CHARLOTTE – Since joining the Panthers.com staff in the summer of 2010, rarely did I need to seek out Thomas Davis for an interview. He was always among the most accessible players on the team.
The announcement Wednesday that his remarkable 14-season run with the Panthers has come to a close sent me to reminiscing, leading me to recall only three occasions when I interviewed Davis one-on-one.
Each one encapsulates a different part of who Davis was as a Panther – on the field, off the field and during his extensive efforts to make his way back on the field.
The first one took place during my first month on the job, early in training camp in 2010. Davis was working as hard as his body would allow, less than two months removed from tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee for the second time in less than a year. Having endured months of rehab and on the verge of declaring himself ready for the 2010 season after his first ACL injury had sidelined him midway through the 2009 season, Davis again blew out his right knee on a non-contact play during an offseason practice.
"I have a very positive attitude toward the whole situation, just hoping that at some point during the season I could possibly try to make it back," Davis said on that early August day, hoping he could return six months after the injury and play in a couple of games in 2010. "I'm in great spirits."
Davis was hitting the road at 6:30 a.m. during that training camp and embarking on a five-mile bike ride that began and ended on the Wofford campus. Despite his efforts, it turned out that his return would have to wait until 2011 - a year that truly tested his spirits.
Davis returned to start the opener that year, the first career game for quarterback Cam Newton and head coach Ron Rivera, but in Newton's first home game in Week 2, Davis shredded the same knee yet again. This time he told head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion that he was done, that he couldn't see enduring rehab for a third time in less than two calendar years.
But the next time I recall interviewing Davis one-on-one, he had accomplished the seemingly impossible and made everyone (almost) forget that his knee was ever an obstacle.
"Sometimes I just sit back in awe," his wife, Kelly, said on that night. "How can he be so strong? How can he do all the things that he does?"
The Davises were hosting two dozen middle school students participating in the Thomas Davis Leadership Academy. Davis spent many of his Mondays during the season working with the group; the next Monday, he wasn't there. He was still basking in the glow of being named NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year two days earlier.
"We have a voice, and it's up to us how we use that voice," Davis said during my interview with him at the Leadership Academy meeting. He said much the same thing when accepting one of the league's most prestigious awards.
At that point, Davis had played three consecutive seasons injury-free and had topped 100 tackles in each of them. A year later, he earned his first of three consecutive Pro Bowl spots and helped the Panthers earn a spot in Super Bowl 50.
The last time I recall interviewing Davis one-on-one, his streak of 100-tackle seasons had reached five. In a hurried interview in the Bank of America Stadium offices, a dressed-to-the-nines Davis about to board a plane bound for Carolina's first road preseason game of 2017 discussed the contract extension he had literally just signed.
"Knowing and understanding where I've come from since 2011, when I tore up my knee for the third time and thinking that my career that was going to be over – not knowing that there would be an opportunity for me to continue to play this game – to be sitting here at this moment is a blessing," Davis said. "It's all about giving max effort because you never know when that last play is going to be."
At that time, Davis thought his last play would be when his new contract expired at the end of the 2018 season. That's no longer his vision, but despite his hopes for continuing to play in a Carolina uniform, the Panthers decided the time had come from their perspective.
"Everybody knows how I feel about being a Carolina Panther," Davis said after signing that extension.
And Davis knows how the Carolina Panthers feel about him, how they feel about one of the greatest to wear the uniform for a multitude of reasons.
View photos of linebacker Thomas Davis throughout his career with the Carolina Panthers.