VONTAE DAVIS WAKES just after sunrise on a weekday in August and wonders how he'll start the day. He has little on his schedule -- a lunch meeting with his business partner and maybe some household chores -- so he decides to spend his morning doing something familiar, a routine from his NFL playing days: logging an hour in his hyperbaric chamber.
He zips himself inside the pill-shaped device -- an inflatable mattress meets sleeping bag -- and breathes in the pure, compressed oxygen. To pass the time, Davis reads a business book on his Kindle. Today's chapter is about CEOs -- how whenever possible, they shy away from the spotlight. It's of particular interest to Davis, who is now CEO of a soon-to-open holistic wellness spa in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
But the chapter resonates in a deeper way. It's been almost a year since Davis stunned the sports world with one of the most bizarre retirements in history. With his Buffalo Bills down 28-6 minutes before halftime against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 2, the 30-year-old two-time Pro Bowl cornerback removed himself from the game. Then he walked to the locker room, took off his jersey and drove home.
It was a confounding decision, one that thrust him into the national spotlight. Former teammates and fans called him a quitter. His brother, Vernon Davis, a 14-year NFL veteran, was heartbroken. Commentators and sportswriters questioned Vontae Davis' mental health and made jokes on social media and talk shows.
Now, 11 months later, Davis emerges from the chamber. He's wearing shorts branded with the logo of the Indianapolis Colts, with whom he spent six of his happiest football years. This is the first August since high school that he isn't preparing for a season, and he admits it's strange. He's still in shape -- 210 pounds, 5 shy of his playing weight. Just the other day, he posted a video of himself on his Instagram running shirtless on his Peloton, his muscles bouncing with every stride, prompting his followers to ask if he was readying a comeback. The thought made him laugh.
Vontae Davis doesn't miss the NFL, and he doesn't regret his decision to walk off the field.
"Most people, when I did what I did, they thought I was literally going insane or something," he says. "But I was actually fine. I was totally fine.
"And I'm totally fine today."
WHEN DAVIS WOKE up on Sept. 16, the day of the Bills' Week 2 game against the Chargers, he couldn't wait to get onto the field. It had been a hectic 10 months -- Davis had been released the previous November by the Colts, rehabbed from a third surgery on his groin, then signed with a team nobody -- not even those in his family -- saw coming. He was a healthy scratch in the first week of his 10th NFL season, then named the starter before Week 2 after an injury to another cornerback.
This was his chance to prove to his coaches and teammates that he was still an elite, Pro Bowl-level player.
That week had been like any other -- he studied up on his opponent's tendencies and spent time at the practice facility. Come Sunday morning, he was well rested. He ate a good breakfast and drove to the stadium, listening to his favorite Rick Ross tracks on the way. Pregame stretches were normal, as was the buzz of the crowd and the national anthem. His wife, Megan, sat in the family section, roughly 15 rows behind the team bench, wearing her husband's new No. 22 jersey.
On the third play of the game, 1 yard shy of a first down, Davis tackled Chargers running back Melvin Gordon to force a punt, then celebrated with his new teammates, holding his fist high as the crowd cheered.
But something was off. Physically, he felt fine -- there was no twinge from the groin that had long plagued his NFL career. This was different. His mind felt far away -- like he was going through the motions in the game he'd spent more than a decade playing. "I don't feel right," he said to his teammates, and as the Chargers sliced through the Bills' defense, scoring 28 points before halftime, he sat on the bench and realized what was happening.
His mind had finally caught up with his body. Mentally, he was finished. Most athletes who come to this realization have their "aha" moment somewhere in private, but Davis' was happening right there on the sideline. He felt scared and vulnerable, and he wasn't sure what to do -- all he knew was that he couldn't return to the field.
He needed to get away.
"I'm done," he told his defensive coordinator, who wasn't sure what Davis was talking about. The team chaplain followed him into the locker room, thinking he was injured, but Davis just kept repeating those same words.
The locker room was empty when he arrived. He took off his jersey and his shoulder pads and texted Megan. "Babe I'm done. I'm hanging up my cleats. I don't want to put my body through this anymore." The message startled her. Right now? she thought. In the middle of the game? She knew Vontae didn't want anyone to talk him out of his decision. Instead, her first instinct was just to be there for him. "OK, I'll meet you at home," she responded.
