Scott Fowler

Thomas Davis, Carolina Panthers have high hopes on opening day

No current player better personifies Carolina’s “Keep Pounding” motto than linebacker Thomas Davis (58), who says he still gets butterflies before the opening day of every NFL season. Davis opens every NFL season with open arms, he says, and will be a key to Carolina’s game plan as the Panthers open the season against Jacksonville Sunday.
No current player better personifies Carolina’s “Keep Pounding” motto than linebacker Thomas Davis (58), who says he still gets butterflies before the opening day of every NFL season. Davis opens every NFL season with open arms, he says, and will be a key to Carolina’s game plan as the Panthers open the season against Jacksonville Sunday. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Welcome to Opening Day – the first big Sunday of the first big week of the NFL season.

You want to raise your hands high like Thomas Davis in this picture and tell the world to bring it on?

Go for it. Opening Day is made for that sort of gesture. Even for players such as Davis – entering his 11th NFL season, all with Carolina – Opening Day is a gem.

“It’s definitely an amazing feeling,” Davis said. “You always have these emotions going through you to open the season. Everywhere that you play, you usually have a flyover, and that thing still gives me goose bumps to this day. It’s just one of those things that you can never really get used to.”

The Panthers open in Jacksonville this season, playing a team that was 3-13 last year. This is not exactly a high-profile opener, as the Jaguars have been one of the worst teams in football for years.

Yet it is real, and that makes all the difference. The Panthers haven’t played a game that really counted for nine months, since they lost in the playoffs at Seattle. This is the time to dream big – for fans and for players.

“Everybody’s goal right now as a team should be to win a Super Bowl,” Davis said. “If you’re not starting off the season thinking that you’re going to win a Super Bowl, then you are already defeated.”

The Panthers’ 2014 team and this one share a lot of similarities, not the least of them being a 32-year-old starting outside linebacker believed to be the first NFL player to rebound successfully from three ACL tears on the same knee. The last of those knee injuries came in 2011, and Davis almost quit the game. Instead, he endured the total knee reconstruction and months of rehabilitation a third time, and has since had three of the best years of his career since then. He seems as fast as he ever was.

“If you hadn’t told me he had three ACL tears, I never would have known,” said Panthers safety Kurt Coleman. “Not with that speed.”

‘He deserves a Pro Bowl’

No one embodies the late Sam Mills’ “Keep Pounding” mantra better than Davis, the longest-tenured player on Carolina’s team and a good candidate to eventually have a statue of himself outside Bank of America Stadium near the one of Mills.

A first-round draft pick chosen mostly so he could “spy” on Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick back in 2005, Davis has been on the roster for more than half of the team’s existence. This will be Davis’s 11th season in the NFL and the Panthers’ 21st.

When Thomas Davis was drafted out of Georgia in 2005, the Panthers weren’t sure if they would use him at linebacker or safety.

No. 58 has grown from a soft-spoken rookie whose wife used to count the “ummms” in his TV interviews to a well-spoken pro who is the NFL’s reigning Walter Payton Man of the Year for his stellar community work.

Davis and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, as always, will be the core of the Panthers’ defense Sunday. At their best, the two of them can use their speed and instincts to control huge swaths of the field. Kuechly is the one with the endorsements, the new $62 million contract and the Defensive Player of the Year honors from 2013.

Davis, on the other hand, has not made a single Pro Bowl in his 10 years – and his teammates and coaches rail against this injustice.

“He deserves a Pro Bowl,” said Panthers coach Ron Rivera, a former NFL linebacker himself. “I’ve coached some really good weakside linebackers in this league, with Lance Briggs (who made seven Pro Bowls for the Chicago Bears) the most notable. Thomas is just as good a player.”

After missing the majority of the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons with knee injuries, Davis has averaged 132 tackles per season over the last three years.

Rivera has always had a soft spot for Davis. In 2012, Rivera got so choked up during a postgame news conference describing Davis’s contributions to the team that he had to abruptly leave the podium so he could get hold of his emotions.

‘T.D. is everybody’s guy’

All of his teammates have been touched at one point or the other by the linebacker’s candor and leadership.

“T.D. is everybody’s guy,” quarterback Cam Newton said, using Davis’s nickname and describing him as a mentor.

“He’s easy to talk to – not only about football stuff but off-the-field things,” Newton continued. “He helps guys out, including myself. He’s been through so much, and he’s like an open book. He’ll be the first one to tell you about the issues he sustained on and off the field. He’s constantly helping guys make that transition from college to being a complete professional.”

Davis got to announce the Panthers’ first-round draft pick in 2015. Ironically, the pick was Shaq Thompson, who may eventually replace Davis as the team’s Robin to Kuechly’s Batman once Davis retires.

Davis has no intention of doing that yet, though. He signed a two-year contract extension in June and said not that long ago about retirement: “Until my body tells me I can’t play anymore. And it ain’t talking to me. So I’m going to keep going.”

There may well be several more Opening Days in Davis’s NFL future. But he knows he is only guaranteed this one, and he wants to make the best of it.

“Just considering everything that has happened in my past,” Davis said, “being able to still play this game and going into my 11th year – that’s a great feeling.”

Opening Day is a great feeling for everyone. Players, yes, but also fans. Mostly fans, really – there would be no game without them.

And like Davis, none of us are guaranteed another one of these. So raise your arms in the air. Let’s all enjoy this day. Tell the world it’s time to bring it on.

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