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A comeback victory for linebacker Davis

FOXBOROUGH -- The odometer clicked, almost audible in that silence of fear and regret and maddening rage. The man, broken, let his mind wander through the mess his life had become, through the nights of drinking, the marriage shattered by distrust, the destruction of himself and his football.

Nothing -- no music, no person -- could soothe the man in the 1995 Ford Mustang.

It was then, as the miles mounted, that Don Davis thought of death.

His playbook was gone, left behind in New Orleans, as the Saints had requested. He had been released that November day in 1998, a linebacker sent out into the unforgiving abyss that greets NFL castoffs. He hitched the U-Haul to the Mustang and drove, his tears obscuring the highway.

What am I going to do with my life? How am I going to recover? Who am I?

He had no answers.

''I drove straight from New Orleans to Kansas City with my phone off and nothing but hate and anger and sadness," said Davis. ''Those 14 hours, I would say, were critical. That's when everything came to a head. That's when I really needed that time to look at me and see who I was and what I was planning on doing. I really had no idea, outside of football, who I was."

He made no plans, had no unsettling thoughts of how and when, but suicide was in his mind.

Davis survived those 14 hours, that never-ending drive back home. He made it into bed, claiming sleep as salvation, awakening to find his father knocking on the door with news that, potentially, saved his life.

Tampa Bay wanted him. The flight was in two hours.

Watchful eye
The clinking of ivory-colored dominoes fills the stagnant locker room air. The few Patriots players on hand Thursday play games or talk or pull out cellphones. Davis sits, eyes focused on his hard-cover book, a yellow highlighter in his fingers.

Established as a member of the Super Bowl champions, he is calm as he recites his pain, making sure to emphasize this isn't a story of ''suicide to Super Bowl." That is not how he wants his life to read.

He is not ashamed or embarrassed. He does not hide it.

He was as low as a person can be without a gun in hand. But that was a long time ago, back in 1998, back before he was himself, when divorce and partying and selfishness and a nightmare of a team conspired to nearly crush him. The loner -- trapped in the body of an extrovert -- kept the seething depression to himself. No one knew.

And so, on this team, he is on the lookout.

''Every single week, I had a U-Haul on standby, honestly," said Davis, 33. ''I just didn't feel comfortable. You know when you're on that bubble or on your way out. And I was hurting. You add all of that together, it's just a terrible feeling. Emotionally it was just tough. Insecurities, even thoughts of suicide. It can get deep if you let it."

Davis, now in his 10th season, isn't in danger of getting cut from this team, not with his play on special teams and his added value as a backup linebacker and converted safety, a position at which he's seen more time as the Patriots' injuries in the secondary have mounted. But he knows that feeling. So he watches.

''When things get bad enough and you contemplate suicide, you need somebody," Davis said. ''It could be anybody. I just try to talk to guys. You can kind of tell when a guy could possibly be in that state, I think, if you pay attention. I haven't seen too many guys [at that point] over the years, maybe one.

''When you see a guy [getting into bad habits], you pull him aside. There's a lot of guys who care genuinely about other guys here, so they'll be like, 'I noticed this and that.' So then you have an accountability factor, whereas in New Orleans, nobody really cared what I was doing, where I was doing it. Everybody was out for themselves."

The 10-year veteran got a call from Andre' Davis after Andre' was released Sept. 28. Don Davis was happy when his phone rang, because he wanted to make sure Andre' knew that even though he wasn't a member of the current roster, he was still a member of the team. (Andre' Davis has since been re-signed by the Patriots.)

He's talked to Hank Poteat more than a dozen times since the cornerback fell in the final round of cuts prior to the regular season. He offers advice. He listens.

Because, he remembers, no one did it for him.

''His heart is for the players," Davis's wife, Yannette, said. ''He's definitely not one of those football players that it's all about the game, that he could never live without football. It's really not about that with him.

''He's more of a people person. He loves the guys. He loves being there for them, being a confidant for them. He enjoys that more than the whole game of football itself."

Keeping it all inside
Davis didn't have anyone that season in New Orleans. Not a single teammate noticed the nights of drinking, the family in ruins.

Even his mother, reached last week, said she didn't know that her son was in trouble. Alicia Davis still thinks of Don as the student council president back in Olathe, Kan., the athlete, the kid who never stopped.

