TAMPA — There is a picture in Lavonte David’s house. It is framed in his living room and the image still comes into sharp focus when he closes his eyes.
The Bucs had just beaten the Kansas City Chiefs, 31-9, to win Super Bowl 55. Confetti and tears streamed down David’s face.
There were handshakes and hugs with quarterback Tom Brady, other teammates and his wife, Tondrea. ”Then I was screaming, ‘Where’s my daddy?’” David said of the moment when he was desperately searching for his father, Edward Nelson. “‘Bring him out here on the field,’ you know what I’m saying? I gave him the biggest hug.
“It was a wonderful moment. He told me he was proud of me. He told me he loved me. He said, ‘I told you one day it was going to happen and to just stick with the plan.’ It all came about.”
He is 32, entering the final year of his contract with the Bucs and perhaps the last of his career.
Until 2020, the former second-round pick from Nebraska had enjoyed only two winning seasons and zero playoff appearances with the Bucs. Over the past few years, however, the suffering has been more personal than professional.
A promise to mom
Lynette David was Lavonte’s anchor, the one who encouraged him to remain at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas when the work and the winters were unbearable.
“My mom instilled in me being a hard worker,” David said. “Never complaining. I never heard her complain once. She treated everybody with respect. Just a very helpful person. Somebody people could count on.
“Many nights, I would sit up on the phone at night crying. ‘I want to come home! I want to come home!’ She told me, ‘No, just stick it out. Tomorrow is going to be a new day. Go in with a different mentality and a different mindset and things will work out.’ I remember the day I made the team, I called her and said, ‘You were right. I’m going to make you proud.’ I remember telling her that.”
Lynette, who died in 2016 due to complications from diabetes, lived long enough to see David sign his first big contract extension, a five-year $50.25 million deal.
“She had a lot on her shoulders for a woman with her own family,” David said. “It definitely was something I was proud of. Me getting that deal, it was like we can relax and now I can take care of you.
“When she passed, there was a part of me, ‘What am I doing this for now?’ I wanted to have her enjoy the hard work she did to get me here.”
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David had made a promise to his mother when he was drafted that he would go back to Nebraska and earn his degree. A day before Mother’s Day in 2021, he walked with the Class of 2021 at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., and received his diploma.
“She wanted me to graduate,” David said. “When I was leaving Nebraska, I told her I wouldn’t be able to go back to school because I was leaving to train to go to the NFL. I remember her telling me, ‘You’ve got to promise me you’re going to go back one day and get your degree.’ ...
“My first couple years, I wasn’t worried about it and then I started picking away at it, taking a class here or there online. After she passed, I said I’ve got to make this stuff a priority in the offseason. It was important to me. I was the first one in my family to get a college degree. For her to encourage me to do it was big. I got my degree the day before Mother’s Day, so it was a Mother’s Day gift to her.”
Nelson was there. It was only fitting because he had always been there for David. He never missed a football game from the time David played for the Liberty City Warriors, a youth football team founded by 2 Live Crew rapper Luther Campbell.
“My dad was my motivator,” David said. “He was my encourager. If you’re going do something, be great at it. He was a basketball player and loved basketball. I was playing basketball a little bit but then I started playing football and I told him, ‘I don’t want to play basketball anymore, I just want to play football.’ He sat me down and said, ‘If you’re going to play football, there’s a lot that comes with it and I expect the best out of you because you will get the best from me.’
“I remember one time I tried to quit my Little League team and he said, ‘No, we’re both in this together. We made a commitment.’ He was like that throughout my whole career.”
A fire to compete
David exceeded expectations. In two seasons with the Cornhuskers, he recorded 276 tackles, 11.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and two interceptions.
That was just the start of things. Over the next 11 seasons with the Bucs, he would record more than 1,200 tackles and set club records for tackles for loss (133) and fumble recoveries (17).
Because of the team’s lack of success, David has never gotten the recognition he deserves. He has only made the Pro Bowl (2015) and been named first-team All Pro (2013) once each.
Nonetheless, David continued to be the leader of the Bucs defense and a mentor to younger players.
Injuries have begun to become more frequent. He has failed to play a complete season in three of the past five years. A Lisfranc injury to his foot sidelined him five games in 2021, including the final three of the regular season. He estimated he played at about 60 percent in the NFC division playoff loss to the Rams.
David was as frustrated as he’s ever been following that defeat. Early in the second quarter of that game, after the Bucs blew coverage and allowed a 70-yard touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford to Cooper Kupp on third and 20, David was so furious he slammed his helmet to the turf, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty. His tirade continued on the Bucs bench.
“At that moment, it was a big time in the game where I felt like if had gotten them off the field, our offense would’ve capitalized off of it and the tables would’ve turned in that game,” David said. “Instead, we put ourselves in a situation where we were down and we made it easy. We’re always talking about making people beat us and not beating ourselves. And that’s exactly what happened.”
Bucs coach Todd Bowles says what he loves about David is his consistent high level of play.
“He’s always hungry to get better,” Bowles said. “He’s always hungry to compete. I think Lavonte has an old school linebacker mentality. If we played the game in the mud and the pouring rain, he’d get his uniform dirty and he’d be very happy. And he has that mentality. I think that’s a great thing. The more you poke him, the harder, the tougher he plays. You’re not going to beat him. You’re going to have to kill him.”
Who knows whether the season will end with another Super Bowl. Sadly, the celebrations won’t be quite the same.
Five months after that memorable bear hug at Raymond James Stadium and only two months after earning his diploma, Nelson died of liver cancer at age 70.
“It’s very tough,” said David, who became a father himself on May 24, to daughter Logan Lynette David. “My dad was with me through everything. He was just a tough, hard-core guy and a man you could respect. He was a man’s man, you know what I’m saying? He took care of his home, he took care of his kids and his family and took a lot of pressure off my mom. For me to see the way he treated us, he treated us with respect and he wanted respect back in turn. But he let us be ourselves. He was always going to support us whatever we chose. He let us make our own choices.
“I remember talking to him when he was in the hospital and my fondest memories is how everybody just sort of gravitated to him. I was telling him, ‘You’re going through all this here and you’re still trying to see how other people are doing. You’re worried about them.’ The nurse came in and he’d laugh and joke and ask, ‘How is your day going?’ I would ask him how he could do that with what he was going through? He said, ‘No matter what I’m going through, somebody may be going through something as hard as I am.’
“I was like, man, it took be back. But he’s always been like that. We would go to the gas station and he’d had a conversation with the cashier. It was crazy to me. I’m sure a guy like that is going to heaven.”
And there is another picture that reminds David daily of his parents’ love. A locket worn around his neck holds images of his mother and father, framed in a heart.
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