CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The third time, Thomas Davis quit.
Out on the field, his Carolina Panthers were battling the Packers in the fourth quarter of the second game of the 2011 season. But underneath the stands, in the team doctor's office, Davis' right knee bulged with fluid and blood. Just as it had both other times.
Just a few minutes earlier, Davis had been trying to tackle the Packers' James Starks when one of his own linemen accidentally leg-whipped him. Now, Dr. Pat Connor did the Lachman test and the pivot-shift test -- the two standard ways to check for a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He moved Davis' knee joint up and down and side to side. It went where it was not supposed to go. Davis and Connor and Panthers trainer Ryan Vermillion talked quietly in the little room. Through the concrete, they could hear the muted boom of the 73,000 fans outside, like a party at the neighbor's house. The diagnosis wouldn't be official until they did an MRI. But Davis knew.
Thanks for everything you did for me, he said. I'm done.
He called teammate Jon Beason, who was in bed recovering from his own surgery for an Achilles tendon tear. This is it, Davis said. No one's going to want me.
That night, he talked it over with his wife, Kelly. This time, he'd get a cadaver ligament to replace his ACL. It wasn't flexible enough for pro football, but maybe he could shoot hoops at the gym. The rehab wouldn't be as hard. He wouldn't have to train for the torque and thrust of life as an NFL linebacker. He'd stop when he was well enough to run around the backyard with his kids.
At first, he felt peace. No NFL player -- no pro athlete of any kind -- had come back from three ACL tears on the same knee. There was no point in thinking about it.
Then he thought about it.
He thought about all he had gone through that everyone knew about. He thought about the one thing almost nobody knew about.
The next morning, he showed up at Panthers practice. And he got ready to start over again.
Against Atlanta on Nov. 3, Davis is lined up as an edge rusher but backpedals into coverage. Matt Ryan throws a deep pass down the middle. Davis leaves his man, sprints for the thicket converging on the ball, and, when it's tipped, he dives for the interception 30 yards downfield.
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.
"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.
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.
"I use that," he says. "I use that as motivation."
Competition motivates him, too. He and Beason, practicing on the backup kickoff team, went all out to see who could get to the goal line first. When Beason tore his Achilles, Davis carried his jersey onto the field the next week -- the very game in which Davis suffered his third ACL tear. Vermillion, the trainer, put them together as rehab partners. They worked out together, 9 a.m. until they gave out, six or seven days a week.
Davis spent weeks just bending and stretching his leg, reclaiming his range of motion one agonizing millimeter at a time. Then he moved to a stationary bike. "I can remember they jacked the seat up so he'd just have to make one little circle," Beason says. "He got up there and tried to pedal and his legs are shaking, he's screaming, that one time from that one circle."
Every ACL rehab equals months of agony. Davis remembers standing up after surgery and the blood flowing into the torn-up spots, the pain so deep it brought tears. Cybex machine, stationary bike, leg extensions, breaking up scar tissue, testing the joint, climbing stairs, learning how to run again. Imagine going through all that. Imagine doing it three times.
Beason made it back, too, but then hurt his knee and shoulder. While he was gone, 2012 first-round pick Luke Kuechly stepped in and became a star. This year, the Panthers traded Beason to the Giants, where he has been a leader on their defense. He and Davis still talk on the phone, reminding each other what they went through.
"Thomas is mentally strong," Beason says. "But I think having the same injury over and over again has to do something to your psyche. To do this for a living, you have to trust your body."
It's one thing when the critics doubt you. It's another when your own body does. And the doubt went into places no one else suspected.
The first time, it stunned him.
It was the eighth game of 2009, Davis' fifth season. The Panthers were playing the Saints at the Superdome. Davis ended up in coverage on Saints receiver Devery Henderson. He planted his leg to bump Henderson off his route. He heard the pop and felt the shock of pain. He was naturally knock-kneed -- which put more stress on the joints -- but he had never been seriously hurt before.