''He didn't seem to be to the point of devastation," Alicia Davis said. ''There were times he was quiet, but there wasn't anything that he couldn't get through that I could see. We never really talked about it."

His marriage to Kristene had begun to dissolve at the end of 1997. His daughter, Dominique, had been sent up to live with Alicia in Olathe. Distrust had seeped into the relationship. Davis blames infidelity for that. He said he just didn't want to be married, wanted too much to live the life of a professional athlete.

Bachelor teammates filled his life, taking him out three nights most weeks. He flung aside responsibility, ignored the repercussions, and, later that summer, watched his football career nearly die with it.

''I never had any kind of drug addiction, but partying, hanging, being in the club, that most definitely affects your performance," he said. ''Because you're tired, you're drinking, you're putting substances into your body that don't help on the field. That obviously -- looking back on it again -- is something that hurt my playing.

''You don't think that because you're getting by on raw talent and you're young. A younger man, he might get away with it for a little while, but eventually it's going to catch up."

The injuries had started in training camp, one after another. An ankle, a hamstring, another ankle, the back. By the time Davis was healthy, he still wasn't playing. He was inactive for three weeks. He knew he would be cut.

The move came, finally, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. He swallowed the phone call, depression rising, and climbed into his car to drive home. It was the lowest moment of his career; the lowest moment of his life.

''I don't think you can ever judge the book by the cover," said Saints defensive coordinator Rick Venturi, who was the team's linebackers coach in 1996 and '97 and scouted Davis for Bill Belichick's Browns a decade ago. ''On the surface, that would have never seemed possible to me. But still waters run deep. Those are things people internalize. Often it isn't obvious to everyone.

''He would hold himself to a high standard. He's a guy that wants to succeed. Anything that would happen to him that he would perceive as a failure would have been very difficult for him."

Program established
Those eyes, ever shifting, have caught only one player with the potential to hit the depths he experienced. Davis, deeply religious, thanks God that the player didn't act.

In a way, he is speaking for himself.

Perhaps five more players -- just one in his three years with the Patriots -- have been taken aside by Davis, gently lectured on their potential problems.

Davis knows the yawns that accompany the long hours spent in the Rookie Symposium, the desire to sleep in rather than attend seminars run by the Player Development Department.

He knows young athletes won't always ask for help. He didn't.

It's different now, Davis acknowledges. Under the umbrella of Player Development, an arm of the league that was established in 1991, the NFL offers aid to players, most notably in the form of the Player Assistance Program. Each franchise, working with the NFL, has 3-6 licensed mental health providers who can address issues -- stress, depression, moving to a new city -- with players. The program was finalized in 2004. AFC spokesman Steve Alic said via email that because of the program's strict confidentiality policy, no numbers can be divulged.

Would Davis have used the program? ''I don't know if I would have, looking back on it," Davis said. ''But I think so. At least, if nothing else, I would have heard it. Maybe I would have identified.

''Some of the things we try to do is get these guys key words, key phrases, key situations. If you find yourself here, you're probably in the wrong situation. Maybe that would have stopped it, or cut it down. Would it have stopped it totally? Maybe not."

Voice of experience
Comfortable in his role -- special teams, with the occasional cameo at linebacker or safety -- Davis seems to spend almost as much time talking as tackling. Doubt has gone, depression with it.

He worried, of course, after 1998. Few players are entirely safe in the NFL. There are no guarantees, especially for a player who has never been a starter. He was released again, for a single game by Tampa Bay in 1999, then reclaimed that Monday by the Buccaneers.

But, outside of those 14 hours, Davis never again thought about suicide.

''It was a good 14 hours and a bad 14 hours all at the same time," Davis said. ''It really got me to think, 'Is my life really this bad?' There were a lot of highs in my life. How did it get this bad? Some of it was self-inflicted, just being selfish. That was largely the reason for me not playing as well as I should have, being selfish, because I wanted to experience being an NFL athlete off the field."

He explains that to the younger players he counsels -- that he has been there, that he knows their feelings. If he talks, they might just listen.

And that would make it worth the struggle.

''Since then it's just been a vertical climb every year," Davis said. ''There have been different, other challenges that come along with that, just in playing, moving. But all of those things pale in comparison to that feeling, that moment in time for me.

''It's a good feeling to know I'm so far from there. It's a good thing to know and it's a good thing to see. And it helps them, I think, to see you can change. You can definitely change."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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