Davante Adams could feel his daughter’s eyes on him. Watching him. Intently focused on his arms, his legs. His face.
Then-15-month-old Daija couldn’t look away as her dad worked out in the middle of a gym inside their Danville, California, home last April. So he strapped Daija into a bouncer a few feet away that allowed her to jump and jump until her little legs grew tired.
Normally, when bench-pressing heavy weight in front of his Packers teammates, Davante would struggle to complete one rep. But with Daija watching, he easily completed three.
She’s watching me, he thought to himself. I have to show her that her daddy can do this. That her daddy is strong.
When Davante isn’t on the field, Daija is almost always by his side. They’ve been inseparable ever since he helped deliver her in September 2019. Davante sprung into action in the hospital, throwing on his gown, scrubs, and gloves. He had been given the most important task in his life: bringing a human into the world.
He watched his daughter take her first breath, holding her for a few seconds before handing her to Devanne, his wife. Davante looked at Daija with such wonder and awe he couldn’t sit still.
He didn’t want to leave for a second, but a few hours later Davante had to return home to feed the family’s two dogs, Louis and Pepper. While driving back to the hospital he was so overcome with emotion that he had to pull over on the side of the road. He broke down crying. Daija existed. Daija was theirs. He couldn’t stop smiling, letting the tears fall, clutching the wheel. “She is the greatest thing to ever happen to me,” he says.
Daija doesn’t know that her dad might just be the best receiver in the NFL. That he put together a miraculous, record-breaking season for the Packers that few could have predicted six years ago, when Adams had just two scholarship offers out of Palo Alto High School. Or even in his first season in the NFL, when he dropped pass after pass and Green Bay fans booed him and labeled him a bust.
She doesn’t know that people today still aren’t sure what to make of him, thinking he’s reserved or standoffish because he’d rather work than talk. Daija only knows the Davante she sees at bath time. The one who blasts the soundtrack from Moana, including her favorite song from the movie, “Shiny,” as she splashes and dances in the tub to the beat.
Daija is Davante’s motivation. The reason he forces himself out of bed in the morning even though he feels too sore to get up. The face that pops up in his mind when doubts creep in. The giggle that picks him up when he’s feeling down.
It’s not a coincidence that Adams is playing the best football of his career. Despite missing two games this season with a hamstring injury, the 6-foot-1 wideout has put up ridiculous numbers: He caught 115 passes for 1,374 yards, leading the NFL with 18 touchdown receptions and setting the franchise record for catches. Adams became the first player in NFL history with over 100 receptions and 18 receiving TDs in a season, all in just 14 games, leading the Packers to a NFC divisional-round showdown with the Rams on Saturday at Lambeau Field.
Daija has pushed him to reach a level that he didn’t know was possible. Just like that afternoon in his home gym, when he was on the bench, she was bouncing, and he felt her eyes.
I can’t let her down. I can’t fail.
Being a father has taught Davante about perspective. His world has widened, his focus has sharpened. As his responsibilities have grown, his determination has only deepened. And he has never played better. This year, Adams became the first Packers receiver since James Lofton to make four consecutive Pro Bowls, and it’s the first time he’s been voted a starter.
This season, he says it’s like he is watching himself play from above. There’s a comfort and confidence he hadn’t felt until now. “There’s no reason why today can’t be the best game of my career,” he says, “and I feel that way going into every game.”
Football now seems simpler, slower. The things he used to stress over no longer rattle him. On the rare occasion he drops a pass, it is surprising. Earlier in his career, a flurry of negative thoughts would run through his mind. Now, in his seventh season in the league and his second as a father, his mindset is different.
“These are things that go through your head as a young cat. Making mistakes, you’re just worried about surviving the play rather than dominating every single play,” he says. “Every time I go run a route it’s, ‘How bad can I make him look?’”
From a technical standpoint, his route running is impeccable. No one gets off the line of scrimmage like Adams, or moves as suddenly out of his breaks. The way he’s able to reach up to get the ball at its highest point, never taking a route off. He’s cerebral, obsessed with nuances and details.
