CHARLOTTE - When linebacker Thomas Davis tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee for the third time in less than two years, he thought it might be time to call it quits.
Davis, however, has never been a quitter, and his remarkable resolve has earned him the Ed Block Courage Award as voted by his teammates.
Davis accepted the award, given annually to one player on each NFL team, at the Courage House Awards & Appreciation Luncheon at Bank of America Stadium on Tuesday. The award is named in honor of longtime Baltimore Colts trainer Ed Block, an inspirational figure in the history of the famed franchise.
Panthers head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion introduced Davis to the 200-plus attendees, lending a little insight into Davis' determination. Davis missed the second half of the 2009 season with the initial injury and all of the 2010 season with the second injury, but he worked his way back to play in two games this season before hurting the knee yet again.
"He tore it for the third time, and when he came in that Monday morning, he looked at me and said, 'Ryan, I'm done. I don't want to do this anymore,'" Vermillion said. "I said, 'Thomas, I completely understand. Let's just do one more rehab, and then you can retire.'
"Then the next day, 48 hours after the injury, he walks in and goes, 'I'm coming back.' He grieved for 48 hours, and then he was like, 'Nobody's ever done it. I'm going to be the first to do it.' Nobody has come back from three ACL injuries to play in the NFL, but I have no doubt in my mind that next year, the starting linebacker for the Carolina Panthers will be Thomas Davis."
Vermillion called Davis "a true pro at being a husband, a father, a teammate and a friend." Davis returned the praise, thanking Vermillion and his staff, as well as his wife and teammates for their role in his recoveries.
"I've faced a lot over the past two years with now my third ACL, and it's very tough. But I have a lot of good people in my corner, a lot of people on my side that have helped me out tremendously," Davis said. "I wouldn't have been able to go through three ACL surgeries without my wife - I can definitely tell you that. And having guys that constantly motivate you to work as hard as you can, each and every day, it makes it that much easier."
Vermillion said as courageous as Davis has been, it's hard to compare the football side of Tuesday's luncheon with the courage displayed by the families honored at the event, now in its 10th year.
Brothers Eric and Tyleak Austin, ages 15 and 12, received the 2011 Children's Home Society Courage Award. To escape a home ravaged by domestic violence and substance abuse, they were placed five years ago in the foster care of Ronald and Tamela McKinney, who are now going through the adoption process with the boys.
They are among the fortunate few "in the system," part of a list of success stories that those gathered Tuesday hope to see grow.
"As you reflect this year at Thanksgiving and Christmas, think about the 9,000 children who are in foster care (in North Carolina) who do not know what family they may be associated with next year," said Ken Tutterow, president and CEO of Children's Home Society of NC. "And think about the 2,600 children who know they will not go back to their birth family, that have to hope that there's another family for them.
"Some of them will grow up and age out and not be adopted, and their chances of success are very slim. Many of the children in foster care that do not get adopted, when they turn 18 they face a future of homelessness and prison. These children need our help."
That's not a message lost on Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross. Last year, Gross attended the banquet to receive the Ed Block Courage Award after he bounced back from a broken leg.
This year, Gross attended in hopes of helping give disadvantaged children a leg up.
"This is that award that nobody wants to win, because to win it you have to go through something terrible. But in doing so, I was exposed to this outstanding foundation and this outstanding group of people," Gross said. "In my nine years as a Panther, I've been exposed to a lot of charitable organizations, but I can honestly say that this is something I come back and support on my own."