Thomas Davis didn’t want to talk about the pain.
I interviewed Davis, the Carolina Panthers linebacker, in the fall of 2013 for a magazine story. He was in the middle of an astonishing comeback. He was the first NFL player – maybe the first player in any sport – to tear the ACL in the same knee three different times and return to play again.
Let me slow that down for you. An ACL tear is the injury every ballplayer dreads. It’s often career-ending. Even when it’s not, it requires surgery and months of agonizing rehab – the type that drives powerful athletes to tears.
Thomas Davis went through those months of hell in 2009. And again in 2010. And again in 2011.
And somehow, on the other side, he emerged as one of the NFL’s best defenders. Even with a right knee that included tendon harvested from his left knee, he was faster than just about every other linebacker in the league. He was chosen for the Pro Bowl three years in a row.
Off the field, he was just as impressive. He won the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award in 2014. His foundation helped thousands of underprivileged kids in the Carolinas and his home state of Georgia. The day I met him for an interview, he had brought teammates to Second Harvest Food Bank to fill bags for poor families.
But in the NFL, you don’t get extra credit for being a good guy. Last week the Panthers informed Davis that they wouldn’t be offering him a new contract. But he’ll be 36 next season, old for the NFL, and the Panthers are looking to overhaul a defense that gave up a lot of big plays last year.
He wanted to stay. He’s been in the league 14 years and has never played for another team. Before last season he had planned to retire, but then he was suspended for four games for taking a banned supplement. He said it was something he had taken for years without any issues. Either way, he missed a chance to play a full final season. And now, if he does, it’ll be for somebody other than the Panthers.
So why do it? He’s made millions in the NFL. He could retire as one of the Panthers’ all-time greatest players, rest at home with his wife and kids, take a load off that knee that caused him so much pain.
But I think the pain is the answer. When I talked to him, all those years ago, he was open about everything in his life – including the time he sobbed in his wife’s arms after one of his injuries. The only thing he wouldn’t talk about is what the pain was like. He just looked down and shook his head.
He did it all for the game he loves. When you hang on so tight, through so much, how can you just let it go?
Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column appears every Monday 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.