In an instant, Vontae Davis became the butt of a thousand jokes and the focus of hundreds of armchair psychiatrists.
One year ago this week, Davis, the two-time Pro Bowl cornerback, was playing his first game with his new team, the Buffalo Bills. He came into the season intent on proving he was still a solid corner after undergoing surgery to repair a torn groin in 2017.
But in the first half of that game against the Los Angeles Chargers, something switched in Davis’ mind. He was tired. He was just spent.
He walked off the field before halftime, texted his wife in the stands, put on his clothes and went home.
‘Babe, I’m done’
ESPN’s Brendan Meyer has a story on the website Wednesday catching up with Davis, whose strange retirement was the talk of the NFL.
Meyer writes that when Davis woke up on Sept. 16, 2018, “he couldn’t wait to get onto the field.”
Over the previous 10 months, Davis had been released by the Indianapolis Colts, where he’d had his greatest success as a player but was cut after going against the team’s wishes and opting for surgery instead of rehab for a groin tear. Davis had been a healthy scratch in Week 1 for Buffalo, but would start Week 2 after another corner was injured.
He ate breakfast, drove to the stadium listening to Rick Ross, went through the pre-game routine. His wife, Megan, was in the family section.
Davis tackled Chargers’ back Melvin Gordon just shy of a first down to force a first-quarter punt, but on the sideline he told teammates, “I don’t feel right.”
He was fine physically, but his mind felt far away. That moment that many athletes have, the one when they realize it’s time to retire, Davis’ came right there in New Era Field, during the game.
“I’m done,” he told the Bills’ defensive coordinator, then walked to the locker room, the team chaplain following him, thinking he was hurt.
He took off his jersey and shoulder pads and sent a text to Megan: “Babe, I’m done. I’m hanging up my cleats. I don’t want to put my body through this anymore.”
Megan was startled, particularly at the timing of the message, but responded simply, “OK, I’ll meet you at home.”
‘I feel free like a bird’
Davis beat Megan to their townhouse, and when she arrived he was in the kitchen in street clothes.
Megan just couldn’t help it: she started to laugh.
“Damn! You just left the stadium!” she said.
“I’m never going to hear the end of this,” he replied.
The couple laughed together, then their eyes filled with tears.
Megan asked her husband how he was feeling. “I feel free like a bird,” he said.
They cracked open a bottle of tequila, and a new chapter began.
‘I felt kind of violated’
The younger brother of Washington tight end Vernon Davis, who is 35 and still playing, Vontae was always quiet, not seeking the spotlight.
Before last September 16, the memory many NFL fans have of Vontae Davis came courtesy of “Hard Knocks.” In 2012, Davis was starting his fourth season with the Miami Dolphins, the team’s first-round pick in 2009.
The Dolphins traded Davis to the Colts during training camp, and when he got the news from general manager Jeff Ireland, he looks visibly stunned. Davis immediately asked if he could call his grandmother, who’d raised him and his siblings, and Vernon.
The whole exchange was caught by the “Hard Knocks” cameras in Ireland’s office, but Davis had no idea it was being recorded.
“There's this perception that there's brotherhood in the NFL and we're all fighting for each other and the same things,” Megan said. “And then you embarrass one of your first-round draft picks on national television without him knowing there's a camera in the room?”
“I felt kind of violated,” Davis said. “It was a lot of B.S.”
These days, Davis is happy. His body feels great. He knows some will always consider him a quitter, and it’s still hard for him to fully explain why he retired at halftime instead of waiting until the game was over. But he was overwhelmed and scared in that moment, so he listened to his gut.
He’s able to watch NFL games with friends in his Florida home, and he’s scheduled to open VZONE, a holistic wellness spa, next month in Fort Lauderdale. And he’ll be in the stands when the Dolphins host Washington in Week 6, so he can see Vernon play, as a fan.
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