Thomas Davis Sr.'s speed is among the many assets the Chargers liked when they signed the three-time Pro Bowl pick as a free agent in March.
“He’s 36 years old and he runs around like a 13-year-old,” coach Anthony Lynn said in praising Davis’ energy.
But on Thursday, the first full day of training camp for the Chargers at Jack Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa, Davis was among the slowest players to leave the field.
Instead of hurrying off the field after a two-hour practice on a hot and humid day, he lingered in the family area with the blended his, hers and theirs family of four children he has created with his wife, Kelly. Thomas Jr., in whose honor Davis added the designation “Sr.” to his name, carried his dad’s helmet when the linebacker finally walked toward the sideline.
He felt he owed his daughter Skye — soon off to college — sons Denim and Thomas Jr., and daughter Mattison those precious extra minutes of family time.
His family had followed him from Carolina, where he spent his first 14 NFL seasons, to southern California, where the Chargers signed him to a two-year, $10.5-million contract in hopes he can lend an experienced voice in the locker room and fortify an injury-depleted linebacking corps that had trouble stopping the run.
“Coming from the East Coast to the West Coast is a real big move but it’s something that, at this point of my career, we’ve embraced it,” he said. “We’re looking forward to the opportunity and hoping to have a really good year.”
Davis expected to be a Panther his entire career. They chose him 14th in the 2005 NFL draft and stuck with him through three ACL tears in his right knee, one each in 2009, 2010, and 2011. He rewarded their loyalty with a franchise record 1,111 tackles in 176 games, those three Pro Bowl selections, and a first-team All-Pro performance in 2012. He also won the 2014 Walter Payton Man of the Year award and the 2016 Bart Starr award for character and leadership on the field and in the community.
Davis envisioned the 2018 season would be his last before he retired, but life has a way of turning plans upside down. A four-game suspension, imposed by the NFL for violating its policy against performance-enhancing drugs, set him back from the start. He said the substance was in a supplement he had been taking without any previous problems, but he accepted the ruling.
“It wasn’t a situation where it was me trying to cheat the game,” he said. “At the end of the day, I can live with that, knowing it wasn’t something that I did intentionally. I’ve moved on from it. I’ve proven that over the course of a 15-year-career, for that to be the only blemish on my career, I think that speaks volumes for it.”
Then, after the Panthers got off to a 6-2 start, they lost their next seven games and slid out of playoff contention. Davis wanted to come back “to be part of the group that came in and right the wrongs,” he said in a video posted on his Twitter feed, but the Panthers told him early this year he wasn’t part of their future.
“In no way did I ever imagine putting on another uniform,” he said in that video, “but I want to play football.”
He pushed retirement to the back of his mind.
“Just the way my season went last year in Carolina, kind of the way it started out, and at the end of the season I felt like I still had a lot of juice left,” he said Thursday. “I was just hoping for another opportunity to play and the Chargers presented a great opportunity for me, and I took full advantage of it.”
He wasted no time impressing his new teammates during the Chargers’ off-season program.
“He’s new ... but what happens when a guy like that walks in the room and you already know his resume, so you obviously give him the utmost respect that you can give,” defensive tackle Justin Jones said. “He comes in, he doesn’t have to speak, but you know he’s a leader.
“He’s one of those guys that, when you walk into the room, you kind of just look and wait for him to say something because you know how much knowledge he has. Fifteen years in the league, that’s a long time. That’s a lot of games played, that’s a lot of situations that you had to make the best out of and handle those adverse times. For a guy like me who is going into year two, I would rather know how you overcame those adverse times so that when I hit those times, I know how to proceed.”
Safety Derwin James praised Davis’ willingness to help others while maintaining his own skills.
“That man is so fast. I’ve seen him fly past me a couple of times running to the ball,” James said. “He’s a tremendous athlete. He looks like he’s in year one to me.”
Lynn said he plans to bring Davis along slowly and “hold him out some” during camp in deference to Davis’ age and unfamiliarity with the Chargers’ system. That’s fine with Davis.
“Being 36 years old and being in my 15th season, I definitely embrace whatever role the coaches see fit for me,” he said. “I’m not a guy that’s going to fight what they have planned for me. I’m just going to come out and do what’s asked of me and try and fit into this team as well as I possibly can.
“Hopefully I can bring a lot of veteran leadership, first and foremost, but also coming out and showing that I can still come out and compete at a high level. That’s what it’s all about. You don’t come in and just try to be a vocal leader or a leader. You just try to come in and fit in where they need, just try to contribute to the team as much as you can.”
His contributions could help lift the Chargers beyond the second-round playoff exit they made last season.
“This is a team that is definitely capable of doing great things,” he said. “We know in this league one year does not predicate how you’re going to be the next year but just looking at the roster I feel we have what it takes to go far in this league and it’s all about putting it together.”