Carolina Panthers' Thomas Davis defends on and off the field

As you fight through lines at the big department stores, and wade through the many items on wish lists during Black Friday, you may want to pick up a Carolina Panthers jersey, preferably number 58. That jersey is worn by outside linebacker, Thomas Antonio Davis.

Davis blew threw offensive lines in the SEC, with one goal in mind: Defend the line, the point on the filed where the team's possession begins, so that his team could win at the line of scrimmage. That's how the victor of games is determined. Whoever controls the line of scrimmage, controls the game. Davis was drafted in the first round of the 2005 draft by the Carolina Panthers. However, his passions may be more apparent off the field as he hopes to influence the "line of scrimmage" for underprivileged children.

Davis has dedicated himself to the Charlotte, North Carolina community, and is undoubtedly one of the many reasons fans in the area will be thankful this holiday season. Davis spoke exclusively with AXS during his Defending Dreams Foundation's "Dinner of Hope"* for residents of the Salvation Army Center of Hope in Charlotte on Monday, November 24, 2014.

Davis has managed an almost-10 year career in the NFL after recovering from not one, not two, but three ACL surgeries. As he continues to defend the line of scrimmage in the NFL, he is also defending the dreams of kids and families struggling in the Southeastern region.

Sitting at Lola's on Brevard St, beautifully decorated in a fall theme, before the first round of families arrived, Davis beamed as he spoke of his love for Charlotte and his desire to be a positive influence in the lives of children.

This is my tenth year. Came from the University of Georgia. Born and raised in Georgia. We definitely love it here. Me and my wife have decided that Charlotte is definitely going to be home for us.

Davis grew up in Shellman, Georgia, where a park now bears his name. His life in Georgia influenced his decision to give back to the community that cheered for him on Friday nights, then Saturday afternoons, and now any given Sunday. In 2007, Davis and wife Kelly, started the Thomas Davis Defending Dreams Foundation ("TDDDF").

AXS: What was the impetus behind the creation of your foundation?

Just my upbringing. The way I grew up as a young kid. I understand there's a need. I understand there are a lot of people in this community, back in my hometown of Georgia, and in South Carolina as well, that need help. I'm in a position right now, as an NFL player, I can give back. I can help. I can make a difference, and that's what it's all about.

AXS: Why the name, "Defending Dreams"?

I'm a defensive player. We want every kid to have a dream and believe in that dream, and we ultimately want to help them achieve that [dream]. We want to defend their dreams, so what better name?

Each year Davis's foundation works with the Salvation Army Center of Hope to provide a meal for the women and children who live at the center. Many of the women are victims of domestic violence. The Center of Hope provides much needed resources to the residents including job training for the women, and programs for the children.

I think this is our fifth year [working with the Salvation Army Center of Hope] doing this event. This is one of my favorite events. Probably my most favorite event that we do. It's truly an opportunity for us to see our work at hand. We bring the families over, and we're able to serve them.

They come through the line and pick out whatever they want and we take it to the tables. For that brief moment in time, they're not worried about their situations and having to live in a shelter...and they escape whatever is going on in their lives. They're thankful for the dinner, and just get to sit down and have a good time. We get to see the smiles on the kids faces. That's what it's all about for us.

Davis was joined by his Panthers teammates: Luke Kuechly, Ben Jacobs, Charles Johnson, Brandon Williams, Garry Williams, Marcus Lucas, Chris Ogbonnaya, Fozzy Whitaker, Kawann Short, Fernando Velasco and Darrin Reaves, who stepped up to help. Teammate Greg Olsen was unable to attend, but sent his brother and father to help in his stead. The players took drink orders, waited tables, cleaned, and signed autographs. Also serving for the night were local hip-hop group, Open Minds*, and a member of CBS Radio's No Limit Larry and the Morning Maddhouse, Churchboy. Several TDDDF board members were also present to ensure that the families had a great time, including Kelly Davis, Larry Mims, Denada Jackson, and Nick D'Auria.

The families enjoyed their meals, but the players were outshone by the appearance of Sir Purr, the Panthers mascot. He may have been the most popular person in Lola's that night.

Davis is a nominee for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, for the fourth year. Undoubtedly, the work his foundation delivers in the community makes him very deserving of such an award.

We have our youth leadership academy. We work with kids on Mondays, trying to teach them the basic things they will need to know. We work with middle school kids, understanding that that's a precious age in their lives...where they can go in one direction or the other.

So we try to send them down a positive path, teaching them how to be productive leaders in the community. Taking them to do community service, and just teaching them how to do a bunch of things that kids really need done right now.

We understand, we have a middle school kid right now, me and my wife. We understand where these kids are focusing in this day and age. We just want to raise them the right way. And teach them how to do things the right way. We do back to school giveaways, we do Christmas giveaways.

We have a free football clinic every year. Everything that we do with our foundation is, we make sure that it's free for the families. We understand that parents might not be able to afford a football camp, or a parent might not be able to get kids things for Christmas...year in and year we want to make sure that those kids don't go through Christmas without receiving gifts. We want to make sure that they are as well equipped as they can possibly be for school, so we make sure that we have school supplies for them.

TDDDF's motto is: "Educate. Empower. Defend." The Thomas Davis Youth Leadership Academy ("TDYLA") has six week sessions with guest speakers, lectures, and discussions on etiquette, community service, leadership, and the importance of educational pursuits. Davis received his college degree in 2011.

TDDDF's annual youth football camp is for boys and girls. NFL players volunteer as session leaders. Students are coached on techniques and short drills, and leadership awards are granted at the end.

AXS: Do you work with other foundations?

We definitely work with a bunch of people, whether it be the American Heart Association. We work with Second Harvest Food Bank all the time. We just try to reach out and help as much as we possibly can, or we definitely take in as much help as we possibly can because the more we do, and the more help we have, then the more lives we can impact and the more people we can reach, and that's what it's all about.

AXS: What message do you have for people who view football players so negatively these days? What is the impression you'd hope to leave of yourself?

I just want them to know that this is who I am. A lot of people look at the football player, and a lot of things I've been able to accomplish on the field, but none of that, at the end of the day, really means anything to me. Because at the end of the day, it's all about the lives that you impact, and the people that you come into contact with, and the impression that you leave on them.

To me, right now, working with these kids, it's a lasting effect that I can leave in their lives and something that they can carry on. Hopefully, someday, when they grow up, they'll be able to do the same things for some other kids. We create a cycle and hopefully it's a positive cycle that you create for these kids, and it goes a long way...and possibly change the world.

*In the previous publication of this article on November 28, 2014, the "Dinner of Hope" was erroneously identified as "Dinner with the Panthers", Open Minds as The Open Minds Band, and Larry Mims as appearing in his capacity with his radio program.