One would have thought perseverance would be the overwhelming message from Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis on Saturday upon accepting the annual Call to Courage Award.
It turned out gratitude was the strongest emotion expressed by Davis before a crowd of about 700 at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.
Davis is the only NFL player ever to come back from three torn anterior cruciate ligament injuries. He suffered the major injuries to his right knee in 2009, 2010 and 2011. He came back to start 12 games in 2012. Then he played 98 percent of his team’s snaps in 2013 and was one of the top-rated strong-side linebackers in the NFL.
Davis, 31, calmly described his laborious rehabilitation from his injuries. But he repeatedly got choked up when talking about the willingness of Panthers owner Jerry Richardson to give him another shot after his third injury.
“Jerry Richardson, I’ll tell you without a doubt he’s been … he’s been real big in our lives,” Davis said. “I wouldn’t be standing up here talking to you right now if he didn’t believe in me.”
“They could have gotten somebody younger or cheaper,” Davis said. “That’s why I take great pride in knowing that the organization believed in me. The relationship I have with Mr. Richardson kept me in this game. He had to make a decision, and it’s satisfying knowing I didn’t let him down as a player.”
Davis became the 13th recipient of the award, created by former Buffalo Bills quarterback Frank Reich. It honors an NFL player who demonstrates character, leadership and a commitment to Jesus Christ.
Davis was a first-round draft pick out of the University of Georgia in 2005 and encountered his first health crisis in 2009. He was attending a community service event designed to encourage youths to get screened for hidden heart problems. He got the first screening to set an example for the youths. To his shock, doctors discovered he had a coronary artery defect that normally requires open-heart surgery.
After further tests, doctors decided Davis was in such peak condition he didn’t need the surgery.
“If it was going to happen to me,” Davis said of a cardiac event, “it would have happened already.”
Three months later came his first knee injury, from which he fully recovered. But the next summer, he tore the ACL again.
“I’m thinking, ‘Why God, why is this happening to me? What are you trying to show me?’ ” Davis said.
The third ACL tear came just two games into the 2011 season. Once he got supportive feedback from the Panthers about a potential return, he was all-in on his rehabilitation.
“To be honest with you, the third time was easier than the first two,” Davis said, referring to the mental hurdles. “The surgery was more invasive because they had to take part of the left patella and fix the right knee. So I had surgery on both knees. But I was ready for the next training camp.”
“I can definitely say everything I’ve gone through injury-wise has been worth it,” Davis said. “I stopped questioning God. I stopped asking him why it was happening to me and I embraced it. … I know it’s the grace of God that’s allowed me to do that.”
Davis was a finalist for the 2013 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award, and he founded the Thomas Davis “Defending Dreams Foundation,” which supports underprivileged children. He supports numerous programs that give aid to families around the holidays.
“I know what it was like on Christmas morning to wake up and not have a gift and feeling like I had done something wrong,” Davis said. “I don’t want those kids to have to experience that.”
Winner of the high school Call to Courage Award was North Tonawanda High senior Ryan Osborn. He was diagnosed at age 10 with Langerhans cell histiocytosis, a rare disease involving abnormal cells from bone marrow.
He went through two years of chemotherapy and two surgeries, yet missed only 20 days of school throughout the ordeal. He helped the Lumberjacks to a Class A sectional title and earned second-team Class A honors. Osborn has recruited up to 25 classmates to the Young Life Christian Organization at North Tonawanda.