CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Signing with the Carolina Panthers was the best career choice Stephen Davis ever made: He can sleep in his own bed twice a week, tuck his children in at night and spend time with his extended family.
He's also headed to the Super Bowl for the first time in his career. The running back's homecoming is a major reason why the Panthers advanced to the Feb. 1 game against the New England Patriots.
One week away from the biggest game of his career, Davis hasn't stopped to reflect on his dream season. He rushed for a career-best 1,444 yards as the focal point of a run-oriented offense and was selected to the Pro Bowl.
"I haven't looked back yet, maybe when the season is over I can take time and look at the whole season and enjoy the whole season," he said. "Right now, the only thing I am worrying about is that we have one more game and it is the biggest game of the season."
After seven seasons with the Washington Redskins, three of them Pro-Bowl years, Davis was considered a misfit in Steve Spurrier's offense and was cast aside during the offseason. Scouring the market for work, only Carolina and the Houston Texans showed any real interest in the 29-year-old back.
As a native of Spartanburg, S.C., where the Panthers hold training camp, and because his primary residence is 90 minutes away from Charlotte in Columbia, S.C., picking the Panthers was a no-brainer.
Davis' homecoming has meant as much to him this year as winning football games and proving he's still one of the top backs in the league. Media-shy and leery of accepting the star role, being home this season is one of the few topics Davis truly opens up about.
"Being able to go home some nights and sleep in my own bed, seeing my kids, my mother, seeing my grandmother before she died, that was important to me," he said. "A lot of guys don't get the opportunity and I am blessed to have that opportunity. I am also blessed to see my family during a season that has been so rewarding.
"I am having fun and they are having fun."
But the season has been as frustrating as it has been rewarding. A lingering ankle sprain sent him to the sidelines for 2 1/2-games this year. A bruised forearm knocked him out of another game.
The biggest setback came in the divisional playoffs against St. Louis, when Davis pulled his left quadriceps on a 64-yard run in the second quarter. He left the game and watched as DeShaun Foster, his understudy, helped the Panthers earn the double overtime victory.
It made the week before the NFC championship game one of the most agonizing seven days of Davis' life. He couldn't practice most of the week and his playing status wasn't going to be decided until right before kickoff.
Desperate to be part of the game, Davis said there was no way he wasn't facing Philadelphia. But it was a coaching decision, not his, and he had to convince the Panthers he could play.
"I did everything I could possibly do to get myself well enough to play that game," he said. "When I was running for the coaches, I was kind of worried. But I did a pretty good job and proved to them that I could run and fill-in in the game. My wife even told me last week before the game that I looked kind of worried."
With a two weeks off before the Super Bowl, Davis is taking the time to heal. He didn't practice at all this week and won't hit the field until Carolina's first practice in Houston on Monday.
But the signs of frustration and worry that he couldn't mask a week ago are gone. Davis is positive he'll be ready to face the Patriots.
"I feel great, I feel a lot better than I did last week," he said.
Will he be 100 percent by gametime? For once, the stone-faced Davis showed real emotion.
"No doubt," he snapped. "No doubt!"