Thomas Davis: Panther For Life

Editorial by Wali Alston

The official team slogan of the Carolina Panthers is “keep pounding”.  Sam Mills, a then Carolina Panthers assistant coach, who died of cancer in 2005, famously used the phrase in a speech before the Panthers faced the Dallas Cowboys in the wild-card round of the 2003 playoffs.

Thomas Davis epitomizes the slogan “Keep Pounding.”

Davis overcame ACL tears in the same knee, in three consecutive years, from 2009 through 2011, to become a first-team All-Pro linebacker in 2015.  To date, he is the only NFL player to suffer three ACL tears and continue his playing career.

This is undoubtedly the type of resiliency Sam Mills had in mind when he recalled his cancer diagnosis during his speech to the team.

“When I found out I had cancer, there were two things I could do: quit or keep pounding,” Mills said. “I’m a fighter. I kept pounding. You’re fighters, too. Keep pounding!”

Thomas Davis also kept pounding.

Davis has played his entire 14-year career with Carolina since the Panthers drafted him from the University of Georgia, with the 14th pick, in the first-round of the 2005 NFL Draft.  He is the ultimate competitor and a feared linebacker known for his hard hitting style of play; however, his greatness lies not in any skill or statistic, but rather his indomitable will.  His desire inspires desire in others.

Over the years, like other Carolina fans, I have been privileged to watch Davis sacrifice his blood, sweat, and tears in a Panthers uniform.  Fortunately, I’ve also been able to interact with him off the field on occasion.  I don’t mean to imply that we are friends, but rather that I’ve gotten some sense of how he carries himself and interacts with others.

For years I played pick-up basketball at the Dowd YMCA in Charlotte.  During their off-seasons, guys who played college and professional basketball, as well as Panthers players, would show up for some of the most competitive and fun games in Charlotte.  The games were edgy at times because everyone knew if you lost it might be a long time before you got to play again.

Current and former players like K.K. Short, Josh McCown, Brandon Lafell and others, have all waited around with the rest of us, dribbling, and shooting on side goals until it was our turn to get some cardio in and get a few shots up. As athletes, the Panthers players were comfortable in the gym and were more naturally themselves as opposed to other public settings where they might be more reserved.

Early in their careers, Davis and former Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams were among the players who would come through for a run.  The gym at the Dowd was like a locker room and I’ll always remember the banter and camaraderie between the two.  Williams, who played collegiately at Memphis, would claim Tennessee’s second largest city as his home and TD would say, “Nah man, you’re from Arkansas,” which would get a rise out of the jovial Williams, and a chuckle out of whoever else might be hanging out after the morning pick-up session.

In my experience, TD has a great sense of humor, but he is not the kind of guy who smiles and laughs for no reason. He’s no goofball or clown.  I’ve always viewed him as a cool, down-to-earth dude with an even temperament, but I could also feel his intensity.  Just from our pick-up games, I learned he was a hard worker who wanted to win and demanded the same commitment and passion from his teammates.  Anybody who comes back from three significant knee injuries, to play professional football at an elite level, is obviously about that work.

Carolina is a relatively young franchise and players with not only the talent, but also the character, of Thomas Davis are the foundation on which consistently successful franchises are built.  The Panthers can replace Davis on the field, but they cannot replace what he means in the locker room nor in the community.

Part of managing an NFL team is trying to harness all of the personalities and keep players focused on the common goal. Players like Davis are vital to this effort and make the process easier for coaches.  Watching Davis at training camp, his stature among his teammates is easily recognizable.  He is a politician of sorts.  A highly regarded veteran who younger players like Shaq Thompson are willing to listen to and learn from, with enough esteem to influence other veterans, and superstars like Cam Newton.

The 2014 Walter Payton Man of the Year, Davis has been highly visible in Charlotte through his Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation.  The  TDDDF hosts football camps, etiquette classes, youth leadership academies, comedy shows and other events that give back to underprivileged kids by providing them with the resources they need to be successful, while imparting them with knowledge and a sense of self-pride.

Much like Sam Mills, and more recently Steve Smith, Thomas Davis’ spirit will live on within the franchise and in the Charlotte area.  Players like Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Christian McCaffrey and the rest of the Panthers stand on the shoulders of these giants who have displayed a fortitude, which is now part of the fabric that defines the Carolina Panthers as an organization.

I have no specific knowledge of the financial implications or emotions that led to Carolina informing Thomas Davis that they would not re-sign him, but I know his presence will be missed.

I wish TD good luck and good health, as his tenure in Carolina comes to an end.  Last night, on WCCB’s News Edge, Davis’ wife Kelly said that family will remain in the Queen City regardless of where Thomas eventually signs and plays next season, because Charlotte is home.

It is clear, no matter where he ends his playing career, Thomas Davis will always be a part of the Carolina Panthers and the Carolina Panthers will always be a part of Thomas Davis.

Keep pounding my man.