At 27, Sam Mills finally cracked into the NFL, only after proving himself once again to Jim Mora as a Saints training camp invitee.
By 29, Mills was going to his second straight Pro Bowl – at 29, Thomas Davis was looking for work.
Davis would return to the Panthers in 2012, still with his Captain’s C sewn on, but no longer with his starting job for the first time since his rookie season – the Panthers opened in Tampa and TD only played a handful of snaps that day, but he made them count; a Doug Martin run set up second-and-goal from the one with just under five minutes to go in the first half. TD entered as part of the goal line package and when Doug Martin appeared to have a walk-in touchdown, a streaking blur came across the formation, blowing past his intended blocker and knocking the muscle hamster onto his backside a yard back. The kind of stop Mills, with his uncanny strength, was best known for. On third-and-goal, the Bucs tried some misdirection –play action pass, with the fullback leaking out the backside.
TD was having none of it. Another loss of a yard and Tampa would settle for a field goal.
A month later, Jon Beason’s body would give way once more and he headed to IR. The Panthers slid their 2012 first-round pick over to his more natural middle linebacker position and for the first time, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis started a game together. The Panthers hosted the Seahawks – Kuechly would record his first career interception and the iconic duo would finish with 17 combined tackles, two for a loss.
Not bad for the first day at the office.
In 2013, The team stumbled out of the blocks against Seattle again, and gave EJ Manuel his career highlight against Buffalo. The Panthers found themselves at 1-3, with the Saints sitting at 5-0. Fast forward a couple of months and even after a head-to-head loss in the Superdome, the Panthers had fought their way to 10-4 and a winner-take-all scenario when Sean Payton and Drew Brees came marching into town for Week 16.
For many, this game needs no introduction – the winner took not only the NFC South title, but also a first round bye.
Luke Kuechly was literally all over the field setting a franchise mark with 26 tackles – and then the rain came. With just more than half of the third quarter remaining, the heavens opened up over BofA; as if Graham Gano’s field goal was the cue, howling winds and buckets of rain arrived.
It may have looked like Fox had reverted back to standard definition cameras when they came back from the break, but it wasn’t just the wind howling, it was the fans. While some huddled under ponchos, fans began bouncing and yelling. A few plays later, Luke Kuechly secured an interception after breaking on a ball intended for Jimmy Graham, eliciting a massive roar from the stands. With less than a minute to go in the game, the rain had subsided and patiently Cam Newton hung in the pocket, before finally finding a crossing Ted Ginn, then Greg Olsen and finally, Cam shrugged off a Saint and Domenik Hixon slid into our hearts forever.
The Panthers won 17-13 and despite not being anywhere near the lead story, at age 30, Thomas Davis was playing some of the best football of his life.
Before all of those memorable moments unfolded, the Saints had been held to two field goals through most of the first half but appeared to be heading into halftime with at least a 6-0 lead as the Panthers offense struggled to get going. On 3rd-and-6, Thomas Davis lined up in a three-point stance as a fifth defensive lineman. He bluffed the rush and dropped back into coverage, unseen by the QB. Brees fired left, looking for Kenny Stills on a crossing route. TD lept, reaching high over his head and snatched the ball out of the air. One play later, DeAngelo Williams would explode up the middle for a 43-yard touchdown and a one point halftime lead.
Davis – who pre-game became the first active Panther player to bang the Keep Pounding drum – was the spark the team needed when they needed it the most. He would finish the day with 14 tackles, two for a loss – and while Drew Brees will one day go to the Hall of Fame, this round went to Luke and TD.
For the season, Luke and TD would play 98% of the defensive snaps, serving as a two-man linebacking wrecking crew on the majority of the defense’s snaps. Chase Blackburn played the third most snaps as a LB, at just under 20%.
With the Panthers relying on Davis more than ever on the field, he responded in the community as well. Along with his wife Kelly, their years of work with the Defending Dreams foundation was recognized when Thomas was named the 2014 Walter Payton Man of the Year. The introduction video and Thomas’s speech from that night, with his wife beside him and Luke behind him, illustrated for all that overcoming was not something new to Davis.