In order to retire, you have to be willing to quit. That’s harder for Thomas Davis than it is for most people. As a professional football player, his job requires contempt for the concept of quitting. Like anyone playing in the National Football League (NFL), he has to ignore exhaustion, pain, and the 300-pound giants determined to stop him from doing his job. But even among this elite group, Davis stands out.
It’s not just that the Carolina Panthers’ linebacker is a 10-year veteran in a game where the average career lasts 3.3 years, according to the NFL Players Association. It isn’t even that he’s still one of the best in the game after all these years. It’s what he has had to overcome to do that. Tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in your knee is a career-ending injury for most athletes. Davis has torn his three times, the last time in 2011. No one else in the NFL has ever come back from three ACL injuries. Davis didn’t just come back, he triumphed. He had three consecutive seasons with 100 tackles, and he had the best year of his career in 2013, starting all 16 games and recording a career-high 123 tackles and 4 sacks.
As if those accomplishments didn’t make him stand out enough, there’s his attitude. Davis is even grateful for those injuries. “When I look back and reflect on having ACL injuries three years in a row, I feel like, from a football standpoint, it has given me time to refresh and rejuvenate the rest of my body as a whole,” he says. “So I haven’t taken the beating that a normal 10-year linebacker would have taken, from an overall standpoint.”
Quitting is such a foreign concept that Davis says he hasn’t put much thought into what comes after football. “I really haven’t put a lot of thought into [retirement] because my main focus has been putting everything I have in me to prolong my football career and make sure that I’m the best player that I can be right now.”
That said, money was always on his mind when he was growing up, because his family didn’t have much. He majored in consumer economics at the University of Georgia after a tough childhood. His single mother worked hard but, even so, there were times he had to boil water to take a hot bath, run an extension cord from a neighbor’s house to have light, and make do at Christmas with nothing under the tree. He knows firsthand all the things that can go wrong when someone fresh out of college and coming out of a hardscrabble background is suddenly given a whole lot of money.
“You come in as a young kid into the league, and you see the numbers in your contract, and you think that the numbers are real,” says Davis, who will earn a base salary of $7,250,000 in 2015. “But you have to think realistically when you sign a contract and understand that there’s a lot of money you will never see from it.” That money goes to everything from taxes to sports and booking agents to the various other fees. “I think guys have to take their time and really see the whole number, understand what they’re going to take home, what they’re allowed to spend, and what they need to be saving.”
Davis understands the intoxication that can come from sudden wealth and fame, but his long career has given him perspective. He stuck around long enough to benefit from the advice of veterans about life off the field, advice he now passes on whenever he can. He has also learned from other people’s mistakes, watching former teammates go broke. That is why, despite his protest that he only focuses on today, he is well aware of what can happen financially and personally to players who retire without planning for it. “You don’t want to end up a statistic,” he says. “You see the numbers, and you understand what goes on in this league when the guys retire. The divorce rate is extremely high, and you want to do everything to fight against those things.”
While the public may think players get into money trouble because they spend excessively on fancy cars and the like, Davis says the truth is very different. “Many guys don’t end up going broke from having bad spending habits but from trying to take care of everybody in their families,” he says. “As humans, we feel obligated to make sure that everybody else is OK, especially if you come from a background like mine where so many people are struggling, and you’re the guy that made it, and you feel like you want to help out.”
Davis’ desire to help others is what led him to create the Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation.
“The biggest inspiration to start our foundation was how I grew up…understanding the struggle that my mom had raising me and my sister,” he says. “My wife had a similar struggle growing up in a single parent household. We understood the need.”
The foundation helps thousands of underprivileged kids with programs such as a school supply drive, football camp, and Christmas gift giveaway, as well as a Thanksgiving meal program that feeds battered women and children. In addition to that, its Youth Leadership Academy awards two college scholarships every year. Two years ago, he led the construction of the first and only playground in his hometown of Shellman, GA. He also runs a free football camp that, each year, provides more than 350 children with instruction in football fundamentals and life skills. That is just part of the work he does in the community—work that last year earned him football’s most prestigious individual award.
“The Walter Payton [NFL Man of the Year Award] is one of the highest awards you can receive as an NFL player,” says Davis. “Not only does it recognize the work you do on the field but also the work you do off the field. That’s very important—being able to do community service and give back and help families and kids out.”
Davis doesn’t believe in quitting when it comes to helping others any more than he does when it comes to sacking a quarterback. The ability to continue doing community service is really at the heart of what Davis eventually admits are his long-term financial goals.
“When I leave this game, I don’t want to leave owing anybody any money or having any debt,” he says. “We’ve put a good [financial] plan in place and make sure we stick to the plan. That’s been important for me. I’m excited about where I am financially. Now it’s all about continuing to grow from there.”