His first thought was Kelly. She was pregnant with their second child together (they have two others from previous relationships). He wanted to do the rehab as fast as he could so he could help out after she had the baby.
But the truth was, he felt lucky to have been playing at all.
This is a story he hasn't told.
In the 2009 preseason, he was doing charity work to make sure young athletes got screened for hidden heart conditions. Davis took a group of kids to a Charlotte hospital that had set up free ultrasounds and EKGs. To show it wasn't scary, he got the first screening himself.
Afterward, the doctors pulled him aside and said they needed to talk.
The coronary arteries ship blood away from the heart. In a normal heart, one originates on the left side of the heart, the other on the right. The screening showed that both of Davis' coronary arteries were on the same side. It's not an especially rare condition; maybe 1 in 200 people has it. It often doesn't cause any symptoms. But when doctors find it, they normally recommend correcting it. That means open-heart surgery. And for Davis, that might have meant the end of his career.
The Panthers pulled him out of practice. Davis went to the Emory Heart & Vascular Center in Atlanta for tests. The team sent his medical records to heart clinics around the country. Davis prayed. Eventually, the doctors' consensus was that Davis was in such good condition that he didn't need the surgery. He gets a stress test after every season to double-check.
"It was a tough time," he says. "You know, to be playing this game this long, playing at a high level, and knowing that -- just like that -- it was possibly over. That changes the way you look at things."
After all the surgeries, through all the pain, he took away an underlying message: His knee might fail again and again, but his heart is strong.
Thomas is the second member of Davis' lonely club. Last year Thomas tore his right ACL for the third time, and this year he became the first player besides Davis to make it back from that into the NFL. Now they talk and text about exercise tips and staying motivated.
"I didn't know how I was going to get through it," Thomas says. "I just knew the trauma. TD helped me get past that and look at the future. My daughter never really got to see me play before this year, you know? Now she has. I can tell her these stories and tell her, 'You never give up.'"
There is a cost to never giving up. Davis never believed it when old people told him they could feel it in their joints when it was about to rain. But now he'll feel the ache, look out the window and watch the clouds roll in.
His knee has cost him financially, too. He and the Panthers restructured his contract in 2012, when it wasn't clear whether he would play again. He gave up an $8 million bonus and signed for the veteran's minimum of $700,000. This year, he's playing for a $1.5 million base salary, with bonuses that could increase that to about $5.3 million.
But he didn't know whether the Panthers would take him back at all. After the third tear, he met with Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and then-general manager Marty Hurney to ask for another chance. Panthers coach Ron Rivera -- a tough guy, a linebacker on the Bears' Super Bowl champs under Mike Ditka -- says he has gotten choked up twice as the Panthers' coach. Once was when a disabled veteran spoke to the team for Veterans Day. The other was when Davis said he wanted to play again.
Athletes have this weird relationship with time. Davis spent nearly three years of his past recovering from his injuries. He spends countless lonely hours protecting his NFL future, building up his quads and hamstrings and hip muscles to save that little cord of fibers holding his right knee together. But all that time is intended to push time aside. He has worn a knee brace on the field ever since that first injury four years ago. But if he makes it through this season, he's taking it off next year. The brace makes him think about his knee on the field. In the moment, when he's running down a quarterback or checking a tight end, he can't think about how long it took to get back, or how long he has left.
There's a question it only makes sense to ask: What if you tear up your knee a fourth time? He looks a little puzzled. Davis says he really hasn't thought about it.
But a little later, he talks about growing up in Georgia and playing ball in his friends' yards or out in the street. He started to notice that he was better at the games than his friends. And that made him want to play even more. He played until the streetlights came on.
"You know," he says, "I was a kid who was determined to stay out there all day."
Tommy Tomlinson was a longtime columnist for The Charlotte Observer and a Pulitzer Prize finalist in commentary. He's now a freelance writer in Charlotte. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.