Three years. Three torn ACLs. Three reconstruction surgeries.
Three rehabilitations. Three years of pain. Three years of doubt.
Three strikes, and somehow Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis is still not out.
His absolution came last Sunday night.
The New York Jets were driving early in their exhibition against the Panthers, grabbing chunks of yardage, chasing their first offensive touchdown of the preseason, when Davis was inserted as part of a nickel defensive package.
Just to be there on the artificial turf at MetLife Stadium, given all Davis and his thrice-rebuilt right knee had been through, was a frame-worthy moment. As best as anyone can tell, no NFL player has come back to play after tearing the ACL in the same knee three times.
According to a story in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, only 63 percent of NFL players return to play in the league after suffering a torn ACL. What Davis is attempting to do, Charlotte orthopedic surgeon Dr. Glenn Perry said, is truly remarkable.
On Davis second play in his first game since getting leg-whipped from behind by a Green Bay player last September, causing his third knee injury, the linebacker was in man-to-man coverage. When Davis saw his man was blocked, he took dead aim at Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.
Had it been a movie, it would have gone into slow motion while the music swelled.
But this was the Meadowlands, and there was Sanchez.
Davis buried his helmet into the chest of the quarterbacks white jersey and drove him to the ground for an 8-yard sack.
There will be hundreds of other quarterback sacks this season in more important games but few will resonate on as many levels as this one.
The high was just touching the field, not even making that sack, Davis said after practice last week. Just knowing all Ive gone through to get to that point. Just to go out there and line up and compete against another team, that did it for me.
To go out there and actually be able to contribute to the defense is something Ive been saying all along Ive wanted to do. A lot of people were excited about me just coming back. I wanted to come back and contribute to this team.
In that moment, Sanchez under him on the ground, Davis just wanted to do it again.
I promise you I didnt feel myself hit the ground I jumped up so fast, Davis said.
On the Meadowlands sideline, Panthers coach Ron Rivera saw beyond the 8-yard loss.
Rivera played 149 games at linebacker in the NFL, blessed through most of his career with good health at a rugged position. He knows what injuries can do to players, the ache and doubt that linger.
Earlier in training camp, Rivera saw the look on the face of Ron Edwards, the Panthers 320-pound defensive tackle, when he twisted his knee awkwardly. Edwards missed all of last season after tearing his triceps during training camp.
Rivera saw a flash of fear on Edwards face. Not again. Not another injury.
Not this time.
Edwards was fine and almost instantly, Rivera saw a difference in Edwards performance. He wasnt afraid of getting hurt again. Edwards was mentally unleashed.
When Rivera saw Davis hit Sanchez, he saw another door close on the past.
You have to find something that signifies youre back. For Ron, it was then. Hes been tremendous, Rivera said.
For Thomas, I think it was how he played (against the Jets). Every day he got confidence leading up to this preseason game. He comes up and on the (second) play hes involved in, he gets a sack. All of a sudden hes jumping around, hes moving, hes confident. At that point, you no longer worry about him and he no longer worries about himself.
You have to have those moments. Until you have that moment as a player, youre going to hold back because youre afraid to get hurt or do it again. For some guys, it comes quicker. For others, it doesnt come at all.
Lowest of lows
Davis could have surrendered last September.
His first ACL injury happened in a late-season game in 2009, and the second came in non-contact work at practice, costing him all of the 2010 season. He had come all the way back twice, made 11 tackles in the Panthers 2011 regular-season opener at Arizona, and then it was gone again.
Renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews did the third ACL reconstruction, taking a piece of Davis patella tendon to repair his injured knee. It meant Davis coming out of the surgery with his right leg virtually useless.
Not only does the patella graft have to fully attach itself inside the knee, theres a substantial loss of strength in the quadriceps. The rehab means rebuilding the range of motion, regaining strength in the leg and, perhaps most difficult, believing its all going to work properly.
It was all painfully familiar to Davis.
The third one (was) probably the lowest of lows, Davis said. You know everything youve done to get back from the second one, now youre facing the third one. You dont really know what the approach is going to be moving forward from the organization. Are they going to give up on me? Are they going to tell me this is it? Is it going to happen again? A lot of things go through your head.
The Panthers didnt give up. Davis was scheduled to receive an $8 million bonus in March but, given his three knee injuries, the team restructured his contract. In addition to saving the bonus money, the Panthers dropped Daviss base salary from $2.25 million to $700,000.
Its a team-friendly deal, helping immensely with the salary cap but it also gives Davis the chance to earn back money if he can stay healthy. Theres a $500,000 option bonus in 2013 and a second $2.5 million option in 2014, according to reports. Should Davis make the Panthers roster in 2015, his base salary would jump to $7.25 million.
It would have been easy for the Panthers to cut Davis, thank him for his effort and acknowledge all the good work hes done in the community with his foundation, the Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation. Instead, the Panthers decided to give Davis one more chance.
He doesnt talk all the time but when he speaks, people listen, Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. He has the respect of the whole building. His actions speak so loudly.
A straight warrior
Cam Newton has watched the process, his admiration for Davis growing over the months theyve been teammates.
A straight warrior, Newton said of Davis. This guy is obviously a team leader. Everybody responds to Thomas and what he stands for. We need him. Id be lying to say anything less than that.
His influence on this team is unbelievable. I think hes at the pinnacle of what an athlete should do in this league. Of course he got the short end as far as the injury stick but hes battling and thats what you want to see as a coach, as a player, as anybody thats a fan of the game. This guy has had every reason in the world to quit but hes still fighting.
When Davis would begin to sink, when the rehab got tedious and another recovery seemed to stall, his wife, Kelly, kept pushing him.
She never allowed me to get to my lowest point, Davis said.
Now Davis is looking at another new season, another fresh start, another chapter in an NFL story unlike any other.
This will be a true testament for anybody that has gone through any type of physical ailment, a knee injury, a shoulder, whatever it is, Davis said.
If you have a guy who can come back from three ACLs to the same knee three consecutive years and actually play this game no matter at what height and I plan on playing this game at a high level I think it speaks true volumes that you can go out and accomplish anything.
Thats the message Im trying to deliver.
Four times the pain
Stacy Bartholomew Heap doesnt know Thomas Davis, but she understands what hes been through.
A womens soccer player at Brigham Young, she is recovering from her fourth torn ACL. Two on one knee. Now two on the other.
Heap is still on the BYU roster and contemplating whether shell try to continue playing.
After surgery, you start from square one, Heap said. After surgery, the first thing they had me do was flex my quad. You try so hard and you cant. Its hard. Youve been at the top level of physical fitness.
Psychologically, at first its hard. It was hard doing the same motions that caused me to tear (my ACL) in the first place. Its scary doing the things that got you hurt. Once you know youre OK, it gives you confidence.
Thomas Davis knows the feeling.
Told of Stacy Bartholomew Heaps challenge, Davis delivered another message.
Tell her to keep going, he said.