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Panthers' Davis teaches commitment

A third ACL injury generated serious doubts for Thomas Davis, but the veteran Carolina Panthers linebacker got a chance from head coach Ron Rivera and owner Jerry Richardson and set his mind to it.

Thomas Davis is not the type of person to start something he won’t finish.

He once came close when his Georgia high school’s baseball coaches asked him to be a pinch runner.

He politely ran back to the track.

“I was a track guy,” Davis said. “It wasn’t anything against baseball. But if I’m playing baseball, I’m playing baseball. I’m one of those people that’s 100 percent committed to what I’m doing. If I’m playing, I’m going to play in the outfield, I’m going to be a hitter, I’m going to do all those things. I’m not going to come over here just to run bases.”

So when Davis returned this season from his third ACL reconstructive surgery, he wasn’t going to be “just another guy on defense.” He began with a limited role, but gradually the defensive captain morphed into the Carolina Panthers’ starting weakside linebacker playing every snap. This season he’s racked up 65 tackles, two forced fumbles and an interception.

That type of comeback has merited Davis consideration for the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year Award. His well-documented story might help him win the award most years, but this season he’s competing against two MVP candidates as well.

Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson is within reach of the NFL’s all-time rushing record after tearing his ACL for the first time last year. Peyton Manning has his Denver Broncos poised for late playoff run after he sat out 2011 with multiple neck surgeries.

Davis hears the national media claiming the award is a two-man race between Peterson and Manning, and he used to let it bother him.

“But then I realized that’s not my main focus and my main reason for trying to come back this season,” Davis said. “I wanted to come back to be around these guys and help this team and that’s my main focus.

“It’s only one award and you can only have one winner. I think with all the time and hard work that I’ve put into rehabbing and coming back, I feel as though I’d be a deserving candidate for it.”

The doubt

The third time, Davis thought it was over.

Panthers defensive tackle Terrell McClain jumped over Green Bay running back James Starks, who had just been stopped by Davis on a screen pass in the third quarter of Carolina’s second game of the 2011 season.

McClain rolled into Davis’ right knee, tearing it for the third time in less than two years. Uncertainty set in.

“I thought I was done,” Davis said. “A large part of that was not knowing if the team would give me another opportunity to make it back, and not knowing if I even wanted to try. But after having a few hours to think and knowing what I wanted to do, all I needed was the go-ahead from the team. And once they told me they’d be willing to give me a shot, that’s all it took.”

Davis got the blessing from head coach Ron Rivera and team owner/founder Jerry Richardson that if he was up to the task, he would have a spot on the 2012 Panthers. He is believed to be the first player in pro sports to come back from three ACL surgeries.

Davis knew he would do whatever it took to once again be part of the team. If not, he knew, he’d miss what went on in the locker room of Bank of America Stadium more than he’d miss being on the field there.

“The game takes care of itself,” Davis said. “I definitely would have missed the game. But the relationships you make in this locker room, the camaraderie of being with your teammates and guys that you really see more than you see your family, it definitely would have been tough to not be around these guys. I think that’s the biggest thing.”

Rivera, an NFL linebacker for nine years, knows the importance of Davis in the locker room. The eighth-year player serves as one of the elder statesmen on a team that at the start of the season had an average age of 25.9 years, 12th-youngest in the league.

“He is really what you hope for as far as a leader. He got the ‘C’ (captain) on his chest for a reason,” Rivera said. “A lot of players look up to him in light of what he’s accomplished this year having gone through those three surgeries. He commands a lot of attention, a lot of focus of his teammates.

“It still gets to me because when you see the sincerity in his eyes and the emotion in his face of how sincere he is and how dedicated he is to the people in this place – his players and teammates – that’s pretty impressive, and that’s why I think he’s such a great locker room guy.”

Getting him back in the locker room was no small accomplishment. Davis needed surgery, rehab and a strong supporting cast.

