remembering what it was like for him at that age.

"A lot of the things that I do now stem from a lack of things that I had growing up," Davis says, "so I didn't really have anyone to show me at that early age how to be a leader, how to go about doing things as a young man, so that's one of the reasons why we wanted to start this program."

Davis has said that NFL players are well compensated for what they do. In his Man of the Year acceptance speech, he challenged other players to make a difference in their communities.