Thomas Davis didn’t play in Super Bowl XLIX, but the Carolina Panthers linebacker still made an impact on Super Bowl weekend.
On the eve of the big game, Davis received the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, and used his platform to send a message to players around the NFL. “To the guys in this league, I just want to say to you, let’s take charge,” he said that night. “We are a village. Let’s step up and be a village of guys that make a difference.”
On the field, Davis is known for coming back from three ACL tears between 2009 and ’11 to post three consecutive 100-plus tackle seasons. Off it, he and his wife Kelly lead the Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation, which reaches thousands of underprivileged kids with programs like Christmas gift giveaways and a Youth Leadership Academy that annually awards two college scholarships—programs that didn’t exist in the tiny, impoverished town of Shellman, Ga., where he grew up in a single-parent home.
Sports Illustrated’s The MMQB talked to Davis about the meaning behind his message, the feedback he received, and what it’s like to be an active player in the stands at a Super Bowl.
Why did you decide to use your acceptance speech to send a message to your fellow NFL players?
It really was an on-the-spot thing. It wasn’t rehearsed or thought up. I was just speaking from the heart. In sitting there looking at the video [during the presentation], thinking about the words that I said about the way I grew up, and what it took to really mold me into the man that I am, I just focused in on that. And I thought about, if we got together as a group of players, and did it in a village-type style, and gave back to the community, and gave back to the kids, we could change the world and make a difference. And that’s really how it came about. I hope to motivate guys that are doing things to do more. And the guys who are not doing anything, step up and let’s do something. Because we are a powerful league, and we can make a difference, and we do have a huge voice, and it’s all about us using that voice in the right way. That was the message. Trying to get guys to do that.
After a year in which the NFL has faced a lot of criticism because of off-the-field events, you also talked about taking charge as players. Are you frustrated by the perception of all NFL players being painted with a single brush?
Absolutely. Because we are a league, and we are in this thing together as players and coaches and owners, we all kind of get put in the same box. And if something goes wrong, then we all get looked at negatively. That’s not right. There are so many guys doing so much good, and there are so many more guys doing good than bad, but you don’t hear about those guys, and you don’t get to see that stuff. That was the message. And even to the reporters, let’s report on some of the good things that are going on in this league and not always focus on the negative stuff.
What feedback have you received from your fellow players since the speech?
It has been all positive. A lot of guys really feel like I said the things that needed to be said. I said some things that some people are afraid to say sometimes, but definitely needed. And it was a challenge. I am definitely looking forward to guys stepping up to the challenge, and hearing about all the positive things these guys are doing in this league.
On the field before the Super Bowl, I got introduced as the Walter Payton Man of the Year, and it was an awesome feeling to be recognized for that award in front of that crowd. Then we got to sit in a suite and watch the game and enjoy the company of Ms. Condoleezza Rice and Jim Kelly throughout the game. Mr. Kelly was talking about the speech, and how much he felt like it was needed, and how great a job that I did. Hearing that coming from him, it was definitely an honor.
What emotions do you feel, as an active player, when you are sitting in the stands and watching the Super Bowl be played?
Oh man, I hated it. I hated it. Because we made the playoffs, and we played Seattle, and we ended up losing to them. So to go out there and watch them play in the Super Bowl and have that chance in the end to win the game, it was just one of those things as a player, you really felt like that could have been you. It was definitely tough. I hate going to watch other people play. But it’s the Super Bowl, and the last game of the year, so you wanted to pay homage to that.
You played Seattle in the divisional round, so you know their offensive tendencies well. Surprised they didn’t run it with Marshawn Lynch on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line?
I was definitely expecting Beast Mode to get the ball. But you know, if the play goes another way, and they trick everybody, and everybody plays the run and they throw the pass wide open, then it’s a different story. But at the end of the day, the kid from New England made a great play. He studied his film, and he broke on the ball, and he made a play that ultimately ended up in them winning the game.
How much motivation do you take from being in the stadium and watching another team win a championship?
You have no clue how much motivation going to that game and watching those guys play has given us. For me, as soon as I came back from Arizona, the next day I was in the weight room working out, trying to get ready for this upcoming season.
How much extra effort do you put in during the offseason to keep your knees healthy after all the injuries you have endured?
I work on it year-round. That’s something that has become a part of my routine. I understand how important it is for me moving forward, because I’m coming off of three ACLs, so I have to make sure my legs are as strong as they can be. I spend a lot of time strengthening my legs. A lot of leg extension, leg curls, squats—you name it.
Your team’s season ended with a loss, but before that the Panthers delivered a record-setting defensive playoffs performance, stifling the Cardinals for just 78 yards of total offense. How much carryover can a performance like that have into 2015?
You absolutely hope to build off of that momentum. We finished our season strong, despite the loss to Seattle. We feel like we definitely turned the corner; our season wasn’t going the way we wanted it to go, but we fought back, and gave ourselves a chance in the end. In this league, that’s all you can ask for—a chance to go on and continue to play. We’ve just got to figure out a way to start our season faster and stay strong throughout and finish the way we did. We need to continue to mature as a group, continue to stay healthy and go out and compete at a high level.
What’s next for you and the Defending Dreams foundation?
We started our foundation in 2008. We started doing some events in 2007, but we wanted to do more. We wanted to make it bigger, and we wanted to impact more lives, and that was the real reason for starting the foundation. It was the best way that we felt like we could impact the most people. I’ve learned that people are definitely in need, and that we can make a difference. And that’s what it is all about: Understanding that there is a need, and going and filling those needs for those families, and trying to help as many people as we can. The next event we have coming up is with our Leadership Academy. We’re taking the kids to a community service event, at Second Harvest Food Bank, and we’re going to stuff some bags for some needy families. I’m just as involved with the foundation during the season as I am during the offseason.
Photo: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images