Athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion's faith in players drives their success

Panthers athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion and coach Ron Rivera chat during practice. Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez/Carolina Panthers

Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis fractured his forearm just two weeks ago in the NFC Championship, yet he is expected to start in Sunday's big game. This might not come as a surprise to those who know him, many of whom cite his grit and determination as defining characteristics.

But there is another factor, a very human one, involved in Davis making it back for this potentially once-in-a-lifetime event.

His name is Ryan Vermillion.

Vermillion is the head athletic trainer and physical therapist for the Carolina Panthers, a title he has held since 2002 following a decade of NFL service with the Miami Dolphins and the Washington Redskins. Affectionately referred to by players as "RV," Vermillion is a calm yet strong presence in what can be a chaotic, intense environment. From his outdoor post along the sidelines at practices and games to his indoor "office," the training room, Vermillion watches over his players, caring for them and encouraging them when injuries bring their everyday world to an abrupt halt, then gradually pushing them along the path toward a return to action.

Vermillion has been one of the few constants for Davis as he has worked to overcome various injuries, most notably three consecutive ACL reconstructions in his right knee. Davis has been with the Panthers since they drafted him in the first round in 2005 and while the coaches have changed in the interim, Vermillion - with whom he has spent more time than perhaps any other member of the staff - has remained.

Their bond is special.

So special, in fact, that the realization Davis had fractured his forearm elicited an immediate visceral response in Vermillion, who still winces when he describes their exchange on the field moments after the injury.

"I knew it was broken by the way he was holding it and by the mechanism of the injury. But I asked him if he thought he broke it and he said, 'Yes.' "

As assistant athletic trainer Mark Shermansky took a subdued Davis inside to get X-rays, Vermillion called him and said, "We cannot let this end his season. This cannot be the final game for Thomas."

He then went to team orthopedist Dr. Pat Connor with the same plea. According to Vermillion, Connor didn't hesitate. "He told me we can put a plate in to stabilize the fracture and if everything goes well and we have a little luck on our side, he'll be able to play Super Bowl Sunday."

Albeit with a metal plate and 11 screws in his right forearm.

Although Vermillion is quick to credit everyone, it's clear he led the charge. Surgery was scheduled for the morning, measures to control pain and swelling were instituted immediately afterward and rehab began the very next day. Within two days, Vermillion and Davis began discussing brace options and by the end of the first week, Davis was participating in limited practice.

Davis said he also has been doing additional therapy in his hotel room -- icing to keep any swelling down, plus ball squeezes to ensure his grip strength continues to increase.

Having rehabbed from ACL surgery three times, Davis said he knows he must to do his part. Even more important, he trusts Vermillion.

Vermillion created the game plan after Davis' third ACL surgey, knowing that at that time no player had successfully returned to NFL competition after three ACL reconstructions.

Vermillion and Davis obliterated that stat. Davis returned to action in 2012 for his first full season since the initial ACL tear in 2009 and has posted at least 100 tackles in every season since.

That's not just a comeback. It's a return to dominance.

Although Davis might be the most dramatic example of overcoming injury heading into Super Bowl 50, he is not the only Panthers player to have beaten the odds.

Running back Jonathan Stewart has endured a handful of foot and ankle surgeries since college, along with a knee injury or two, prior to a career year as the feature back of the Panthers. Many thought it would be impossible for Stewart to succeed in that role when DeAngelo Williams, his partner in tandem in the backfield for years, moved to Pittsburgh this season. Stewart produced the second highest yardage total of his eight-year career.

Stewart's ability to thrive this season reflects Vermillion's knowledge of each of his athlete's particular needs, not only in terms of physical work and recovery but also in the form of mental preparation.

"One thing Jonathan always does is he prepares himself every single week for the game mentally," Vermillion noted. "Physically we have to take care of him, and I've learned with Jonathan, less is more. He doesn't need all the practice, all the repetitions to do his job on Sundays."

Why do the players respond to him the way they do? Perhaps they sense his empathy, his ability to connect with each of them

"He's different," Stewart said of Vermillion. "When one of us gets hurt, you can see it in his face. He hurts, too, because he genuinely cares."

That respect is not limited to the confines of the Panthers organization. Vermillion is among the most highly regarded medical providers in the NFL. Joe Van Allen, assistant athletic trainer and director of rehabilitation for the New England Patriots, said Vermillion was his first call when he sought guidance upon entering the league.

"I quickly came to realize Ryan is uniquely respected not only by the players and coaches he's worked with over the years but also by the athletic trainers and physical therapists across the league," Van Allen said.

Vermillion's genuine caring undoubtedly played a role in resurrecting last season for one particular player.

There is perhaps no more recognizable face when it comes to the Panthers franchise than that of quarterback Cam Newton, the effusive personality, the smile as big as the sun, the guy who hands out footballs to kids after every score and dabs his way through the season.

That smile, the swagger, the persona, the performance: It just wasn't there in 2014. Newton was hampered, in part, by a slow start resulting from offseason ankle surgery paired with a cracked rib in the preseason. He didn't appear completely comfortable physically on the field, and it showed. When he finally seemed to be clicking, the accident happened.

On Dec. 9, 2014, just a short distance from Bank of America Stadium, Newton was in a car accident and suffered two transverse process (vertebral) fractures in his low back, a painful but not life-threatening injury.

But it's what didn't happen that may have affected him the most.

Newton's truck flipped after a collision with another vehicle, sending him directly toward the edge of an overpass with the highway down below.

Vermillion said Newton told him he feared his car wasn't going to be able to stop rolling. "He kept thinking, 'This thing has got to stop. It's got to stop.' And it just wouldn't."

Ultimately Newton's truck did stop rolling, just feet before what would could have been a deadly result.

"It shook him physically, because his car rolled over," Vermillion said, "but even more so, I think it shook him up emotionally and mentally because he realized how precious life is. He's had a completely different focus since that accident."

When he returned to action, the player who had been absent most of the season suddenly resurfaced, perhaps nowhere more dramatically than in a wild-card performance a month later against the Arizona Cardinals. The Panthers won decisively, and Newton looked like the Cam Newton people had been searching for all year.

The first person he thanked? Vermillion, whom he had asked to deliver the pregame speech on that special night.

It was special, not because Newton was finding his footing again, but because this date was the anniversary of former Panthers' player and coach Sam Mills' now famous "Keep Pounding" speech, an inspirational message from one of their own given a decade earlier, stricken with cancer and fighting.

Vermillion was one of only four members of the Panther organization who had been there when Mills delivered those impassioned words.

"I talked to them about Sam, about his story - the commitment he had to that team, the commitment I had seen in the locker room - that was where 'Keep Pounding' started," Vermillion said. The slogan came from Mills saying, "You need to keep pounding on offense, keep pounding on defense, keep pounding on special teams."

"I told them," Vermillion added, "during a football game there will be good and bad, there will be peaks and there will be valleys, but if you keep on pounding, in the end things will turn out the right way.

"Sometimes you don't know how much what you're saying is being listened to or how it affects them. But after the game it was the first thing [Cam] started talking about. I think it hit him, and I think he took it to heart."

The Panthers enter Sunday's game with only three players on the injury report, all of whom are expected to play. Among them will be Davis, the emotional leader of the defense, the linebacker who has had his ACL reconstructed three times and is now two weeks removed from implantation of a metal plate and eleven screws in his forearm.

Although most presumed Davis was done for the year two weeks ago, one person insisted he was not: "As soon as RV told me I was going to be OK," Davis said, "knowing the character he has and what he's helped me through before, I was 100 percent fine."