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Carolina Panthers’ Thomas Davis is NFL’s, and our, Man of the Year

Super Bowl winners get a parade. Winners of the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award get a ride home from the airport.

What’s important is that Thomas Davis, who received the man of the year award on Saturday, came back to Charlotte and to the Carolina Panthers. Some people make a community stronger simply by being part of it. Davis and his wife, Kelly, are among them.

Every team has a nominee for the award, and for four years Davis has represented the Panthers. Last season, he made the final three. To qualify, you have to be able to play; those of us who watch Davis, 31, roam the field at linebacker on Sundays are familiar with his work. You also have to give.

We non-athletes like to talk about how much money athletes should offer to charity, as if we’ve worked out a formula and are prepared to present a bill. We’re generous with the money of others, not always with our own.

We have no idea how much money, time and passion we’d invest if we had the resources, and demands on our schedule, that Davis does.

To pretend we’d do what he and Kelly do would make us extraordinary people.

Under the auspices of the Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation, Davis has established an after-school leadership academy and mentoring program; he annually sends two graduates to college.

He built a park, the first, in his small hometown, Shellman, Ga. He works with Levine’s Children’s Hospital. He has given more than $500,000 to kids and their families.

Davis grew up with little in a single-parent family. He sees himself in the children and families with whom he works, and is driven to offer others all that he didn’t have. He offers toys at Christmas and, on Thanksgiving, a dinner for women from the Salvation Army Center of Hope.

I’ve attended two of the Foundation’s functions. Davis sent limousines to pick up the women for the Thanksgiving dinner, and he was as interested in how they ate as what they ate. Many have spent a lifetime serving others. On this night, he and Kelly insisted that the women be served.

Watch Davis play football and there’s joy to the game. He enjoys hitting people. There’s also elegance to his game. At 31, and after three ACL injuries to his right knee, he can still fly. He enjoys the chase, chasing down quarterbacks and running backs, tight ends and receivers.

That same joy was apparent at the dinner, and there was no helmet to mask it. An introvert in real life, he became an instant extrovert, waiting on the women, making sure they had what they wanted, talking and laughing and smiling.

I went to the Davises’ home last year to talk to Thomas and Kelly about being a finalist for the man of the year award. I’m not aware of Davis publicizing his charitable efforts. He didn’t come to me. I went to him.

As we talked, there was no sense of, “Look what I did.” The sense was, “We’re off to a good start but we have so much more to do.”

I asked what he got out of his charitable work, and he didn’t know what to say.

“Where do I begin?” he asked.

After accepting the award from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in Phoenix Saturday, Davis knew what to say.

In the room were Carolina coach Ron Rivera, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and several players, many of them former winners of the award.

Davis, who choked back tears, dared them to be different.

Resplendent in a white jacket he said: “Let’s step up and be a village of guys that make a difference. Let’s change this world. We’re well compensated for what we do. Let’s show these kids how much we care about them.”

Davis has shown thousands of kids and families how much he cares. Line them up and you could have a parade.

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