Moments after winning an award for his years of community service Saturday night at the fourth annual NFL Honors program, Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis called on other NFL players to do the same.
“Guys in this league – take charge, step up, make a difference,” Davis said after accepting the Walter Payton Man of the Year award at Symphony Hall.
After thanking his wife, Kelly, who helped start Davis’ Defending Dreams Foundation, Davis planned to speak from his prepared remarks. But the emotion of the moment prompted a teary-eyed Davis to encourage his well-paid colleagues to get involved in charitable work.
“There’s so much negativity that’s going on in this league and so much that’s being reported. I just feel like we’re in a position where we can make a difference,” Davis said later. “We can do so much with the platform and the voice that we have right now. It’s up to us to take advantage of it.”
Davis, whose successful return from three knee surgeries has been one of the league’s most inspirational stories in recent years, has missed out on a couple of other postseason honors. He’s never made the Pro Bowl and was passed over for Comeback Player of the Year in 2012, when it went to Denver quarterback Peyton Manning.
But Davis was not a bridesmaid this time.
“We’re all going to celebrate this,” Davis said when asked about his wife’s involvement. “We’ve done so much. We don’t do it to gain the recognition. But to be recognized for what we’ve been able to accomplish, it all came to a head.”
Davis was a finalist last year for the award, named after the late Chicago Bears running back known as “Sweetness.” Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers and San Francisco receiver Anquan Boldin were the other finalists this year.
The NFL Foundation will make a $50,000 donation in Davis’ name to the charity of his choice.
Davis said former Saints defensive end Charles Grant, who grew up near Davis in south Georgia, inspired him to get involved in the community.
“It was something he always did. He went and gave back to his hometown,” Davis said. “It was something I picked up from him. I told myself if I ever made it, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a difference and give back.”
Davis and his wife started their nonprofit in 2007 to improve the quality of life for underprivileged children. The foundation reaches 2,000 children annually and has distributed more than $500,000 in financial aid since its inception.
Davis’ charitable group also includes a youth leadership academy, a 14-week, after-school mentoring program for low-income, middle school students. Each year Davis gives two college scholarships to graduating high school seniors who came through the academy.
Davis’ other community contributions include a school supplies giveaway, a Thanksgiving meal for members of a women’s shelter, and a Christmas gift giveaway for children in Charlotte, parts of South Carolina and Davis’ hometown of Shellman, Ga.
Davis said he focuses his charitable work on underprivileged children and families because he watched his mom struggled to raise him and his sister in their single-parent household.
“I didn’t want these kids to go through what we had to go through.”