Shellman, Ga., is where Thomas Davis grew up. It’s a town of about 1,000, three hours south of Atlanta.
Did your family have money?
Davis, a Carolina Panthers linebacker, laughs. The laugh is not joyful.
“It was me and my younger sister and my mom, and she never really kept a job,” says Davis, who sits in a sofa in the Charlotte house he bought as a rookie in 2005. “So we grew up on government assistance, a monthly check. And when the monthly check ran out or when the food stamps ran out we pretty much struggled until it came around again.
“As a young kid you don’t really understand what’s going on. You just know that this is your situation and this is what you have to deal with. When I was old enough to know what was going on, I knew I didn’t want that life. I knew that in order to get out of it I had to work extremely hard. I knew that I wanted to be successful.
“My mindset the whole time was, ‘Go and make it,’ and help my mom and younger sister and make sure that everybody related to me was in a better position.”
Once they took care of the family, Davis and his wife, Kelly, tried to take care of everybody else.
This is the reason Davis is a finalist for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. The award honors a player’s community service as well as his work as a player.
One member from each team was nominated and three still are in contention. Davis, Arizona kicker Jay Feely and Chicago linebacker Charles Tillman will gather in New York on Saturday, during a two-hour primetime awards special (8-10 p.m., FOX) at which the winner will be announced.
Davis, 30, has two sons and two daughters. As he and Kelly sit next to each other on the sofa, the younger kids lobby for attention or Chick-fil-A, in no particular order.
After Davis became a Panther, he and Kelly began filling book bags with school supplies and distributing them to kids who could use them. Some nights they’d talk about doing more. Kelly asked Thomas what he wanted the focus to be, and he said kids and families.
In 2007 they started the nonprofit Defending Dreams Foundation.
Defending Dreams offers low-income middle school students a 14-week mentoring program, the Youth Leadership Academy. Thomas and Kelly teach and serve as mentors. Their older daughter attends. They annually send two graduates to college.
They offer holiday gifts and turkeys to kids in a different Charlotte neighborhood every December. They sponsor a football camp. They spend time with kids at Levine Children’s Hospital. They built the first park in Shellman.
For five years, Defending Dreams has treated 300 women and children from Salvation Army’s Center of Hope to Thanksgiving dinner. The foundation whisks mothers and kids in limos from the shelter to Lola’s restaurant in downtown Charlotte.
I was there as Davis hobbled after one of the three ACL tears in his right knee. Despite hobbling, Davis carried trays, delivered beverages and encouraged patrons to eat as much as they wanted. An introvert, he was outgoing that night, the master of ceremonies, moving from table to table and asking, what do you need, what can I do? Kelly and several Panthers teammates also served guests, and Kelly became a volunteer at Center of Hope.
“Of all the events that’s my favorite,” says Davis. “It’s an opportunity to interact with families and take them away from their situation. The day is really about them and that’s how we try to keep it. I enjoyed every minute.”
Do you see your story in their stories?
“Absolutely,” Davis says.
Not for attention
Deronda Metz is the director of social services for the Salvation Army in Charlotte.
“Thomas doesn’t do it for the attention,” says Metz. “We don’t have to worry about cameras or media (at Lola’s). He’s just a good young man who really cares.”
Metz says that when the Salvation Army holds a fundraiser with Charlotte’s Power 98 WPEG-FM, Davis always helps them make their goal.
“When we needed blankets and towels, Kelly loaded up the car,” says Metz.
When Davis felt like a hypocrite telling students at his academy about the value of education, he returned to Georgia, took the two classes he needed and graduated with a degree in housing and consumer economics.
“He does so many things,” says Riley Fields, the Panthers’ director of community relations. “And as a general rule, he doesn’t talk about them if you don’t bring them up.”
Davis doesn’t bring up the Pro Bowl.
Somebody has to. Davis laughs. The laugh is not joyful.
“If you told me this season that we’d have seven guys in the Pro Bowl and I wouldn’t be one of them I would have thought you were crazy,” he says. “It’s just one of those things, man, it’s out of my control. I’m happy for the guys that made it. And I do think this award means more to me right now.”
Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and his wife, Rosalind, will attend the Man of the Year ceremony even though Richardson has no desire to watch teams other than his play in Super Bowl XLVIII. Richardson is close to Thomas and Kelly.
“I don’t ever want to go to the Super Bowl and watch somebody else play, especially this year, getting so close,” says Davis. “But you know, it’s for a great cause. We’ve impacted the lives of a lot of families. And if we win the award we’ll be able to reach even more.”
What do you get out of the academy, the work with Salvation Army and Second Harvest Food Bank, the speaking engagements for Muscular Dystrophy, the visits to schools, the holiday dinners and gifts?
Davis laughs, and this time there is joy in it.
“Where do I begin, man?” he asks. “I would probably say it’s the smiles on the faces of the kids. Parents are always telling us how excited they are. But to genuinely see it on the kids’ faces – you can’t replicate that.”