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Davante Adams and the Race Against Time

A trade to Las Vegas last year gave the All-Pro receiver the fresh start and individual validation he needed. But now he’s 30 and trying to chase a championship without the only quarterbacks he’s ever known.

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Davante Adams anxiously awaited the news. Despite having played nine seasons in the NFL and being arguably the most decorated active wide receiver in the league, he eagerly awaited something most people would think is an afterthought at this point of his career.

He needed to know whether he had made first-team All-Pro.

Adams doesn’t ordinarily care for awards, for recognition. His motivation has always come from within. From seeing how far he can push himself past his own lofty standards.

But this time was different.

He texted Las Vegas Raiders PR asking for a heads-up, something he had never done before: “As soon as you know the list. I don’t care if it’s good news or bad news, if I’m second-team or whatever,” Adams texted back in January. “Just let me know.”

Adams had just wrapped up his first season with the Raiders after spending the previous eight with the Packers. In March 2022, Green Bay traded him to Las Vegas, who signed him to a blockbuster deal worth $141.25 million over five years, making Adams the highest-paid receiver in the NFL at the time.

He didn’t disappoint in his first season with the Raiders, totaling 1,500-plus receiving yards for the second straight year, becoming just the sixth player in NFL history to accomplish that feat. He also led the league with 14 receiving touchdowns.

And yet he waited, and waited, to learn his fate, whether he’d once again be recognized as an All-Pro. The uncertainty gnawed at him. “If I wouldn’t have gotten first-team All-Pro,” Adams says, “this is the first year where I would’ve actually cared.”

Finally, he received a “Congrats!” text on that January day. Adams broke into a giant smile, looked up at the ceiling and exhaled slowly, releasing a breath he had been holding in for a long time.

“When I got it,” Adams says, “I was like, ‘All right, I’ll never care about another one.’” Of course, he still wants more. With three straight Associated Press first-team All-Pros under his belt, he’s still chasing the record for the most consecutive first-team nods of any receiver in history. Jerry Rice earned five straight from 1992 to ’96.

But the reason this first-team nod meant so much to Adams? While he was in Green Bay, he existed in the shadow of Aaron Rodgers, with interviewers constantly asking him questions about the quarterback’s heroics, rather than his own play. Adams would make one miraculous catch after another, only for Rodgers to receive most of the credit. While many did praise Davante’s stellar play, he felt other narratives followed him, too, such as:

Davante’s succeeding only because of Aaron.

That sentiment frustrated him, though he never addressed it publicly. He chose to let his prolific play speak for itself. Besides, he respected—and still respects—Rodgers. “Aaron’s a hell of a quarterback,” he says.

But Adams believed he was not always given the respect he had earned as a generational talent in his own right.

“Now people can’t say that,” Adams says. “That’ll never be the narrative ever again.” He felt vindicated by the All-Pro honor. Some tightly wound part of him loosened. “It proved that I am me,” he says. “A quarterback doesn’t make me. … I make me. And I can do it consistently at this level.”

“That’s why [last] season meant a lot,” he says. “Even if I went and played like dog shit next year, they can’t say it. Because now I’ve already proved it throughout the course of a season, played every game, and put together a résumé that says I do not need …”

He pauses.

“You can erase all the numbers. You can just write in: He didn’t need Aaron Rodgers.”

San Francisco 49ers v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

It’s easy to lose yourself in the darkness. The sky is pitch-black, not a star in sight. There are few street lights or street signs. The night shrouds the peaks of nearby mountains, so immense they might devour the horizon whole. Cell service is faint. Everything is so still, so quiet, one is left completely with their own thoughts.

But this isn’t a retreat, it’s the path to Adams’s Las Vegas home on a late April evening. He likes the tranquility here, how removed it is from the bright, bustling, always-awake Strip.

It’s nearly 10 p.m. when Adams winds his way down the stairs into a man cave of sorts. There’s a wall with multiple TVs, each tuned to a different game. A pool table and plush red chairs sit on the other end. Adams takes a seat at a black marble table, catching a glance of the photos along one wall: images of him at each stage of his career.

There’s a baby-faced version of him at Fresno State. A more chiseled, accomplished version with the Packers. And now, the most seasoned version with the Raiders.

Adams has reason to be nostalgic. He’s entering a critical juncture in his life, and his career: his 10th NFL season. And on this night, the 30-year-old is especially introspective, reflecting on where he’s been and where he wants to be. “I’m closer to the end than I am the beginning,” Adams says. “It’s crazy to think about.”

These days, he thinks a lot about time. How much of it he has, how little of it he has. How to maximize it, harness it, before it inevitably slips away. It’s only natural, because he has adapted to an extraordinary amount of change in a short period.

