Could this be the last game for Lavonte David with the Bucs?

The linebacker is 32, has no contract beyond this season and a new baby girl he wants to spend time with. But he still loves football and hopes to continue to play.
Published Jan. 14|Updated Jan. 15

TAMPA — He could be playing his last game for the Bucs. He has no contract beyond this season, no expectation that at his age a new deal is in the works. The minute his career ends, a space likely will be cleared for his name in the team’s Ring of Honor.

Retirement doesn’t seem as likely as it once did, but he is talking about spending more time with his family. Maybe it’s better to walk away too early than limp away too late.

So appreciate one of the greatest players in Bucs history, who took them from lovable losers to Super Bowl 55 champions.

We’re not talking about the greatest quarterback of all time in this case.

Instead, consider that you soon could be saying goodbye to linebacker Lavonte David.

“Every offseason, I always go in with the mindset that I’m going to train like I’m a rookie again,” said David, 32. “This time, things are different now. I have a daughter now. I want to spend time with her as much as I can and watch her grow and soak in everything. I’m blessed to be in this position, and I don’t take it for granted at all. That’s the main thing. I try to remind myself: Never take these opportunities for granted.”

Rediscovering himself

Lavonte David (54) reacts after missing an interception in the end zone during a game against the Kansas City Chiefs in October in Tampa.
Lavonte David (54) reacts after missing an interception in the end zone during a game against the Kansas City Chiefs in October in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

A year ago, David suffered through one of the worst seasons of his career. He missed five games, the final three of the regular season with a painful Lisfranc injury. He had 97 tackles, including five tackles for loss (his fewest as a pro), with no interceptions and one fumble recovery.

Until the week of the Bucs’ wild-card game against the Eagles, he wasn’t sure he would be able to play in the postseason.

“I hurt real bad,” David said. “I had to wear a cast. I had to wear a boot for a couple weeks. It was tough, just working to be able to get back out there and get myself in position where I could at least run and push off and get to where I could at least tolerate the pain. I didn’t know if I would make it.

“A couple days before the game I found out I was good enough to go, that I would be able to tolerate the pain that was going in my foot. It was definitely a tough week, I’ll say that. I wanted to get out there bad. The playoffs is something nobody wants to miss.”

David estimated he was playing at about 65 percent and had to throttle back his aggressiveness just to make it through the game.

“I couldn’t be the Lavonte David I could usually be, the sideline-to-sideline guy who is instinctive and things like that,” he said. “I just had to hone in and focus on my assignment and my job only for the most part. But now, to be able to have full-go, 100 percent, I’ll be able to play the game the way I know how to play the game, hopefully these playoffs will be a different result.”

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David, who is in the final season of a two-year, $25 million contract and will become a free agent in March, rededicated himself to training and better nutrition beginning in the offseason, rebuilding his body and emphasizing more rest and recovery.

“It’s a long season,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to switch up more things and get more rest. Sleeping in more. Coming in later. Fridays off, that was a huge part. ... Understanding what the bigger goal was. Getting to this point fully healthy. That’s something I’ve always thought about, and that’s where I was, especially last year.”

The results were remarkable for David, the NFL’s second-oldest starting inside linebacker to 33-year-old Demario Davis of the Saints.

David responded with one of the best seasons of his career. He tied linebacker Devin White for the team lead in tackles with 124. He also had 10 tackles for loss, three sacks, three quarterback hits and a forced fumble.

“He’s a true professional,” coach Todd Bowles said. “He came back. He worked out every day. He kept his body good. He kept his legs fresh, he did all the right things. ... You’ve got to protect him from himself sometimes, because he tries to go nonstop. But it’s a credit to him and how hungry he is and how much he loves to play the game.”

Familial bonds

Lavonte David (54) waits for Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) to snap the ball during a game at Raymond James Stadium in September.
Lavonte David (54) waits for Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) to snap the ball during a game at Raymond James Stadium in September. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Nobody endured more losing seasons with the Bucs than David until they reached the playoffs in 2020. Prior to that season, the 2012 second-round pick from Nebraska enjoyed only one winning record and zero postseason appearances with Tampa Bay. There also were some personal losses.

His mother, Lynette David, had always been his guiding light, encouraging him to stick things out at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas. She was his biggest fan and lived long enough to see David sign a five-year, $50.25 million contract extension before she died in 2016 due to complications with diabetes.

His dad, Edward Nelson, never missed a football game from the time David played for the Liberty City Warriors in Miami. He was his motivator, and he was with him when the Bucs won Super Bowl 55. Nelson, however, died five months after that game and two months after he watched his son graduate from Nebraska in 2021.

In May, David became a father when he and his wife, Tondrea, had a baby girl, Logan Lynette David. Suddenly, he had new priorities.

“You think about a lot of things,” David said. “I want to make sure I spend plenty of time with my daughter.”

Then a moment will pass, like it did prior to the NFC South-clinching win over Carolina. Gerald McCoy, the former Bucs Pro Bowl defensive tackle who was drafted by Tampa Bay two years earlier than David, embraced his long-time teammate on the way to the locker room.

“When you come into the league you try to be the best player you can, and the team goal is to win the Super Bowl. In doing so, you create brotherhoods,” McCoy said. “Some people become more than teammates. They become brothers, and that’s what Lavonte is to me. It’s funny seeing him every day, because me and him talked about it every day.

“To see it happen is pretty cool, but not only that, he and his wife are my youngest son’s godparents. Lavonte and I are more than teammates, and I feel he’s one of the best linebackers to ever play in this league. I don’t feel he’s ever gotten the credit he deserved as one of the greatest, and I think he kind of just flew under the radar.”

Sharing the moments

Lavonte David, left, watches a practice with then-teammate Gerald McCoy, right, in 2017 in Tampa.
Lavonte David, left, watches a practice with then-teammate Gerald McCoy, right, in 2017 in Tampa.

McCoy played nine seasons with the Bucs and was named to six Pro Bowls. But the former No. 3 overall pick never reached the playoffs.

“He’s living through me right now,” David said. “That’s what I always talk about: ‘I’m doing this for you.’ I tell him about all the moments, everything that’s going on. The preparation, how the intensity level rises up, the focus rises. He’s a brother, a guy I respect as a football player and as a man. Every time I get a chance to see him, I come up and hug him and appreciate him and let him know these are the moments I’m sharing with him.”

How many more moments David will share with Bucs fans is unknown. Tampa Bay could use a high draft pick on an inside linebacker. David’s backup, K.J. Britt, hasn’t shown enough in the few times he’s played to determine if he will be David’s eventual replacement.

In the meantime, David doesn’t plan to waste this chance Monday night’s wild-card game against the Cowboys.

“Obviously, I get feedback from coaches,” he said. “‘How I can be better on certain things? Be honest. ... Do you feel I can make this play? You don’t feel I can make this play?’ Okay, cool, just be honest with me. I think a lot of guys appreciate that.

“I love the game of football, so as long as I still love it and I’m still feeling good and playing on a high level, I’m going to keep going.”

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