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.