Davis skipped his shower, changed into his clothes, left everything in his locker and walked out the door to the players parking lot before his teammates and coaches arrived.
Meanwhile, 375 miles away in D.C., where his Redskins were playing the Colts, Vernon had just entered the locker room at halftime. He saw a missed call from his brother, which was odd -- they never called each other during games. So he called back and asked if everything was OK.
"I'm calling to let you know that I'm retired," Vontae said.
Vernon's heart sank. "Are you serious, or are you joking?"
" ... I'm tired," Vontae said.
He called his grandmother and a couple of close friends, then waited at the town house for his wife's arrival. By then, the news had spread among his Bills teammates and coaches, first as a rumor, then as a bizarre truth -- No. 22 was nowhere in sight.
Megan neared the town house, not sure of what to say or how to react. She opened the front door, and there he was, standing in street clothes in the kitchen, as his team began the third quarter. It was awkward, and Megan couldn't help herself. She started to laugh.
"Damn! You just left the stadium!" she said, and as she kept laughing, Davis started to laugh too.
"I'm never going to hear the end of this," he said.
Their laughs quickly turned to tears. He looked frazzled but light. She asked him how he was doing.
"I feel free like a bird," he said, and with that, she grabbed a bottle of their favorite tequila, Don Julio 1942, and the only juice they had in the refrigerator, orange, and poured them each a heavy glass.
It wasn't a moment of celebration. It was a moment of reflection.
FOR DAVIS, FOOTBALL had always been more of a job than a passion. He loved the feeling of being on the field -- and being great at it. But throughout his career, he struggled with the constant injuries, painkiller culture and business side of the NFL.
After three years at the University of Illinois, he was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the first round in 2009. He earned all-rookie honors that season. His first interception was a pick-six against the Bills, and in the two games he played against the New England Patriots, he intercepted Tom Brady twice, both while covering Randy Moss.
He was also introduced to the prescription painkiller Toradol. In his rookie year, Davis watched many of his veteran teammates take it before games and sometimes practice. He never liked the idea of painkillers -- he rarely even took Tylenol or Advil. But as he adjusted to the violence of the NFL, Toradol made him feel numb on the field, masking any bumps or bruises. "Guys can run through a brick wall on that stuff," he says.
There were flashes of greatness in the next two seasons for the Dolphins, like the improbable goal-line interception against Brett Favre, a pass that Davis tipped, juggled and caught flat on his back. Then there were the off-the-field mishaps. He was benched for the start of a game in 2010 for breaking an unspecified team rule, and the next year he was suspended a game for arriving late and hungover to practice. The media labeled him immature and problematic, which bothered Davis.
"I'm 23 years old," he says today. "Who's never shown up to work hungover once? Only difference is I'm in the public eye."
And that never came naturally. Davis was quiet and reserved, raised in Washington, D.C., by his grandma, who took in Davis and his six siblings from parents who battled drug addiction. In sports, he was stuck in the shadow of Vernon, his oldest brother, an elite high school football player who'd go on to star in college and the NFL.
Vontae Davis never sought the spotlight. That's why he was upset with how his Dolphins tenure ended. The team was featured on HBO's "Hard Knocks" in 2012, and in the fourth episode, he sat across from GM Jeff Ireland in his office and learned he'd been traded to the Colts.
Davis' first reaction was to ask whether he could call his grandma and his brother. He didn't know cameras were tucked inside the room, capturing his intimate moment that would become a viral sensation.
"There's this perception that there's brotherhood in the NFL and we're all fighting for each other and the same things," Megan says. "And then you embarrass one of your first-round draft picks on national television without him knowing there's a camera in the room?"
"I felt kind of violated," Vontae says. "It was a lot of B.S."
But things worked out with the Colts. After two years, he earned a huge contract -- four years and $39 million. The vote of confidence translated to his best-ever season. In 2014, he finished tied for fourth in the league in passes defended, adding five more in a playoff win against Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos.
