Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis is 33 now, well into the fourth quarter of his career. He doesn’t need a Super Bowl ring to validate his parking. Davis is a 12-year NFL veteran who long ago proved himself as a player, and then he did it again and again and again through three ACL tears on the very same knee.
But Davis desperately wants a ring nonetheless. And No. 58 wants a ring for someone else, he said Monday, even more than he wants one for himself.
That person is Panthers owner Jerry Richardson.
“At this point, it’s really not even about me anymore,” Davis said Monday as the Panthers prepared for Thursday’s season-opening Super Bowl rematch at Denver. “My goal and my whole reasoning for playing as hard as I can right now – knowing that really when you get to 12 years, time is starting to wind down – is we want to put on a Super Bowl ring on Mr. Richardson’s finger. That is a promise I made to him. And I’m trying to stay true to that promise.”
Davis had not spoken publicly of this promise before, but he decided it was time to reveal it on Monday. He and Richardson have had an unusually close relationship for the past dozen years. Davis was raised by a single mother in Georgia. Richardson, 80, has long been a father figure in Davis’s life.
The Panthers owner made Davis a promise as well after that third ACL tear, the injury that almost made Davis quit: If Davis wanted to go through the rehab one more time, Carolina would make sure to find a place for him on the roster.
The lost seasons
Why does Davis want to bring Richardson a ring so badly?
“When you look at Mr. Richardson and what he’s been and what he’s done for me as a player, that’s the only thing that he doesn’t have,” Davis said. “That’s the only thing that he’s missing. As a player who’s been here as long as I’ve been here, you want to be part of the group that brings that to him. Knowing that he was the person who believed in me, that said he was giving me another shot after everything I went through personally, it’s definitely something I want to be part of.”
Because Davis has been so incredibly productive the past few years, it’s easy to forget the lost seasons of 2009-11. But in those three years, Davis missed 39 of a possible 48 games as he kept tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, rehabbing it and then tearing it again.
The third surgery turned out to be the charm, however. Davis and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly have formed the Panthers’ best linebacker tandem ever over the past few years and contributed heavily to Carolina’s three straight playoff berths. Davis has become a beloved figure in the locker room because of his seniority, his multiple comebacks from injury and the exemplary community service that earned him the Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 2015. Quarterback Cam Newton has jokingly nicknamed him “Charlotte’s Sweetheart.”
When Davis was originally announced as Carolina’s nominee for the Payton award, Richardson issued a statement that read in part: “I have had the pleasure of watching Thomas Davis grow into the confident, mature, caring man he is today. No one takes his position of influence more seriously than Thomas on the field or in the community.”
‘He fights, he leads’
Said Kuechly on Monday: “You look at what the Carolina Panthers embody and it’s Thomas Davis. He fights. He leads. He does everything the right way on and off the field.”
Kuechly is motivated for a Super Bowl ring partly because he knows Davis won’t be around forever, either.
“I think it’d be the final stamp on his resume,” Kuechly said.
Davis said much the same thing about Richardson, who underwent a heart transplant in 2009. A former NFL player himself, Richardson rarely appears in public or grants interviews like he used to, but he still takes an active role with the team.
Richardson is the only owner the team has ever had – he was awarded the franchise in 1993 and the Panthers began play in 1995. As a player, Richardson did win an NFL championship with Baltimore in 1959, but that was before the Super Bowl came into existence.
Davis was vague on the details of when he made the promise to Richardson Monday, saying it was in “a private conversation a while back.”
“I told him I wanted to do it for him,” Davis said of the Super Bowl. “I felt like we were going to get it done last year, but we came up short.”
Thursday night in Denver, though, marks the beginning of another opportunity. Davis knows both he and Richardson don’t have a huge number of chances left. He hopes to make the most of this one.