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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

On My Mind: The Many Comebacks Of Thomas Davis

U.S. Army National Guard Photo by Sgt. Leticia Samuels
North Carolina National Guard Public Affairs

Why do those of us who love sports, love sports? Part of it is the connection to a team, to feel part of something bigger. Part of it is the power and beauty and grace of athletic bodies in motion.

And part of it, I think, is to see resilience in action — to watch and learn as fellow human beings come back from hard times and tough losses.


That last part is what I think of when I think of linebacker Thomas Davis.

Davis is signing a ceremonial one-day contract this week to officially retire as a Carolina Panther, where he played the first 13 of his 15 NFL seasons. Greg Olsen, the Panthers' former Pro Bowl tight end, is retiring with him as a Panther on the same day.

They’re both among the best players in Panthers’ history. But Davis is special because of what he dealt with along the way.

In 2009, his fifth season with the Panthers, Davis tore the ACL in his right knee. In football, that injury — to the anterior cruciate ligament — is common and devastating. Many players never come back from it. Davis missed the rest of that season.

The next year, in training camp, he tore the same ACL again. He missed all of 2010.

In 2011, in just the second game of the season, he tore the same ACL for a third time. No professional athlete had ever come back from three ACL tears to the same knee. A torn ACL requires surgery and months of agonizing rehab. Davis knew, because he had already done it twice. That day, there in the trainer’s room, he decided to quit.

The next day, he changed his mind.

And what happened after that is pretty close to a sports miracle. Not only did he come back a third time, somehow he was even better. He was still one of the fastest linebackers in the league. He made three Pro Bowls. He ended up playing nine more years after that third ACL surgery, including the Panthers’ Super Bowl season in 2015. By the way, he played in that Super Bowl with a broken forearm.

Along the way, he and his wife, Kelly, built the Defending Dreams Foundation to help disadvantaged students here in Charlotte. For his community work, he won the NFL’s Man of the Year award in 2014.

I wrote a magazine story about Davis when he returned to the Panthers after that third ACL injury. One thing I noticed was that he always had a scab on the bridge of his nose. It turned out that he could never find a helmet to fit right, and so when he made a tackle, the edge of the helmet would scrape his same spot raw, over and over again. He put up with it for all those years. And of course, he put up with a lot worse.

We’ve all gone through a world of hurt this past year of COVID-19, along with all the other injuries and pains that life visits upon us all. Thomas Davis reminds me that sometimes we have more guts than we think. And if we don’t let our injuries define us, maybe there’s a place on the other side where we can rest, and our scars can heal for good.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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