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A tough upbringing has given Davante Adams a 'true edge' the Packers hope their star receiver never loses. And the team's chances of a championship, under the guidance of a new coach, just might depend on it.

By Michael Silver | Published Sept. 2, 2019

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Long before he emerged as Aaron Rodgers' most trusted target in Titletown, before the game-winning catches and the playoff touchdowns and the Pro Bowl selections, Davante Adams was confronted with a crisis that compelled him to run the scariest and most important route of his life.

When Adams, then 14, heard the ominous sound of screeching tires outside his family's modest home in impoverished East Palo Alto, Calif., he looked out the window and saw a horrifying scene: A drive-by shooting was unfolding in real time, at the next-door neighbor's house, and Adams' preschool-aged twin sisters, Destiny and D'aishanae, were standing in the front yard and in the line of fire.

In an instant, Davante bolted through the front door and grabbed the girls, then turned and made a beeline for the house as bullets flew around them.

"It was one of the craziest moments of my life," Adams recalled in July as he stood outside the Packers' locker room at Lambeau Field following a training camp practice. "It wasn't the first rodeo, but it probably gave me the biggest scare. I ran out and grabbed my two little girls, snatched them up, threw them literally into the house ... and then got myself in there and then all of us on the ground. It was just in time, before the house was actually shot up. Nobody got hit. But it was definitely a close call."

If Adams exudes a humility that quarrels with the flamboyant archetype established by many of the football world's most accomplished pass-catchers, it has plenty to do with the ominous obstacles he surmounted on the road to success. That he was able to survive the rough streets he navigated in his youth -- and go on to thrive in one of the sport world's most hallowed settings -- is a testament to strong will and good fortune, neither of which he takes for granted.

"I mean, I grew up with nothing," he said. "Crazy crime rate. Exposed to a lot of stuff that a young kid shouldn't be. Obviously, I would have loved to feel a little bit safer at times in my life. I've got friends that ended up in the two spots you don't want to end up. It's happened with a good percentage of the guys I played Pop Warner with -- they've ended up in the slammer, or worse.

"I'd love to give myself a lot of credit. I would definitely say I have my head on straight, but that's due to my parents. It could easily have gone the other way."

As he prepares for his sixth NFL season (which kicks off Thursday night against the Chicago Bears), in a new offense installed by rookie head coach Matt LaFleur, Adams believes he's ready to lift his already accomplished game to a new plateau -- and his confidence is impossible to conceal. Yet he won't be floating onto Lambeau Field in a hot air balloon, or inflicting violence upon a kicking net, or telling fans to "getcha popcorn ready."

"Tay is a guy who has great confidence but not a distracting ego, which I think is rare for a guy as talented as he is," Rodgers said of his top receiver. "He wants other guys to do well, the guys in the league that he's friends with to get paid and to be respected. He wants other guys on the squad to catch balls. He blocks for other guys. He's not a guy who if he has a bad game, and we win, he's down in the dumps. Obviously, he wants to contribute and feels like if the ball comes his way we're going to win. But he's a really good locker room guy."

He's also a ridiculously good player, one whose sublime release off the line of scrimmage confounds the league's top defensive backs -- and, at 26, he appears to be ascending. Adams had a monster year in 2018, catching 111 passes for 1,386 yards and 13 touchdowns (all career highs), while securing his second consecutive Pro Bowl selection. Yet with the Packers stumbling to a 6-9-1 record, a stretch that provoked the firing of longtime coach Mike McCarthy, Adams wasn't as universally celebrated as some of the league's other, more ostentatious receivers.

Then again, that's been part of a recurring pattern that began with Adams' relatively tepid recruitment out of high school, continued as he slipped to the second round of the 2014 draft after a record-setting career at Fresno State, and subsisted throughout a disappointing second season with the Packers that had many fans and analysts writing him off as a bust.

"I don't think a lot of people have ever paid him the attention he deserves," Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said of Adams, his good friend and former college teammate. "He wasn't highly recruited out of high school. After college, there was no reason he shouldn't have been known as the top receiver in all of the land, but he lasted until the second round. Even now, he's not on a lot of people's top-five lists. Maybe this will be the year he finally gets his due."

In NFL players' circles, Adams is already regarded as exceptional.

"He is incredibly talented, first and foremost," said 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, who has faced Adams at least once each season since the WR entered the league. "He does a great job of accelerating and decelerating within his route. And his releases are some of the best you will see in this league."

He's also got brains: LaFleur, who was hired in January after one-year stints as an offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams and Tennessee Titans, was quickly struck by Adams' intelligence and natural curiosity.

