Linebacker Lavonte David makes tearful return to Bucs

TAMPA — The contract had been signed, and millions or more dollars were coming his way. His 22-month-old daughter, Logan, sat on the floor and cooed as she played on a tablet in the back of the media room.

But something was missing for Lavonte David. Actually, some very important people. He looked at the empty chair in the front row where his mom, Lynette David, sat when he signed a five-year, $50.25 million deal in 2015.

Just outside the room is where his dad, Edward Nelson, talked one day after a similar signing about how far David had come from the time he laced up his cleats for the Liberty City Warriors, the youth football team in a league founded by 2 Live Crew rapper Luther Campbell.

Both his parents are gone now. Lynette died in 2016 after complications from diabetes. His dad passed in 2021 from liver disease.

David, 34, said he drove by his parents’ old home not long ago in Miami, and it brought back a flood of emotions.

“That’s something I think about all the time,” David said after signing a one-year, $9 million contract Friday. “Every time something big comes up, because obviously, they’re the first two people I’d talk to about anything. It’s kind of tough, it’s kind of hard just going through this stuff without them because if anybody knows me, I’m a big mama’s boy. She sat right there. I remember.”

David is one of the greatest Bucs players of all time, a certain Ring of Honor inductee and borderline candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Currently, he is about 250 tackles shy of Derrick Brooks’ career mark.

He was asked why he chose to remain in Tampa Bay, despite not sniffing the postseason until Tom Brady arrived in 2020 and the Bucs won Super Bowl 55 over the Chiefs. Since then, they have been a fixture in the postseason; their four-year playoff streak is the longest active streak in the NFC.

“I think it’s just my personal drive and my personal competitiveness — knowing that one day, everything would be how it is right now: being able to win three division championships and a Super Bowl,” David said. “I just knew that one day, that would happen. We were able to get the right people in the building and we (were) able to do that.

“For me, personally, I felt like I was giving up if I’d do something like (go somewhere else). For an organization to draft me and be able to have that faith in me, give me a contract after three years, it just goes to show how they feel about me. It was only right that I ride it out to see how far this thing is going to go. It’s been a blessing and I’m thankful.”

Last season was among the best of David’s 12-year career. In addition to leading the team with 134 tackles, he added 4.5 sacks, his most since 2016. In fact, David was the only NFL player with at least 100 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 3.0-plus sacks. His 17 tackles for loss in 2023 were the second most by a player age 33 or older since the league started compiling that data in 2008.

Bucs general manager Jason Licht, whose focus this offseason has been on re-signing his own free agents such (Mike Evans, Baker Mayfield, Antoine Winfield Jr. and David), said the iconic linebacker is the prototype his team uses to evaluate players.

“He’s the poster child, literally, for us,” Licht said. “We have a picture of a silhouette in our draft room that says, ‘I am that man.’ It is a person that we want as a player ... and it does not show his face, but it is Lavonte. He is the one we look for every year. He is the standard.”

David was asked his secret to NFL longevity. He has played the most games (181) of anyone in a Bucs uniform behind only Ronde Barber (241) and Brooks (224). How has he been able to do it?

“First and foremost, God’s grace,” David said. “I’ve been blessed to be in this position and be able to play at a high level like this when a lot of bad things happen — injuries and stuff. To be able to play full seasons without having any crazy things happen — no real surgeries and stuff like that.”

How long would David like to play? It depends. He would like to win another Super Bowl. If that happened this season, maybe it would be good to go out on top. But there are many factors.

“It’s always an ongoing discussion, especially after Year 10,” he said. “Everybody’s dream is to get to 10 years and then just see how it goes from there. Ever since then, that’s how it’s been for me, just depending on how I feel, how I am mentally, how I am physically, do I still have love for the game? Do I still enjoy being around the guys in the locker room? A whole bunch of stuff. ...

“I’m having fun, I’m loving the game, I’m healthy.”

The TV cameras had been packed up and only a handful of reporters remained Friday as David reminisced about the other times he had stood in this room after signing a new contract.

He smiled at his daughter. Then he fought back tears.

“My whole thing as a child was just seeing the work your parents put in, all the sacrifices they made, especially now when you’re older, you kind of look back and you observe and see parents sacrifice for the kids,” David said. “Me as a kid, I didn’t notice that. They just all the time focused on me and were making sure I was living the life I wanted to live and making my life as comfortable as possible.

“As a kid, all you want to be able to do is grow up and take care of your family and take care of your parents. ... It’s kind of making me sad a little bit.

“I was over at my parents’ house the other day and just looking at the house ... You just want to make them proud and I’m sure they’re proud. For me to see the look on their face, get that feeling of satisfaction. ...”

David walked away. He stood with his back turned and cried.

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