“I’ve never been around a receiver like that,” says Marcedes Lewis, the Packers tight end. “There’s a lot of receivers that may be faster or bigger or have bigger hands, but when it comes to putting this shit together, he’s the best.”
Though Packers fans have now embraced him, putting his earlier struggles behind, Adams is still his own biggest critic. He picks apart his weaknesses. He can vividly recall blown plays from years back. He’ll talk for hours about a certain coverage he once faced. “He just obsesses over games,” says Nick Robinson, a close friend and former high school basketball teammate. Sometimes in the week leading up to a game, he gets quiet around friends, going silent maybe for 10 minutes at a time, and eventually they realize he’s going over future plays in his head. In December, heading into a matchup against the Lions, Adams kept having visions of breaking a 60-yard touchdown. He saw it happen in his mind.
Sure enough, on the third play of the Packers’ opening series, he beat Detroit cornerback Amani Oruwariye and made safety Duron Harmon miss a tackle to break free for a 56-yard score.
“He’s relentless,” says Keith Williams, former Fresno State receivers coach who recruited Adams to the school. “And he’s a perfectionist. He’ll talk about one catch for 15 minutes. He’s a studier, a researcher.”
Says Lewis, a 15-year vet, “Every day he works like he could lose it tomorrow.”
Though Adams has received many accolades lately, including first team All-Pro, and has garnered praise and respect from his peers, he still feels somewhat underappreciated. Left off some lists of the top receivers. Still snubbed by some who say he is only thriving because he plays with Aaron Rodgers. That ignores the fact that he still has to get open, still has to have soft hands, and still has to contort his body in almost unfathomable ways to make highlight-reel-worthy catches, so that Rodgers—who recently called Adams arguably his greatest teammate ever—can even get him the ball. Adams feels like he’s had to do twice the work in the NFL to get half the respect in terms of acknowledgment. He isn’t seeking praise, so much as he’s motivated by perceived slights.
But these days, he doesn’t really care what other people think. The voices that used to get to him have now been tuned out. Every time he catches a pass, he thinks of Daija. He pretends she’s watching him to motivate himself. He knows she’ll be able to appreciate his work one day. For now, he uses his imagination.
Usually when Davante thinks of Daija, his mind swirls to his mother, Pam. Davante remembers how much she sacrificed so he could accomplish his dream. When Davante was young, Pam rarely slept. She worked all day, then braided hair at night, usually into the wee hours—until her knuckles were so tense she had to straighten each of them out, one by one.
She’d occasionally have to interrupt her flow to pick Davante up from school or practice—client in tow, head half-braided. Those clients got a discount. Then, after a long night of braiding, she would wake up early to take Davante to school across town, so he’d be in a safer environment.
Davante’s father was also present, but he and Pam separated when Davante was 2. Young Davante shuffled back and forth between his parents’ houses for most of his childhood and teenage years. He spent most of his time with his mom, navigating life in East Palo Alto, once known as the murder capital of America, where there were daily drive-by shootings. Pam says that many of them were due to “drug and turf wars.” She recalls a time when a shooting occurred just a few doors down while Davante and his siblings were playing at his grandparents’ and dad’s home.
Pam didn’t allow her son to leave the house unless he had a destination. She moved to South Palo Alto when Davante was 8 to be in a safer area. “I refused to let my son be another statistic,” she says.
Davante’s father, Doug, was an athlete, too. A talented high school basketball player in his day. “One of the best athletes I’ve ever known,” Davante says. Davante may have learned work ethic from his mother, but he inherited his father’s athleticism. Hoops was Davante’s first love. He was quick and strong, able to elevate against whoever was impeding his path to the rim. And he couldn’t stand people who didn’t match his intensity. He wanted to quit his basketball team at age 4 because the other kids weren’t taking practices seriously enough.
His dad understood that never-give-up mentality. People used to tell Davante stories about the way his dad played ball. And Davante’s imagination let loose. Sometimes he wonders what his father looked like on the court and which characteristics have been passed down to him. Davante says his father couldn’t maximize his own athletic dreams after having Davante’s older brother, Douglas Jr., at a young age.