"He's smart -- really smart," LaFleur said in June. "I think he's really worked at it. He's got a really good savvy about him, and he understands spacing. He asks a lot of really good questions."

The third jewel of Adams' Triple Crown, and perhaps the most important, is his grit.

"He's probably the toughest dude in the NFL," said NFL Network analyst and former Packers receiver James Jones, whose final NFL season (2015) coincided with Adams' disappointing sophomore season -- a stretch in which the young wideout played through a painful ankle injury. "When I was there, he was the second-toughest, because I was (the toughest)."

After a promising rookie year as the Packers' third wideout and a breakout performance in the Packers' Divisional Round victory over the Dallas Cowboys, Adams was elevated to the starting lineup when then-No. 1 receiver Jordy Nelson suffered a torn ACL during the 2015 preseason. He made only one touchdown catch during a drop-filled, frustrating campaign, but even as fans and media members derided him as a massive disappointment, Adams refrained from complaining about the injury.

"That was one of the worst years of my life," Adams recalled. "My body was all jacked up; I had that ankle that was lingering the whole season. I got down on myself in the aspect of disappointed in how I was playing, but overall I think the guys that go in the tank ... it's hard to get out of there. So, I never really got fully submerged in the bulls---."

Asked if there were a reason Adams struggled in 2015, Rodgers replied, "Yeah, he was hurt. He probably wouldn't say how bad it was, but he was hurt. He had an ankle injury that bothered him all year, and anyone who knows Tay's game -- and now many people across the league do -- he's a release guy. Him and Keenan (Allen) probably have the two best consistent releases I think at the line of scrimmage. They're just so tough to guard in that short space, and he couldn't put a lot of consistent weight on that and be able to do his double moves, or just explode off the line. Watching his gait that entire year, he just wasn't right. But he battled through it and didn't complain about it."

Two seasons later, Adams' ability to overcome physical discomfort became obvious to the football world.

Ten days after he left the field on a stretcher following a brutal, helmet-to-helmet shot from Chicago Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan on "Thursday Night Football," suffering a concussion that landed him in the hospital, Adams shocked most observers by returning for a road game against the Cowboys. With the Packers trailing by three and 16 seconds remaining, Rodgers lofted a back-shoulder pass toward the left edge of the end zone, and Adams rose up to make a dramatic, game-winning catch.

Given where Adams came from, his strength in the face of adversity is not surprising. Growing up in the shadow of Silicon Valley opulence -- on the other side of the Highway 101, in an underprivileged and oft-ignored city -- he was constantly confronted with challenges and taunted by the material possessions being flaunted in his vicinity.

"People hear 'East Palo Alto' and they think, 'Oh, you're from Stanford,' " Adams said. "They don't understand. It's like 'The Lion King': You've got Pride Rock, and then you've got where the hyenas are. It ain't too far, but it's a completely different world. That's the best way I can explain it."

Adams split time between his parents' houses and, at times, lived with his grandparents. His mother, Pamela Brown, worked two jobs, braiding hair at night to supplement her income. "I grew up with not much," he said. "But my parents did a good job of making sure that I had my head on straight, and that bad things didn't happen to me."

Though he excelled in multiple sports -- he was a two-star recruit in basketball -- Adams was by no means a sure-fire bet to excel on the collegiate level. He didn't play high school football until his junior year, and major-college coaches weren't calling and texting obsessively.

"I wasn't the best or the most highly recruited on my high school football team," Adams said. "We had a guy who went to Stanford; he wasn't where I was from. But one guy that was where I was from, he had a bunch of different offers. Fresno State actually came to my school to look at him and saw me and saw that basically it was the difference between the mindsets. And he was one of the fastest dudes in California, but just didn't have it all up upstairs and it didn't work out."

In his final season with the Bulldogs, as a redshirt sophomore with Carr as his quarterback, Adams put up absurd numbers, catching 131 passes for 1,719 yards and 24 touchdowns.

"From the start, Davante was super-competitive," Carr recalled. "He was quiet, but he just carried himself in a confident manner. I knew he was gonna be a special player. You could just tell when he walked into a room -- he was just different.

"He just plays like a tough dude. I knew he was from East Palo Alto, and we talked about some of the stuff he'd been through. For him to make it out ... he plays like a guy who fought his way out."

Getting picked by the Packers turned out to be a blessing for Adams, because McCarthy's coaching approach allowed the young receiver to tap into his intellectual abilities.

