CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The 2009 football season might as well be an eternity ago for Thomas Davis.
It was the first of many frustrating years for Davis, beginning a trend that many around the Carolina Panthers organization didn’t think would end positively for the well-liked and respected linebacker out of Georgia
But when Matt Ryan’s pass that was intended for wide receiver Roddy White fell into Davis’ hands with 6:19 remaining Sunday and the Panthers owning a 10-point lead, suddenly all Davis had been through was magnified.
Here were the Panthers in the midst of one of the franchise’s most frustrating seasons, perhaps in the process of blowing a 23-0 lead to an Atlanta Falcons team they admittedly despise, and seemingly nothing in Ryan’s way to prevent the ultimate disaster for the home team. But Davis made a play. He made the kind of play that once marked him as one of the better linebackers in the NFL.
And it was a play that may have saved the game for the Panthers in their 30-20 victory.
“It was definitely good to go out there and make a play that helps the team out a lot,” said Davis, who also gave credit to the defensive line’s pass rush that forced Ryan to “throw a bad ball and I was able to come away with the interception.”
Davis’ play didn’t go unrecognized by the Panthers. On an afternoon when quarterback Cam Newton put forth one of the best and most professional efforts of his career, coach Ron Rivera gave the game ball to Davis.
Really, it was a no-brainer.
After playing in just nine games since his 2009 campaign was cut short with a torn ACL in his right knee, the organization had to make a decision on Davis. So Rivera and owner Jerry Richardson sat down with him last spring to discuss their situations and Davis, 29, gave them his word he’d be back and would remain healthy. Rivera and Richardson gave him that opportunity.
“I knew he really wanted to make it through both Atlanta games,” Rivera said following Sunday’s game about Davis. “As a head coach, when you have a guy look you in the eye, coming off three knee surgeries and he makes you believe in him, that’s what it’s all about. It really is.”
Rivera couldn’t go on any longer. Overcome with emotion, he simply walked away from the podium and the press conference was over.
If there’s a defining moment of this season Carolina fans can take away with pride, then that was it. Not the interception that likely preserved a win that won’t really affect this team’s final standing, but the human side of what Davis achieved.
The Panthers had played 54 games since Davis’ last interception, which came in the sixth contest of the 2009 campaign. One game later, he was done for the season with an ACL tear, setting off the frustrating journey.
Davis didn’t play a snap in 2010, and last season re-injured the right knee in the second game and was lost again for the campaign. He thought he had just tweaked it at first, but an MRI later revealed the damage and he was lost for the season by its second game.
Not surprisingly, Davis had been given more than his share of advice to walk away from the game while he could. But he just couldn’t. Even in the first week or so of camp in July it appeared when Rivera spoke about Davis and his performance it was almost as a courtesy. Understandably, Davis’ situation was a seeing-is-believing deal.
That’s why the game ball Sunday meant so much.
“It was a special moment,” Davis said. “After everything I’ve gone through over the last two-and-a-half years, being able to come back here and compete, and just being able to make a play that I feel like had an impact on the game. … It feels great. You know, it feels great. It’s been a long time.”
Davis has played in all 12 games this season, becoming the first NFL player to successfully come back from three ACL surgeries. Davis has been in on 81 tackles and forced a pair of fumbles while scooping up another. And then there’s his only interception since two months before the iPad was introduced to the world.
Five snaps later, DeAngelo Williams took a short pass from Newton and dashed into the end zone for a 53-yard score to essentially seal the deal.
It was just the Panthers’ fourth victory in 13 tries this season, but no win could match this one in satisfaction and emotion. That’s how much Davis means to his teammates and the organization.