“Maybe the third time when he jumped the gun and said I think I’m done, I think I might have felt a little bit of relief,” his wife, Kelly Davis, said. “But I could just tell in his eyes he’s not done. So that feeling went away really quick. There was never a time where I wanted him to stop.

“I told him you got to do the rehab regardless. And I’ve got to help you with the rehab regardless. So whatever you want to do I’m here for you.”

It was Davis’ third rehab in less than two years. He first tore his right ACL in November 2009, then a second time in August 2010, forcing him to sit the entire 2010 season.

During this past rehab, teammate and fellow linebacker Jon Beason stayed close to Davis. Beason tore his ACL the week before Davis, and the two trained together in the offseason to prepare for the 2012 season.

“I think more so than me being there for him, he’s been there for me,” Beason said. “We’re kind of in the same boat so to speak, not staying healthy. Then we had the privilege of going through the rehab together and he definitely motivated me throughout the offseason. Trying to stay mentally strong is the toughest part.”

The goal

Following Carolina’s 30-20 win against Atlanta in Week 14, Rivera told reporters that he had given the game ball to Davis, who had seven tackles and one interception.

“The reason I’m calm is because I’m very emotional,” said Rivera after the team’s biggest win of the season. “I know he really wanted to make it through both Atlanta games. As a head coach, when you have a guy that looks you in the eye coming off three knee surgeries, he makes you believe in him. And that’s what it’s really about.”

Rivera started to get choked up, apologized and excused himself from the press conference.

Davis set a goal to play every game this season. But his return to the field was gradual. In the first games, he played only 12 of the defense’s 65 snaps.

But one play stood out.

On Carolina’s first punt to Tampa Bay, Davis lined up on the outside near the sideline opposite Captain Munnerlyn.

“I told Captain before that I was going to be the first one to make the special teams tackle,” Davis said. “He told me I was crazy, so I had to show him.”

Davis side-stepped his Buccaneer defender and went down the field untouched before reaching returner Sammie Stroughter.

The punt was fielded at the Tampa Bay 20-yard line, and Davis met Stroughter as soon as he caught it for no gain.

He got more snaps in the second and fourth games of the season. But as Beason went down for the season with shoulder and knee injuries after Week 4, Davis became the starter at weakside.

“I don’t know if surprised is the word,” defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “Sometimes I’m amazed. Sometimes you just sit back and appreciate what he’s able to do.”

Last week against Oakland, Davis played all 62 defensive snaps.

The award

His last shot at impressing voters will come against New Orleans in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the same stadium where he first tore his ACL in 2009.

Kelly Davis had been thinking about it in recent weeks, but she didn’t want to bring it up to her husband. Finally, he did.

“He finally said something about it and he made a joke and said, ‘Hey I thought about it and I started to tell them I didn’t want to play,’” Kelly Davis said. “Then he said, ‘No, I’m just kidding, I’m going to be fine. God has me and that’ll be that.’ ”

Davis knows he’s a long shot for the comeback award, which since 1972 has gone just five times to a player not a quarterback, running back or wide receiver.

Peterson and Manning will be dueling for that award, as well as the league’s MVP award. Davis doesn’t want to belittle their comebacks, but he makes a compelling case for himself.

“I think if you look at Adrian Peterson’s situation, he’s had a phenomenal season, without a doubt,” Davis said. “But Adrian Peterson is returning from an ACL injury and I’m returning from three. That’s self-explanatory. That’s enough said right there.

“Peyton Manning, not to make light of what he’s done, but whenever you are facing a situation where there’s so much uncertainty, something that’s never been done before with the knee injury, and now you’re not even getting considered…”

Of course, if the Carolina locker room could vote, Davis would win in a landslide.

“It’s very hard when you look at Peyton Manning having an MVP-type season and Adrian Peterson potentially breaking a record that’s been around since 1984,” Beason said. “So I think with the success of their teams, their stardom those two players, it’s going to be very hard for Thomas. But to me, it’d be the right choice.”

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