Linebacker Thomas Davis has been named Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year.
Davis accepted the prestigious honor Saturday night during the fourth annual "NFL Honors" awards show at Symphony Hall in Phoenix, miles from the site of Super Bowl XLIX.
Davis faced more than his share of challenges growing up in Shellman, Ga. In his acceptance speech, he challenged his fellow NFL players to make a difference in the lives of children in their communities.
"To the guys in this league, I just want to say to you, 'Let's take charge. Dare to be different,'" Davis said. "We are a village. Let's step up and be a village of guys that make a difference. Let's change this world.
"We're well-compensated for what we do. Let's show these kids how much we care about them."
Davis, who was also one of eight finalists for the inaugural Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award, received a $50,000 donation in his name to a charity of his choice from the NFL Foundation and Nationwide. The two other Man of the Year finalists – Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin - received $10,000 donations in their names.
"So often in my career, I've been the guy that's come up just short," Davis said, "but receiving this award signifies and encompasses everything that I've been able to accomplish and all that I had to go through."
The award recognizes an NFL player for his off-the-field community service and his playing excellence.
Davis' on-the-field accomplishments are the stuff of legend. In 2012, he became the first NFL player known to return for a full season after three ACL reconstructions on the same knee. Since his return, he's posted three consecutive 100-tackle seasons.
Davis' off-the-field impact has been just as great. He and his wife, Kelly, run the Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation, a non-profit that enhances the quality of life for more than 2,000 underprivileged children and their families each year. Since its inception in 2007, the foundation has distributed more than $500,000 in aid.
Davis is an active participant on a weekly basis in the foundation's cornerstone program, the Thomas Davis Youth Leadership Academy. The 16-week afterschool program mentors low-income middle school students on etiquette, public speaking, community service, leadership and academic achievement – a cause extremely important and personal to Davis. In August 2011, he became the first member of his immediate family to graduate from college.
The Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation offers everything from a youth football camp for 350 boys and girls to a school supplies program that impacts 600 students every year. Over the holidays, Davis, with the help of teammates, hosts his annual Thanksgiving meal for the Battered Women's Shelter and an annual Christmas toy giveaway.
In June 2013, the foundation constructed the first and only park in Davis' hometown.
"This award means a great deal to me, as it symbolizes the valued work that the NFL, its players, and its 32 teams do in the community," Davis said. "I am blessed to have such a strong support system in my family, the Carolina Panthers and the NFL, which allows me to make an impact in the communities we serve."
Bill Polian, the Panthers' general manager for their first three seasons, was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He becomes the second person, along with defensive end Reggie White, associated with the team to be elected.
After starting his NFL career as a pro scout for the Kansas City Chiefs in 1978, Polian later guided three different franchises to the playoffs. As general manager of the Buffalo Bills from 1986-92, he built a team that participated in four consecutive Super Bowls. Polian served as general manager of the Panthers from 1995-97 and quickly assembled a team that made the playoffs in only its second season of existence. From 1998-2011 as president of the Indianapolis Colts, he constructed a team that earned 11 postseason berths and a victory in Super Bowl XLI.
Polian twice won The Sporting News Executive of the Year with Carolina. In their inaugural season in 1995, the Panthers won the most games ever for an expansion team (seven) and became the first expansion team to defeat a reigning Super Bowl champion with a win over the San Francisco 49ers. In 1996, Carolina became the first second-year team in NFL history to win a division title and advanced to the NFC Championship. Behind Polian's personnel savvy, the Panthers put together a combination of unrestricted free agents, draft choices, waiver acquisitions and expansion draft players to form the 1996 NFC West champions.
Panthers.com manager/editor David Monroe contributed to this report.