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Carolina Panthers' Star Thomas Davis Earns Praise Off The Field


The Carolina Panthers enter the NFL playoffs this weekend with the best record in the league and the best record in the team's 21 seasons. Its big star is quarterback Cam Newton, but Thomas Davis is the heart of the team. Davis has come back from three gruesome knee injuries to be one of the league's best linebackers. Around Charlotte, though, what Davis does off the field is just as important as what he does on it. From member station WFAE, Michael Tomsic reports.

MICHAEL TOMSIC, BYLINE: Every Sunday, Panthers fans love this sound.


TOMSIC: That's linebacker Thomas Davis miked up, delivering a punishing hit for one of the NFL's best defenses.


THOMAS DAVIS: I couldn't hit him with the right side. I said I'm just going to give him everything I got with this left though.

TOMSIC: There's something else Davis does that some kids and parents are even bigger fans of - he meets with middle schoolers, like Bryson Ellis, to teach them about leadership.

BRYSON ELLIS: If you didn't communicate and if you weren't - you didn't make sure your voice was heard then, like - it's not that you didn't contribute, but you weren't going to do that well because if everybody's too scared to say anything, then you can't get anything done.

TOMSIC: Ellis says that's a theme at Davis' leadership academy - speak up, but also listen and work together. This school year, Ellis has gone from a somewhat shy eighth-grader to student council president. His parents, Tracy and Tim Ellis, say the Panthers linebacker has played a big role in their son's life.

TRACY ELLIS: He's definitely more comfortable in a leadership role now, so I definitely feel that it has benefited him in that particular way by helping him to win the student council president of the school.

TIM ELLIS: He's become more assertive and more aware of what being a leader is and doing the right thing, so I definitely think that that's been a positive event for him.

TOMSIC: About 90 middle school boys and girls have gone through Davis' program. He says the idea came from his own experience as a kid.

DAVIS: A lot of the things that I do now stem from a lack of things that I had growing up. So I didn't really have anyone to show me at that early age, you know, how to be a leader, how to go about doing things as a young man, so that's one of the reasons why we wanted to start this program.

TOMSIC: Davis and his younger sister were raised by their single mom in Shellman, Ga., population 1,000. He received the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award last year for excellence on and off the field. In this video from the ceremony, Davis walks through his hometown.


DAVIS: This is one of the many houses that we stayed in growing up. To take a hot bath, I would have to boil water on the stove. We had to run an extension cord from one of our neighbor's house, you know, just to have a light.

TOMSIC: On Christmas, he says there were years he woke up without a gift. Last month, Davis unloaded dozens of boxes of toys so other kids wouldn't have that experience - kids like Towanda Gaston's two daughters.

TOWANDA GASTON: It means a lot to me because sometimes, you know, you don't have as much as you want and do as much as you need to do. So for me, it's a blessing, honestly.

TOMSIC: At the toy giveaway and at his leadership academy, Davis doesn't just provide money, take a few photos and leave. He's committed, and his teammates say he's the same way at his day job. Here's how defensive tackle Dwan Edwards describes him.

DWAN EDWARDS: He's a tremendous leader, one of the harder working guys on our team. And he sets the tone for us, and we follow his lead.

TOMSIC: He's also one of only two NFL players to come back from three ACL tears, one of the most serious knee injuries. The Panther's coach calls Davis the emotional heart and soul of the team. Bryson Ellis, one of the middle schoolers who meets with him, has his own take.

BRYSON: He really cares. He's genuine. There are some people who are just going to, like, do it and forget about it, but he's actually a really nice person.

TOMSIC: Those are the reasons Ellis is such a fan. But make no mistake, he'll enjoy watching Davis make big tackles this Sunday on the football field, too. For NPR News, I'm Michael Tomsic in Charlotte. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Tomsic became a full-time reporter for WFAE in August 2012. Before that, he reported for the station as a freelancer and intern while he finished his senior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Heââ