Davis was a Pro Bowler, and was again in 2015. He became a fan favorite and in the process had grown very close to head coach Chuck Pagano. The two texted frequently about football and life. Pagano even attended Davis' 2015 wedding in Puerto Rico.
For a few years, it seemed Davis had discovered his path to success in the NFL. But he never felt defined by football. In a way, it pulled him from his other interests. Davis loved traveling but could do so only during the offseason. He became interested in finance, wanting to open a business, but never found the time to immerse himself in the logistics.
He knew football would always be a means to an end more than his reason for being. But in a city he loved, with a coach who cared for him, Davis was happy.
THROUGHOUT HIS CAREER, Megan rarely saw Vontae bring home a bad game. Can't play well every Sunday, he'd tell her, then move on.
Except on Thanksgiving Day 2016.
Davis had been limping around the house in the days before the game. His groin was bothering him, just like it had off and on throughout his career. Megan told him not to play, but Vontae suited up anyway, matching up against All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, who scored three touchdowns and had 91 receiving yards. When Davis got home later that night, he didn't leave the bedroom for a full day.
"It was probably the worst game I'd ever seen him play," Megan says. "But injuries never really set him back mentally. That's what I think the disconnect was with Vontae for a bit. Mentally, he was always the most tenacious and hungry. He believes in himself to the umpteenth degree."
But his body was breaking down. During the season, Davis had trouble sitting and standing. "He was walking like an 80-year-old man," Megan says.
The next summer, heading into his contract year, Davis reinjured his groin during the preseason. This time, it was a tear. The Colts medical staff prescribed rest and rehab, but Davis got a second opinion from the independent surgeon who had operated on him in 2012 and 2014. His suggestion? Surgery.
At first, Davis followed the team's advice. He was cleared to return in Week 4 but wasn't himself. "I didn't have my explosiveness," he says. "I didn't have a burst." He had taken prescription painkillers like Toradol sporadically throughout his career, but now Davis refused to take them -- he had read about several long-term consequences and was trying to focus on holistic ways to heal. After a Week 8 loss, the Colts had seen enough of his play. Two years removed from a Pro Bowl season, Davis was benched in a "non-injury" decision. But that news didn't come from Pagano. It came from another coach.
"I felt betrayed," Davis says, believing he'd done enough for the team, and built enough of a rapport with his head coach, to hear it from the man himself.
Megan knew he'd never play second string. "Him mentally, I don't think he would be able to go from playing at that pinnacle to the bench," she says. "There's certain guys who can do that and play a lesser role. But that was never him."
Plus, Davis' groin hadn't healed properly. So he went to the media to share his side of the drama. "I feel like I was demoted because of my health instead of my ability," he told reporters by his locker, explaining that he felt disrespected by how Pagano handled the situation. Later that night, he and Megan talked with his agent and decided to go against the team's wishes: He would have season-ending surgery to repair his torn groin. The next day, he was cut.
But Davis wasn't close to retiring. After spending the remainder of the 2017 season rehabbing, he visited teams such as the Browns, 49ers and Raiders. He was looking for a prove-it deal, just one year, so he could reestablish himself as an elite corner, then cash in the next season. He says he decided on the Bills because that's the team that offered him the most money on a one-year deal -- $5 million.
But those closest to him had reservations.
"I absolutely wanted to stay away from Buffalo," Megan says. "The organization just didn't have a great reputation. When you're in the league, you hear things, and records show things."
"I didn't know why he chose Buffalo until I talked to him," Vernon adds. "He chose them basically because of the good group of DBs that they had."
Vontae Davis arrived at training camp two weeks early, eager to learn the playbook and meet his new coaches. He'd soak in the hot tub before practice and in the cold tub after, earning himself the nickname "Old Man" from some of his teammates. But his camp wasn't great. He was always a step or two too slow, and his preseason play was inconsistent. One day, following a long practice, Megan found him sitting alone in their bedroom. He was quiet, his eyes fixed on the window.
"I'm so f---ing tired," he said, in a way she'd never heard from him before. She sat next to him on the bed, choosing her words carefully.
"'Tae, you know you don't really have to do this," she said.
He looked at her, confused. "What do you mean?"
"You don't have to play football anymore. You don't have to keep putting your body through this every week."
