CHARLOTTE — Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis stood in front of his locker late Sunday afternoon, a sheen of sweat beading on his face, listening to the happy chatter around him and soaking it all in.
Already a medical marvel having become the first NFL player to return to play after three ACL surgeries on the same knee, Davis put a coating of glitter on his extraordinary season Sunday when he intercepted a fourth-down, fourth-quarter pass by Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan that effectively gutted the Falcons’ desperate comeback effort.
It was Davis’ first interception since 2009 and it was among the reasons coach Ron Rivera gave Davis a game ball, a reward that brought Rivera to the edge of tears when he talked about what Davis has accomplished this season.
Asked what the game ball meant to him, Davis looked away from the cameras and reporters crowded around him and stared at the ceiling for a moment.
“It was a special moment,” Davis said. “After everything I’ve gone through over the last 2 1/2 years to be able to come back out here and compete and be able to make a play I feel like had an impact on the game … it’s been a long time coming.”
Davis’ story is a familiar one now, but that makes it no less remarkable.
After his third ACL injury on the same knee in September of 2011, Davis met privately with team owner Jerry Richardson, then-general manager Marty Hurney and Rivera. He wanted to know if he had a future with the franchise.
Davis was told if he was willing to go through a third intense rehabilitation, he would be given the chance to play. Nagging injuries in training camp limited Davis, and when he missed the New York Giants game in the third week of the season, it ruined his goal of playing every regular-season game this year.
But for the Georgia native, two games against Atlanta had a special personal meaning.
“His story, they should make a movie,” offensive tackle Jordan Gross said.
It has that feel.
“Thomas looked me in the eye (last year) and told me he would come back,” Rivera said. “I said I’ll give you the opportunity.
“I know he really wanted to make it through both Atlanta games. As a head coach, when you had a guy look you in the eye coming off three knee surgeries and he makes you believe in him, that’s what it’s all about.”
Davis is at the emotional center of the Panthers. He expected to be a back-up this season but became a starter when Jon Beason was lost for the season and Davis has had an outstanding season. He had seven tackles against the Falcons as part of a patchwork defense that contained a dangerous offense.
“What Thomas has done this year is remarkable,” receiver Steve Smith said. “A lot of people said he wouldn’t do this, he wouldn’t do that. He’s proven him wrong. That’s the great thing about sports. You get to do things that people say are impossible. He did it.”
Tackle Frank Kearse was one of several young defensive players thrust into significant roles Sunday. He responded with an early sack of Ryan, taking a cue from Davis who spoke to the team before and after the game.
Kearse said Davis’ pregame message was to play beyond your ability. Just watching Davis, Kearse said, has been an inspiration.
“How many guys you hear come back from three ACLs?” Kearse said. “You’ve seen one shooting star. It doesn’t happen.
“You see a guy like that and an attitude like he has, as a young guy, you just hold on to it.”
After the game, Kearse said Davis talked about finishing strong. At 4-9, the Panthers aren’t where they imagined they would be in mid-December, but Davis refuses to surrender.
The victory over the Falcons, Davis said, was a sign of what could be for the Panthers.
“This is who we are. This is what we’re capable of,” Davis said. “We have areas where we play three quarters and not finish.
“People keep trying to blame stuff on coaches. It’s not coaches’ fault. It’s all about players going out making plays. That’s the most disheartening thing. Because of our record, people are blaming our coaches.
“It’s not our coaches. It’s us not making plays when it counts.”
Davis delivered a big one Sunday.
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