It was one of many sacrifices Davante’s parents made. Davante never had an allowance growing up, but he remembers feeling so lucky when his mom would give him money to eat at school every day. “We weren’t in a great situation,” he says. “That’s what pushed me to be better, to get to a point where she doesn’t have to worry and work anymore.”
He saw his mom as Superwoman. A larger-than-life figure. He hopes Daija sees him the same way one day.
He can often hear Pam’s words, things she told him back when he was just a kid. Back when he started gaining attention at Fresno State: Don’t forget where you come from, ‘Tae. Don’t ever forget. This is God given.
The words always stuck with Davante. Life is different now, but he tries to approach it the same. He doesn’t really understand what it means to be a celebrity. Why it changes people—why it causes people to view him differently. “Certain people see us almost like a fictional character,” Adams says. “But to have people in your life that see you just for you? See you who you are?” His inner circle sees him for who he is, even as he is changing. “I have a daughter now. I’m gonna have more kids in the future. You change. But I’m still just ‘Tae. I’m growing up.”
When he sees younger teammates struggling to find their place, it causes him to reflect. I was below where you are, he often thinks to himself.
“I got nailed to the floor for a while,” Adams says. “If I were to change up on people like that, I wouldn’t be shit.”
Sometimes Davante thinks about how close he was to not making it.
He remembers how he felt when his college football dream seemed out of reach, when he almost wasn’t allowed to play at Fresno State because he was one class credit short. He thinks about the goofball he was in high school, his head in the clouds. He was dreaming about where he wanted to be—not focused on where he was.
He thinks about how he was forced to redshirt his freshman year. How he had to sit in the front row of an oceanography class at San Jose City College, hoping to convince the professor that he was serious. He needed to pass to get to Fresno State. He thinks about how hard he practiced, to prove that he was worthy of becoming a pro. And he thinks about how often players are cut after making just one mistake, and how he was spared despite making a season’s worth of blunders in 2015.
“They love you then they hate you then they love you again,” he says, reminding himself of every insult, every doubt from that year:
They gotta cut his ass!
That’s what the Packers get for drafting out of fucking Fresno State!
And his mind travels back to Thanksgiving 2015, the night Green Bay retired Brett Favre’s jersey, and the worst game of his professional career. Three drops and only two catches on 11 targets, including one that would have been an easy 47-yard touchdown and another with less than a minute remaining on fourth-and-goal that would have won the game. It was embarrassing. Adams couldn’t stop re-playing every error in his head on the drive home with his family.
“Oh my God,” he said, “I’m so done with football.”
“Don’t say that,” Pam said. “You don’t mean that.”
“I know. I’m just … frustrated.”
Once they returned to Davante’s house, he couldn’t eat the turkey on his plate. Couldn’t even speak. He walked to his room, shut the door, and shut out the world.
That was a turning point. He never wanted to feel that disappointed in himself ever again. He vowed to prove that he was more than capable. That he belonged.
“I had to go from being in a terrible spot, convincing people that I don’t suck, then be normal, then be OK, then be good, and now this point,” he says. “Every single year it was a step that I had to take to get a little bit closer to where I want to be. I put in way too much work to give up.”
Now when Davante starts to spiral, his mind turns to Daija. He thinks about what he will tell her when she’s old enough to understand. How he continued to believe in himself when his NFL career felt lost. He wishes he filmed that Thanksgiving night. Or other difficult moments, like when he was sidelined with a turf toe injury last season and recovery took longer than anticipated. He needs to show her what low feels like, looks like, so she knows how to rise.
You have to always believe in yourself, in what you know you are capable of, he imagines telling her at some point, echoing the advice Pam gave to him. Advice that has allowed him to break through. You can’t feel sorry for yourself. You have to bet on yourself. Don’t listen to the outside noise.
These days it’s Davante against Davante. Seeing how many great games he can string together back to back to back. Seeing how he can challenge himself to new extremes. Seeing how he can experiment with his craft, trying new things to impress his daughter.
“I’m not trying to prove people wrong anymore. I’m just trying to prove myself right.”
