SAN JOSE, Calif. — The Thomas Davis Effect is real. Drift table to table at the Carolina Panthers’ team hotel and everyone agrees the linebacker with a broken arm is setting a gladiator-tone.
On Sunday, the veteran will start with a plate and a dozen screws holding his right forearm together. Players shake their heads in awe. Right here, is a 1970’s throwback sending a message to 52 teammates.
Cortland Finnegan: “He’s a tone-setter. From the moment we’re in the locker room to the speeches he gives, he’s a tone-setter. To know what he’s going through and still be a part of the team, speaks volumes. The character. That needs to be recorded — what kind of character that instills in society.”
A.J. Klein: “That’s the player Thomas is. He’s overcome adversity. Nothing’s going to hold him back."
Robert McClain: “I’m sure he’s going to be drugged up enough to where he’s not going to tell a thing. His heart wants it and his mind wants it enough.”
Kawann Short: “You see guys with sprained ankles and back pains out there practicing and not really complaining about it because you see Thomas going out there with this full plate. He’s an iron man.”
In other words, Davis is pulling "a Kuechenberg."
From afar, he had no clue. Miami Dolphins great Bob Kuechenberg didn’t know Davis was about to play in the Super Bowl with a busted arm — but, by God, he loves it. It gives the six-time Pro Bowler faith in football humanity and dusts off his fondest memory, the time he gritted through Super Bowl VIII with a 10-inch rod inserted into his forearm.
This game, this moment doesn't only offer notoriety; it defines legacies. Family. Friends. Fans. Millions of people around the world are watching. The pain of being a spectator would sting worse, sting longer than anything shooting through the arm. Sting an eternity.
So Davis will play on. And so did Kuechenberg.
“It does my heart good to see that,” Kuechenberg said by phone this week, “because nowadays they get knocked down and it looks like they’ve been shot dead. They don’t move. And then after about 15 seconds of being out there, they trot off the field or get carried off the field and a couple plays later they’re in there. It happens four or five times a game.”
“I admire it. I’ve been there and I understand exactly why he’s doing it. This is the highlight of his life so far and if you’re in the Super Bowl, you can never count on being there again.
“So whatever you’ve got, you damn sure need to give it.”
On kick returns, Kuechenberg would seek and destroy. He targeted players whose heads were down (making sure they weren't offside) and then deliver crushing hits. Only this time, in a Dec. 9, 1973 game against the Baltimore Colts, it backfired. Kuechenberg beelined toward his prey and caught a vicious knee to the arm.
“It was a ‘Pow!’" he said, "and then it went numb and stayed numb.”
He remained in the game for a handful of plays, the numbness wore off and Kuechenberg’s arm was suddenly making a click-click-clicking sound. On the sideline, he asked center Jim Langer if humans were supposed to have a joint between his wrist and elbow.
“And he said, ‘No, you dumb (expletive). Shut up!’”
Kuechenberg was done for the day, but the playoffs were around the corner. On the plane ride home from that 16-3 loss, his conversation with the team doctor went like this.
“How are you going to fix my arm?”
“Well, you know, we’re going to… like a normal broken arm.”
“No, I didn’t mean how are you going to do that. I mean, how are you going to get me to be able to play in the game next week?”
“You’re not playing. You have a broken arm. You’re out.
“No, no, no, no, I didn’t ask you that doc.”
Kuechenberg didn't give the team a choice. He was playing. Bone marrow was drilled out of the arm, a 10-inch alloy rod was shoved into it and he wrapped it all up in a foam pad before the Super Bowl. This day, "Kooch" takes a few moments to measure the two still-visible scars. There’s one five-inch reminder from his wrist to the middle of his forearm where the break occurred and another five-incher up to his elbow.
He never thought twice about not playing — such fear, such doubt never crossed his mind. Toughness was in his DNA. This man’s father was a boxer and a champion bull-rider. Five years later, he’d break four transverse processes in his back and played five games in a body cast.
“We were defending champs,” Kuechenberg said, “and I didn’t want it to end there. It’s the Super Bowl, so that’s real simple, Doc — ‘How you going to do? It’s not a question of if, it’s how.”
His assignment? Future Hall-of-Famer Alan Page, the league’s MVP two years prior.
The key for Kuechenberg then is the key for Davis now: Strategize. An arm is broken — not the mind. Davis will need to outwit the ultimate outwitter, Peyton Manning, like Kuechenberg did to Page.
Kuechenberg says he knew his opponents more than they knew themselves. He'd grab beers from the coaches’ office and then head to the film room every day after lifting weights. And in studying Minnesota, he realized that whenever Page rushed inside, he’d line up his left leg “several inches” back to generate more power.
Kuechenberg brought his discovery to his position coach Monte Clark.
“There! There it is!” he shouted. “Can you see it?”
Clark did but he was skeptical. He told Kooch he'd need to ask head coach Don Shula if the guard could change up his blocking technique. And Shula demanded Kuechenberg block by the book with a F-bomb for good measure. On the first drive, Kuechenberg saw Page's exaggerated back foot, followed his orders and Page nearly “took the handoff” from Bob Griese.
“I just lost it," Kuechenberg said. "I turned and screamed to the sideline with my right arm — my left arm was in the cast — so I shoved my right arm up in the air in a fist like ‘Up yours!’ to Shula and said, ‘(Expletive) you Shula!’ And that was it.”
Kuechenberg did his own thing and Page didn’t have a tackle the rest of the game. Fullback Larry Csonka rushed for 145 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-7 Miami romp. Afterward, the cast had dissolved to “sugar sand,” Kuechenberg said. Doctors broke three tools just pulling the rod out of his arm — and Kooch nearly fell off the gurney onto the floor himself.
These days, however, he looks at one photo and knows it was all worth it. The 20x24 shot shows Page uprooted off the ground. Kuechenberg’s broken arm is smashed into his rib cage with Csonka running behind for a touchdown.
Now, 42 years later, it’s Davis’ turn. He’s been a full participant at practice all week and will start Sunday. Davis will wrap the arm in a brace, down pain medication and grit through Super Bowl 50.
Said Davis, “I’m not one of those guys that sits out. If I have an opportunity and I’m able to play, then I’m going to play. The Super Bowl just adds to it.”
Indeed, the mind is a powerful thing. McClain points to a special he saw on the Discovery Channel. One man fell from a cliff, broke all the bones in his legs, yet somehow crawled himself to safety. He managed to shut down the pain sensors to his brain — he consciously refused to feel pain.
Same story here, he says.
“If you want it bad,” McClain said, “your mind is one of the strongest things in your entire body. ... You can do things out there that you can’t even imagine yourself doing and you’re hurt, you’re injured. It’s a big game and everybody’s nerves and emotions are going to be high."
There will be goosebumps, fireworks and more goosebumps. A ball will be kicked and Davis will step into the octagon with one fully functioning arm. Seeing this all up close has absolutely inspired the entire Panthers team to ignore their own aches and pains.
Name a hypothetical injury — ACL, MCL, broken bones. Finnegan would play through anything at this point. His raspy, edgy voice is direct.
“Anything. Name it. I’m rolling,” he said. “Because it’s a dream. It’s the biggest game in the world.”
Added Short, “I’m dealing with little pains but I don’t even speak about it because of Thomas.”
These days, whenever Kuechenberg has friends over to drink, he stirs his poison with that same rod once lodged in his arm. Maybe, one day, Davis can do the same with that rod-like plate. Maybe Sunday night.
Because once Super Bowl 50 is over and those pain meds wear off for good, well, Kuechenberg has some final advice.
“Beer goes a long way toward helping with pain.”