"The main thing that helped us all out in Mike's system was that when you first came in, they didn't ever just put you at one spot," Jones explained. "It wasn't, 'OK, you're at X.' ... It was, 'You're X, Z, Zebra and E' -- it forces you to learn all the concepts of the whole offense. As the days go on, it makes you a smarter player. You know all the positions, and you know how the defense is trying to come at you."

Said Rodgers: "In our offense, for years, our receivers have had to be really smart players. They've had to be able to read coverages, and the best guys we've had, Nelson and Jones and (Donald) Driver and (Greg) Jennings and (Randall) Cobb, they've been able to read coverages well, and that's what separates them. Because they can play fast and think fast. And Tay is right there."

When asked how much of his success can be attributed to the mental side of his game, Adams' reply was 80 to 90 percent.

"And I say that because I know everybody in the league is blessed with a tremendous talent, but not everybody in the league is blessed with the football IQ and just the ability to wrap your head around everything that goes on on the football field, play to play," Adams said. "So I think that's a big tool, and that's probably why I put such a big percentage on it.

"Obviously, it's not literally 90-10 on how much you need. A doctor can't just come out and play because he's smart and understands the game on paper. He can dissect the hell out of it, I'm sure, but you can't just come and be on the field. But for those who have the physical tools, the mental game is everything. And I feel like that's one of my better traits."

There's little debate about Adams' best trait: his ability to create separation at the line of scrimmage. The man has the most entrancing release since Pearl Jam.

"If you turn the film on or if you ask defensive players who's the toughest guy to stop," Rodgers said, "he is always in the sentence of players mentioned, and it's a testament to his release pattern."

Said Carr: "Talent-wise, he's a top-three receiver. His release is amazing. As a receiver, your job description is to be open. He literally is always open."

To Rodgers and Jones, only the Chargers' Allen rivals Adams in terms of springing free at the snap.

"You rarely see No. 1 corners travel with either of those guys," Jones said. "And I know for a fact there are cornerbacks out there who say, 'I will never press him.' If you do press, he's gonna kill you. His release off the line of scrimmage -- that's what separates him from everybody else. It's that Allen Iverson stuff. Everybody knew the crossover was coming, but he still got you. Davante's got those kind of moves, and he will get you.

"There is nobody that has the juice that he has off the line."

It's not like Adams becomes ordinary once he creates separation, either.

"He has a natural attack mode that rattles you," Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said of the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Adams. "He's a much bigger guy than I thought, and his 0 to 60 (acceleration) is dramatic -- and it's very threatening. He might not have 4.2 speed, but when he comes at you, it's unnerving. He can put his foot in the ground and has outstanding body control. And he has great acceleration, so when he opens up, it's 'Oh s---.' It's a lot of good wrapped up in one human being."

In Jones' eyes, Adams' penchant for beating people off the line obscures the receiver's other gifts.

"What I tell people is, they have not even seen the best Davante," Jones said. "They don't know how high he can jump. They don't know that he could go up and 'Moss' people and go get the ball. But the reason people don't know that is, he is killing people off the line of scrimmage. He's just murdering them, so it never comes to that. His separation is so ridiculous that he never, ever gets to show his leaping ability. But trust me, he has so much more to give."

Said Hackett: "He's got a natural feel for the game, and he works to perfect it, which is a pretty scary combo. His love of the game is exceptional. He works at it, and he cares. If he has a drop in practice, he's infuriated, because it means so much to him. That's what separates the good ones and the great ones. If we tell him he did something wrong, he's angry that he didn't do it perfect."

And Adams believes he has the perfect partner, in Rodgers, to maximize his skill set.

"At this point, we really understand each other and know what each other is thinking, and can read each other's minds," Adams said. "So when I get ready, my route may be a little different on this play versus the last play. It may be the same route, but just (altered) based off how the defender was playing me, and Aaron can read that. And obviously he's got the arm strength to be able to whip it over to me, so it makes both of our jobs easier."

Said Hackett: "It's really cool to see his relationship with Aaron. They both mess with each other, a lot, which I think is really powerful. They try to get under each other's skin, in a funny way. It shows a mutual respect for what each other does."

Not surprisingly, Rodgers has similar feelings about their connection.

"We're very close," Rodgers said. "You know, we spend time together off the field, and we're very (connected). There was a play last year against Minnesota where I hit him on a back-shoulder fade in the red zone, and that was one of those moments where we were both kind of looking at each other and said, 'Hmmm ... that's pretty nice.'

"And, you know, two years ago in Dallas, I missed him on a fade at the end of the game, and he comes back to the huddle and says, 'Throw it again.' It wasn't disrespectful, or trying to confront me about something. It was just, 'Hey, come on. We're good. Throw a better ball.' So I did, and he made a play, and we won the game."

