SPARTANBURG In a scene that should be accompanied by music, linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason trot step for step together into Gibbs Stadium Saturday night for the first practice of Carolinas training camp.
Beason injured his Achilles on opening day last season. Davis tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee a week later.
They pushed each other through rehabilitation.
Saturday night was their reward.
Great feeling, Davis, 29, says. Great feeling. Probably one of those things, when Im old and gray, Ill still remember that moment. Just being able to go out there knowing the work we put in the offseason, all of the painful days, all of the good days, that moment is what we were working so hard for.
Davis also tore the ACL in his right knee in 2009 and 2010. There is no record of an athlete coming back from three tears in the same knee.
After the most recent of them, Daviss first thought was he pauses five seconds Sunday before he says the words not again.
He knew how painful and how painfully boring rehabilitation Part III would be.
To see him for the third time, as strong as he is mentally, every day grinding and now hes back out there, it makes you want to make sure youre there, too, says Beason, 27. Because we said were going to do this together, and when the season started we were going to be healthy.
Until 2009 Davis was a better athlete than a football player. Then instincts and insight caught up to his speed, and in his fifth season he suddenly was outstanding.
If you were Davis, would the memory be enough for you?
Or would you try to become what you were?
But wait: What if your knee betrays you a fourth time? How devastating would that be?
How devastating would it be to live with the knowledge you didnt try? It would stay with you even when you were old and gray.
Assisting Davis with his comeback are his faith and his friends Beason, wife Kelly, team chaplain Mike Bunkley, head coach Ron Rivera and Panthers owner Jerry Richardson.
Richardson talks about Davis as glowingly as he talks about any player on the roster. If you own a team, there are players you want in your uniform. Davis is one of them.
His Defending Dreams Foundation, whose mission is to enhance the lives of children and families, is more than an organization at which he flings money.
I was with him, and Kelly, one evening when he invited women from a Charlotte shelter and their children to join him for Thanksgiving dinner. He served them personally and almost gleefully on a recently injured knee.
Some fans criticize Carolinas loyalty to injured players linebacker Dan Morgan and now Davis.
Wouldnt you like your employer to be similarly loyal to you?
We have an organization thats definitely on your side, and you dont see that too often in this league, says Davis. Peyton Manning has done so much for the city of Indianapolis, and for him to get injured one year and hes not the guy anymore?
Davis says the Panthers keep him around despite his injuries and asks, What more can you say?
You can say that the Panthers are a football team and not a foundation, and they have a compelling reason to retain Davis.
I could say it, but Id rather show it to you.
Saturday night, a frenzied blitz, and here comes Davis sprinting wide around a blocker and touching the quarterback. Players arent wearing pads so a touch is a sack. The quarterback cheats and completes a short pass. Davis takes off after the receiver.
And makes the tackle seven or eight yards downfield, says Beason. Any time you see freakish plays like that you know hes back to his normal self. Hes going to help us out. Hes a freakish athlete. Ive never seen any linebacker that athletic, that fast, still.
Says Davis: Weve been preaching on winning the Super Bowl; we want to do this; we want to do that. But you have to put the extra work in; you have to do these extra things to get you over the hump. And I think thats something were trying to develop around here and thats one of the plays you can look at and point out me trying to do that.
The receiver is Armanti Edwards, a fast guy.
Exactly, says Davis. Got a fast guy dealing with a fast guy.
Beason isnt as fast as Davis, but hes more versatile. He can play middle linebacker, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, and offense. All the offense has to do is call.
I ask Beason which offensive position, figuring hell say tailback. He does. Then he says tight end, receiver and quarterback.
Is Davis aware of the array of offensive skills of his friend and rehab partner?
Man, says Davis. Ha. All right, let me tell you. In high school I wasnt a defensive player So if Beas thinks hes a good offensive player, then I know Im going to be a great one.
At any position, says Davis. But I think my best position might be quarterback. Check out my arm one day.
What we have here is the first upset of camp an interview with Davis that concludes with a body part other than his knee.