TAMPA — The best outside linebacker in the NFL walked into Ava on Wednesday night wearing a smile, jeans and a gray hoodie. He strolled past the cute couple cuddled in the booth by the window and weaved his way around a flurry of waiters setting up tables. It was his first visit to one of Tampa Bay's most trendy restaurants.
"I don't go out much, really," Lavonte David said shyly. "But this is a nice place."
David, 25, had only two more nights of freedom before reporting with his Bucs teammates to training camp Friday. He was refreshed by the offseason, which included a trip to Jamaica, where he broke his cellphone.
Even the sleuths from the league office didn't notice that he was unable to be reached for five days.
"Looking back, it was kind of good not having a phone," he said. "I was just relaxing."
At 6 feet 1 and 233 pounds, David is a social chameleon who goes mostly unnoticed until he puts on a helmet, shoulder pads and a uniform. In his first three pro seasons, the 2012 second-round draft pick from Nebraska racked up impressive numbers: 430 tackles (320 solo), 10 sacks, six forced fumbles and six interceptions.
Entering the final year of his contract, David is on the verge of his biggest payday. Negotiations between his agent and the Bucs on an extension have been amicable but not fruitful. As a cornerstone of the franchise, a player in his position might opt to hold out at the start of training camp.
"There isn't any question, I'll be there," David said. "If I did hold out, a lot of guys would lose respect for me, and I would lose respect for myself. They know I love the game of football, and there's nothing that's going to keep me from playing. Football is what has gotten me through a lot of things in my life. I'm going to play any chance I get."
A week ago, David returned to his high school in Miami, where he helped the Northwestern Bulls win back-to-back state championships in 2006-07. He was there to give away 300 book bags and school supplies to students.
David didn't always realize the importance of doing well in school.
"I didn't worry about my grades, didn't feel like I had to do much but play football," he said, "and it almost cost me everything."
Unable to qualify for college academically, elite Division I-A programs such as Georgia, Tennessee and Miami stopped recruiting him. Only Middle Tennessee State held on, and the plan was for David to take the ACT again in the fall and enroll in January.
"But something happened back home, violence occurred, and one of my friends got severely hurt," David said. "My mom wanted me out of there right away. She said take the first offer."
He got a call from Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College assistant coach Eddie Brown, a former Arena League star and the father of current Steelers receiver Antonio Brown. The coach remembered David as an 8-year-old tackling machine in Pop Warner for Liberty City Optimist.
A few weeks later, after accepting the invitation to play at Fort Scott in 2008, David's career nearly ended after he fell down three times during a conditioning run in the prairie heat. Only 12 spots were reserved for out-of-state players, with 100 trying to fill them. David begged coaches not to send him home.
"I thought I had blown it," he said.
From that patch of dirt and grass, a career blossomed, first as a National Junior College Athletic Association All-American and defensive MVP in Fort Scott's 2009 national title game loss to Cam Newton-led Blinn College, then as a record-setting tackler and All-Big Ten linebacker at Nebraska.
In three pro seasons, David has established himself as one of the league's best players and was named All-Pro in 2013. Still, the Pro Bowl has eluded him, in part because of a faulty voting category that lists pass-rushing defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme as outside linebackers. Another reason is that the Bucs have won only 13 games in his three seasons.
"Last year I missed a lot of opportunities, when I go back and look at myself on film, where maybe I could've forced a fumble or made an interception or get a sack," David said. "I was just a step slow, not knowing how the offense would block a play. I didn't make a lot of splash plays, the game-changing plays. The game is all about making a play. If I improve on that, maybe we can be 14-2."
The Bucs agree David deserves a hefty contract extension, but there's a wide gap to close in negotiations. Outside linebackers don't get paid as much as middle linebackers, the position the Panthers' Luke Kuechly plays. David's numbers are most comparable to those of Kuechly, who as a first-round pick in 2012 was given a fifth-year option at more than $11 million.
"My mind-set is going to stay the same," David said, finishing off a plate of salmon and pasta. "I'm going to play this year, and whenever that deal comes, I'll be happy and blessed about it.
"I will probably be overwhelmed because I'm a family guy. I want to put my family in a position where they won't have to worry anymore. I can relax knowing I made my mom happy. I can focus even more on football … and no telling what could happen then."