Of course, one thing Rodgers and Adams have yet to do together is to win the Ultimate Game. At the end of his rookie season, Adams felt certain they were headed for the Super Bowl, until the Packers stunningly collapsed in Seattle and endured a painful overtime defeat in the 2014 NFC Championship Game. Two years later, the Pack was once again a game away from the Super Bowl but got blown out by the Falcons in Atlanta.

"I've been in two NFC championships, and the first one was a little bit different," Adams said. "I've been literally within -- I can grab the trophy, it felt like. It was right there, like I was reaching out and could damn near touch it. So, I'm itching to get back to what that 2010 team did and raise that thing. I think about it every year."

After getting a taste of LaFleur's offensive scheme over the offseason, Adams became convinced that 2019 will be a banner year in Green Bay.

"There's a lot of big-play potential, a lot of things that are gonna scheme me to be open," he said in June. "The variance between the run and pass game is good, and it's gonna keep teams honest. They won't be able to load up in the box, and they won't be able to sit back and flood the coverage. We've got the potential to make some big splash plays and put defenses in a bind.

"You know, based on the coach we have and the system he came from, our expectations are incredibly high. But, there'll be some surprises, too. There's a different level of quarterback here, and different personnel, so it's gonna be a little bit different than what you've seen before. In college, I said I wanted 20 touchdowns (before the 2013 season), and people said I was crazy. I got 24. I don't think anything's crazy when you have this quarterback in this offense."

And while all coaches talk about spreading the ball around, LaFleur also seems determined to move his top pass-catcher around in an effort to exploit opposing defenses, especially since the Packers lack a true slot receiver.

"I love his versatility," LaFleur said. "He can go inside, outside; he can do it all. He can beat you deep, he can work you underneath, cross you over. He is a special talent."

For that reason, Rodgers will continue looking Adams' way, early and often. Asked early in training camp if he felt a need to spread the ball around in 2019, as opposed to locking in on Adams, the quarterback went counterintuitive.

"I said, 'No, I want to throw it to him even more,' " Rodgers recalled. "I think there are opportunities in this offense, much like we've seen (in Atlanta) with Julio Jones in his targets and opportunities. Last year did a lot for Tay as far as getting his name out there. This year could be another incredible season for him."

If that happens, perhaps Adams will start to get the type of widespread attention commanded by some of the league's flashier wideouts, which Carr and some of his other friends would undoubtedly appreciate.

Said Adams: "A couple of my boys, they always make jokes. They love my style and they know that I'm low-key, but they say, 'You need to do something crazy one day, do something wild just to get everybody's attention, and then maybe they'll start taking notice -- 'cause we're tired of you not getting full respect.' But like I always say, I'm not trying to be a celebrity. So, the way Julio has done it, and a lot of the greats ... Jerry Rice, I've never seen him do anything like that. I go about my business the way that I feel like I should and I just play football and let it take care of itself."

As Adams grinds away at his craft in a relentless quest to take his already exceptional game to another level, he's not taking any of his good fortune lightly. He and his wife, Devanne -- a friend since his freshman year at Fresno State -- have nice homes in Wisconsin and Northern California filled with reminders that he has come a long, long way.

"I grew up without a room," Adams said. "I slept on cots. So that's why I've got a bed that's 10 feet by nine feet now. I think it's the biggest bed in the world. It's called 'The Emperor,' and you could fit like two California kings in it. It's a big bed. I didn't have any shoes growing up, so I've got a lot of shoes now. So yeah, I appreciate all of it -- a million percent. I mean, if I'm out on a boat in Costa Rica, I may break down one time just because, you know, being appreciative of where I've come from and where I am today."

The trick, of course, is to compartmentalize that gratitude and take the football field channeling that 14-year-old kid who confronted stark and scary circumstances on a constant basis -- the terrified teenager who had to race out of the front door to save his little sisters.

"One of the first things I said to him was, 'Listen, man -- never lose your edge,' " Hackett said. "He has a true edge, and I never want him to feel like he's made it, 'cause you can tell that's what's gotten him to where he is now."

Jones, who was homeless for much of his childhood, understands that concern -- and insists there's no chance Adams will lose touch with his past: "People don't understand. No matter how much money you make, no matter how good your stats are, the mindset you got from growing up like that is never gone. You always remember."

And because of that, they won't soon forget Adams in Titletown.


Editors: Andy Fenelon, Dan Parr | Illustration: Chloe Booher
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