Davis looked at her. "I just need to prove to myself that I can't do it anymore."
Three weeks later, he walked off a football field for the last time.
NOW IT'S JUST after 11 a.m. on a weekday in August and Davis is driving into town to meet with Pai Dayan, his business partner who also runs a juice bar.
The two have plenty to go over. Ever since he retired, Davis has refocused his energy on VZONE, his holistic wellness spa, scheduled to open in October. It's a low-risk investment for Davis, even though he has sunk six figures into the passion project. That's one of the many positives from his NFL career: the financial security and leverage to create opportunities like this.
Dayan gives Davis a huge hug when he arrives and asks if he could meet a few customers at the juice bar. They're all excited to chat with a football player. One asks where he played. "I was drafted by Miami and traded to the Indianapolis Colts," Davis says. "Then I was in Buffalo for a cup of coffee."
"Are you still playing?" someone asks.
"No," he says with a big, easy smile. "I'm retired."
"But you're too young to retire!"
"Not in football years," Davis replies.
The backlash to his retirement was swift and ferocious. Some of his Bills teammates called him a quitter. So did fans and commentators. After Megan caught him reading some of the vitriol, she took away Vontae's phone, which kept ringing with texts and calls from reporters and former teammates, coaches and friends, wanting to know what happened.
Davis explained his reasoning that day in a social media statement. "This isn't how I pictured retiring from the NFL," it began, detailing the injuries and the physical and mental toll it took to play the game he loved. He read the statement over and over with tears in his eyes before it posted to his Instagram page. There was finality to it. In the message, there's a picture of him saluting the fans. He's wearing his No. 21 Colts jersey. He signed his retirement papers, and the Bills demanded most of his signing bonus back. He didn't care about that, or the $5 million. But he did care about offending his teammates. He never meant to disrespect them, or anyone else.
"At the moment, they were obviously pretty upset," Davis says. "I get it from their perspective. It's such a warrior mentality."
He knows that some people will always consider him a quitter or associate his legacy with retirement. He even finds some of the constant social media trolling entertaining. Just the other day, former NFL defensive lineman Darnell Dockett tagged Davis in a video on Instagram with a clip from "South Park." He and Megan couldn't stop laughing.
He also understands that people have wondered why he didn't just finish the game -- even just stand on the sideline for the second half. It's hard for him to explain. In that moment, when he realized football was no longer his purpose, he was overwhelmed. So he trusted his gut to leave the field.
"And looking back, it's one of the best decisions I've made in my life, honestly," he says. "Because I did something that I knew was the best thing for me."
Davis is truly happy. He loves how great his body feels. He loves that soon he'll be his own boss and that he's creating a space to help others heal. He wakes up every day with the freedom to decide how he wants to fill his day, knowing he, Megan and their future family are financially secure.
After a bowl of acai at the juice bar, he and Dayan decide on lunch near the ocean. Davis sits back and sips on a tequila-based cocktail in the sun, eating fried calamari and sea bass. The two talk business until Davis' eyes drift toward a TV at the outdoor bar set on NFL Network. It's a short replay of a Colts preseason game. Davis can't help it -- his brain is quickly analyzing what's happening on the field. Moments later, as the program pans through different storylines, a familiar face flashes across the screen from Redskins training camp.
"Look, look, look!" he says. "My brother!"
Watching football was weird at first. Last season, he caught the playoffs and the Super Bowl, but it felt too soon. This year is different. He's excited to be a fan. Davis wants to attend a couple of Dolphins games, especially in Week 6, when the Redskins come to town. He even bought NFL Game Pass. He'll invite his buddies over to watch games from his man cave, where they'll sit on black leather couches and scream at a 70-inch-screen TV, all the while surrounded by memorabilia from Davis' playing days -- most of which is still in the garage.
He hasn't gotten around to unboxing it yet. But when he does, the walls will tell the story of his career. From high school and college jerseys to aqua and royal blue ones from Miami and Indianapolis. There will be his interception balls thrown by Brady and Favre, as well as his Pro Bowl uniforms.
"But no Buffalo stuff," Davis says with a laugh. "I wasn't there that long."