The next week, against San Francisco, Davis crouches in his outside linebacker spot. The 49ers open a hole in the middle and running back Kendall Hunter cuts into the gap -- until Davis fills it and sticks him so hard the ball flies 5 yards backward. The Panthers recover in a game they go on to win 10-9. "DVR this," announcer Brian Billick says. "Davis with a classic. Look at that. See what you hit, keep your legs churning. That's how you make a tackle at linebacker."
Thomas Davis, 30 years old, on a knee ripped apart three times, is the best he's ever been. He's playing the strongside and the weakside linebacker spots for a defense that has given up the fewest points in the league (221 through 15 games). In the Panthers' first showcase game of the season -- a 24-20 Monday night win over New England -- Davis had 17 tackles. That helped make him NFC Defensive Player of the Month in November. On Sunday, he had 14 tackles and an interception in the Panthers' playoff-clinching 17-13 win over the Saints. And now that Davis is all the way back, he won't leave. The Panthers have played 943 defensive snaps this season, and Davis has been on the field for 919.
To keep his knee together, surgeons have scavenged his body for parts. The first time, they replaced his ACL with part of his hamstring tendon. The second time, they shaved off a piece of the patellar tendon in his right knee. The third time, they needed part of the patellar tendon from his left knee -- so he had surgery on both knees at once.
Now he gets acupuncture on the knees and a balky shoulder. He owns a hyperbaric chamber to force more oxygen into his blood. He deals with the everyday car crashes that make up life in the NFL. The bridge of his nose is perpetually skinned where the rim of his helmet keeps bashing it. Against Miami, he dislocated his right pinkie so badly the bone tore through the skin. He didn't miss a down.
At home, the cape comes off. When he and Kelly decided to get married in 2008, he dug so deep into picking out flowers and color schemes that she started calling him The Bride. She doesn't like shopping, so he gets the groceries and picks out clothes for their four kids. They play cards and board games. The Davises are competitive. Sometimes he and Kelly need a cooling-off period after a rough round of Monopoly.
His injuries put him in an odd place on the field. His opponents worry about him even as they try to whip him on every play. In the San Francisco game, Davis dove on a loose ball and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick landed on Davis, bending his right leg backward. After the whistle, Kaepernick jumped up, worried: "Are you OK? Are you OK?" (Slight knee strain; didn't miss a play.) In the Panthers' 27-6 win against Tampa Bay, while officials sorted out a replay, Bucs offensive tackle Donald Penn wandered over and said: "It's so good to see you out here, man."
It matters to him that he is noticed. It hurt him a little in 2012, his first year back from the third knee surgery, when it became clear Peyton Manning was going to win Comeback Player of the Year. But it matters more to him that he is needed. He missed 39 games over three years (2009-11), but the lost games didn't bother him as much as the lost time in the locker room, pushing his teammates, having them push him.