You can't keep Thomas Davis down

"There's so much I can't get back," he says. "Now that we're making a run at the playoffs, I have to appreciate every moment. And I have to get my teammates to do the same."

In the New England game, Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson took a shot to the knee and pounded the turf in pain. It turned out to be just a sprain, though, and he went back into the game to help stop the Patriots on their final drive. In the locker room afterward, Davis, a three-time team captain, went over to check on him.

"I was scared," Johnson said. "I heard that s--- pop. I thought I was done."

"But you were all right," Davis said. He walked away, off toward the showers. "We needed you. Big game. Had to have you. And you were there."

He was talking to Johnson. But maybe also to himself.

•  •   •

The second time, Thomas Davis sobbed in his wife's arms.

He had been doing a simple noncontact drill in a Panthers offseason workout in June 2010. He was supposed to backpedal, turn left, turn right -- a basic move a linebacker would make in a game. When he planted his right leg, his knee gave way. He was done for the season three months before it started.

He had always thought he was the toughest man on the field. Growing up in little Shellman, Ga., they played kill the man with the ball, and, when he got the ball, nobody could catch him, much less kill him. On the football team at Randolph-Clay High School, he played eight positions. At the University of Georgia, he shuffled between linebacker and safety and made All-America teams anyway. The Panthers drafted him in the first round in 2005. By 2006, he was a full-time starter. His career had gone just as he had dreamed -- until his knee failed him once, and now again.

One night, he and Kelly were talking about it and he broke down. She held him in her arms and rocked him like a child.

One day not long after, their son Thomas Jr. sat on Davis' lap. Thomas Jr. was 3 then. Davis' leg was bandaged.

Daddy, did you hurt your knee again? Thomas Jr. asked.

Yeah, I hurt my knee again.

Well, Thomas Jr. said, why don't you just stop playing football?

I've never quit anything, Davis told his son. I'm not a quitter.

But he knew it was a good question. He and Kelly are stout in their faith. They believe in signs. They wondered whether his knee giving out over and over was a sign from God that Thomas should quit. They thought about this a lot.

They decided God must be sending some other sign.

•  •   •

Doubters are the Duraflame logs of every pro athlete. The most gifted and adored player can flip back through the files and find a slight to seize on. Davis remembers that Georgia was his only FBS scholarship offer. He remembers the scouts who said he was too small to play linebacker in the pros. He remembers the comments from each time he hurt his knee. They showed up at the bottom of every online story about him. They trailed him on his Twitter feed. "He could have been real good in the nfl sucks that he can never stay healthy," wrote a commenter on Pro Football Talk. "He should just hang it up though."

"I use that," he says. "I use that as motivation."

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