Thomas Davis has plenty of experience with physical pain.
The 14-year Carolina Panthers linebacker has been through three torn ACLs, and the surgery and recovery process. He played in the 2015 Super Bowl with a broken forearm, and part of last season with a broken rib.
But emotional pain, well, that’s altogether different.
“None of that really compares to the last four weeks of what I’ve had to deal with,” he said on Wednesday, in his first media session following a four-game NFL suspension.
Davis’ father, Ulyssess, had a heart attack last month and struggled to recover. He passed away on Saturday, two days before Davis returned to practice. According to Davis, his mother also had to have two surgeries for an unspecified ailment during that time.
“When you lose a parent ... and to not really, besides your family, have your guys that you have depended on so much over the years to lean on, it makes it that much tougher,” he said. “It’s definitely good to be back, I can tell you that.”
Davis was suspended for the Panthers’ first four games for a violation of the NFL’s performance-enhancing substance policy in the spring. He found that the estrogen blocker he said he had always taken had become a part of the “banned substance” list. Davis has declined to name the substance.
But he had to miss a total of five weeks, including the Panthers’ Week 4 bye. That meant he was not able to be around the building, or communicate with teammates or staff. That was an absence he especially felt when his father became ill.
“It was extremely tough,” Davis said, growing emotional. “I leaned heavily on my family and prayed to God a lot. Those were my sources of comfort, really being able to lean on them. A few other friends, I’d phone in and make sure I had somebody to talk to during that process. Because it’s never easy, when you’re dealing with something like that.
“And you don’t really understand what it’s like until you’re actually in it.”
Davis will practice this week, and then attend Ulyssess’ funeral on Saturday.
“He meant a lot to me,” Davis said, pausing every few moments to collect himself. “Whenever you not only have a father, but you lose him, it makes you think and reflect about all of the good times that you had. You just try to remember those. ... It’s all about remembering the good times.
“I’m pretty sure things are probably going to be extremely difficult on Saturday when we have the funeral. But right now, seeing him in the situation he was in for a whole month, and coming to grips that he wasn’t getting any better, you start to feel like you can’t be selfish and want him to keep staying in that position.”
Then, Davis will start on Sunday against Washington.
An ‘emotional leader’ backs it up
Davis’ teammates were visibly ecstatic when he returned on Monday morning.
The Panthers posted a video of linebacker Luke Kuechly and safety Mike Adams holding doors to the building open and exaggeratedly waving Davis inside as he arrived to work that day. All of the linebackers and position coach Steve Russ wore shirts with a cartoon likeness of Davis in his No. 58 jersey and the words “I’m Back” scrawled across the front. And cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said he sidled right up to Davis in the weight room and began smack-talking, like Davis had never left.
The energy level in the building spiked, and that carried through into Wednesday’s practice, Davis’ first of the regular season, despite it being a drizzly, gray day in Charlotte.
“He’s got a different energy level than most players. It’s above the norm,” coach Ron Rivera said. “Even in practice, it’s a running joke between he and I that it’s nice to have normal, calm practices (with Davis absent).”
But when Rivera needs Davis ...
“He’s one of those guys who, when energy level is low, I can go up to him and say, ‘Hey, let’s see if we can pick the energy up,’” Rivera said, citing Thomas’ ability as an “emotional leader.”
“And he will. That’s always kind of been the thing that he’s done. He’s been a guy who, when one of his teammates is having a tough situation or something, he’ll let me know, ‘Hey, you might want to go sidle up to this guy and talk to him, help him with that.’ Everything he does is with good intentions to help his teammates and help this football team.”
It’s more than emotional leadership, to Davis.
“It’s about going out and being a playmaker,” he said. “And that’s what I fully expect to do.”
Rivera said that even though Davis will start Sunday, he wants to be sure that they aren’t overloading his body, which is smart considering the length of the season.
But it’s not like Davis sat idle for five weeks. He worked out every day, watched film on the Panthers and on upcoming opponents, and took a ton of notes.
“I feel like I gained a lot of knowledge and experience,” he said. “Every year in the league, there are different wrinkles and different things that teams are going to do, different things that are going to be thrown at you. So I think I’m up to speed on what’s really going on in the league right now, and what offenses are doing.”
Davis had tickets purchased in the hopes of watching home games from the stands at Bank of America Stadium during his suspension. But the NFL told him he couldn’t be on the premises, so he donated the tickets to families who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to see a Panthers game, through his Defending Dreams foundation.
“We made a lot of people happy during this time,” he said.
But his teammates and coaches might agree that the happiest moment will be when Davis gets back on the field for good this season.
“First of all, he’s an amazing player,” said Russ. “Second, his energy, his presence, his advice, his wisdom, his leadership. ...
“The standard that he carries and then the demand that he has for everybody else to do it just like him. You can’t have enough of that in pro football or in any organization.
“Its great to just have that back. It’s the complete package, he really is. He’s one of those rare, rare, rare special people.”
Davis, 35, said on NFL Network in January that 2018 would likely be his final season. His most recent contract extension only goes through this year.
But after the news of his violation broke, Davis hinted in a video that 2018 “might not” be his last year, after all. And in June, he said he was “very open” to returning past this season, which would mean another contract extension.
On Wednesday, however, he wanted to keep the focus on his first game back.
“I just really want to get back to playing the game. When you sit out five weeks and you’re not able to play, and you’re not able to go out and compete, it’s extremely tough,” he said. “So for me, it’s just really getting back out there. Showing first and foremost that I’m able to play, I’m capable of playing and able to do it at a high level.
“Knowing that our team is 3-1 in my absence definitely makes me feel good. Knowing that we can go out and get the job done, and now I feel like I can come back and help contribute to us being even better, I’m excited about it.”