Davante’s friends often laugh when they see him around Daija. The way he can’t stop smiling. The high-pitched voice he greets her in. The way he gushes over anything she does. “Look at this,” he says, pulling up his phone. “Look at what she’s doing!” It’s Daija sitting on his lap, picking her nose. He had never seen anyone pick their nose so adorably.
He loves when Daija tries to say “No” but it comes out as “DOE!” She sticks her finger out to do the peace sign, but it comes out as “L.” He marvels at the way Daija is a true blend of both him and Devanne; how she looked like Devanne at first, then more like him, then more like Devanne, now back to him. She is changing every day. So is he.
It’s all happening so quickly. Like any new parent, he had so many questions at first. How do I know when she’s full? What if my baby is always hungry? Then he realized a lot of it is instinctual. “I’ll be doing the most parent, dad-like stuff, and won’t even realize I’m in the middle of it,” he says. “Like, elbow deep in the diaper. It’s just a thing in your brain. You just know.”
When his friends first found out that he and Devanne were going to have a baby, they told him they were rooting for a daughter. “You need somebody to soften you up,” they told him. Davante laughs. “Apparently I was too hard.”
“He has a strong, intimidating presence,” Devanne says. “But when you get to know him, there’s a lot more to him.”
Davante didn’t let Devanne change a single diaper the first week Daija was born. He wanted to do everything. He still does. With Daija, he wants to be more than present. He wants to be everywhere.
“My only fear in life is being away from my daughter,” he says. “Not being able to have my daughter in my life. I just think about the fact that I kinda have a lot of fears based off of it. All pertaining to her. How much I care, and just value her life.”
He feels full of love when she falls asleep on his chest as they’re watching a movie together. Her eyelids start to shut, then close. Her body slows. She curls into him, then drifts off. Snuggling her, he feels joyful. Powerful. He can hear her breathing, feel her heart beating. And he knows he’s alive.
Then the doubts will creep in. What if something happens to her? What if something happens to me on the field? With so much more to live for comes more responsibility too. The day Daija was born and Davante had to drive home to feed the dogs, he was cut off on the highway while driving back to the hospital. He swerved, as the driver almost clipped his bumper. Davante instantly saw a flash of Daija’s newborn face.
“I’ve never been afraid to die before,” he says. “But now I’m afraid to die in the sense that I won’t be with her.”
It was another reminder to cherish the little things. He felt that way during this past Thanksgiving, when Devanne and Pam cooked his favorite foods the night before: smothered turkey wings, candied yams, collard greens, baked mac and cheese. He felt it during Halloween the year before, when Devanne convinced Davante to wear matching unicorn costumes with her and Daija. This Christmas, they all wore matching plaid pajamas.
“That never would have happened before Daija,” Devanne says. “He would never have done that.”
Pam, who lives about an hour’s drive away from Davante and Devanne’s home in Danville, wishes she could be around Daija more. Watch her granddaughter learn to walk and talk. But because of the pandemic, she hasn’t been able to see her as much as she would like.
It scares Pam that her son is playing this season, but he told her: I signed up for this. It’s my job. I can’t back out now. I need to support my family.
Pam’s safest option these days is to stay home and watch Davante on TV. When she sees him running with the football, she’ll scream: “Hi, honey! Hi, Pooh!,” her nicknames for him. She still sees the same ‘Tae that once broke his arm a week before the Pop Warner Super Bowl in Florida and got up early for practice the next day, trying to convince Pam to let him play anyway. Davante was just 12 at the time, but he vowed to be there for the team in any way he could. So his team made him an honorary coach. Davante wore the whistle proudly on his neck, pacing up and down the field despite the sling on his arm. “He was out there, blowing that whistle like crazy,” Pam says.
It’s still surreal for her to watch him break records in the NFL. She can finally breathe. Recently, after watching one of Davante’s postgame interviews, she called him to tell him how proud she was. It took Davante aback, even though he’s become accustomed to her telling him this. “This isn’t my first rodeo, Mom,” he said, laughing. But deep down it meant more to him than anything to hear her say those words.
He was snuggling Daija in his lap, as he often does when he’s on the phone, and smiled. Looked at his baby girl. Really looked at her. Now he understands. Now he knows why Pam never let him out of her sight.