In 2022, Adams asked out of the only pro organization he’d ever known and was traded to Las Vegas. It was a welcome change, a chance for a fresh start and a reunion with his close friend and college QB, Derek Carr. But the season was far from what Adams had envisioned. The Raiders finished 6-11 and missed the playoffs. Carr was benched in late December and then released in February. In March, the Raiders traded away top tight end Darren Waller and signed Jimmy Garoppolo to a three-year, $72.75 million contract to be their new starting quarterback. In many ways, the Raiders look closer to a team that’s rebuilding than a Super Bowl contender.

Adams is learning a difficult lesson, one that can only truly be grasped with age: “Patience,” he says.

“Controlling what I can control.”

He’s reached an age where he’s the most confident he’s ever been in who he is as a player, as a person. He’s the father of two daughters, and he’s building the balanced life that he and his wife, Devanne, have long desired. He realizes that life is much bigger, and much longer, than any one NFL season.

But he’s facing a different challenge now, one he doesn’t have complete control over: how to turn his individual success into team success.

“This is a different dynamic. In Green Bay, it wasn’t all on him to be the face and leader,” says Nick Robinson, one of Adams’s closest friends since age 12. “Now he’s literally the face of the franchise.”

SPORTS-FBN-FANTASY-RAIDERS-LV Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Heading into last fall, Adams knew the transition from Green Bay to Vegas wouldn’t be easy. It’s always challenging adjusting to a new system and a new quarterback, even one like Carr, with whom he had history. But losing wasn’t something he was accustomed to, especially coming from a Packers team that had won 13 games in each of his last three seasons there.

The Raiders had made the playoffs in the 2021 season, and were looking for a fresh start in the post–Jon Gruden era. The front office believed Adams would be the piece to elevate Carr and the offense so that they’d be able to challenge the Chiefs for control of the AFC West.

But Las Vegas struggled out of the gate and began 0-3. In his first game, Adams caught 10 passes for 141 yards with a touchdown. Over the next two weeks, he combined to catch just seven passes for 48 yards with two scores. He told himself not to complain about not getting the ball more and tried to focus on controlling what he could control.

But losing grew difficult to stomach. His frustration boiled over after a 30-29 loss to the Chiefs on Monday Night Football in Week 5. Adams had 124 receiving yards with two touchdowns, but a big third-down catch that would have put the Raiders in field goal range in the game’s final minute was overturned when officials determined that Adams had stepped out of bounds. One play later, he collided with teammate Hunter Renfrow as Carr’s final pass fell incomplete. Adams shoved a cameraman who had stepped in front of him in the tunnel as he left the field. He immediately apologized.

Patience, Adams was learning, was difficult—especially for someone as competitive as him. That’s why, when he wasn’t on the field, Adams was on the golf course. He never went alone because he had to measure himself against someone else. He’d challenge himself against the local pro golfers, writing down their scores even when they weren’t keeping tabs, just to see where he stacked up.

Adams is obsessed with golf, playing three to four times a week. His family and friends like to joke that he might turn pro when he retires. They are also somewhat serious; they wouldn’t be surprised if he tried.

Golf frustrates him, fascinates him. He loves it, though, ironically, it is a game of patience. A game of the mind, challenging him in the same way the Raiders’ season was. And yet, unlike football, golf is a purely individual endeavor; his success, his failure, was in his own hands. “It’s such an imperfect sport, even more so than football is,” he says.

“You’ll never be where you want to be.”

It feels like a revelation, a glimmer of what lies at Adams’s core. He is always in pursuit, always on the brink. Close but far, approaching but not quite arriving. Always striving. The joy for him, even amid one of the toughest seasons of his career, stems from the endless chase.

San Francisco 49ers v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

Even as the Raiders’ 2022 season was spiraling, Adams knew he had to keep moving forward. He tried to maintain a positive mindset, even in the aftermath of a brutal 24-0 loss to the Saints in Week 8. Adams had just one catch for 3 yards that day, his worst game since his second season in the league.

Robinson, his longtime friend, usually FaceTimes Adams after every game, but he wasn’t sure what to say to Adams following this one, so the two didn’t talk until the next day.

“Well, brotha,” Adams said, his face brightening into a smile. “Hey, it’s only up from here!”

They both started cracking up, but Robinson was taken aback. He had expected his friend to be down and out, as anyone in his place could understandably be. But Robinson, who has seen every mood, every milestone, every setback in Adams’s life, saw a growth in Adams that he hadn’t seen before. It was clear that Adams wasn’t going to shut down. He couldn’t. He knew his teammates were counting on him. And he had to stay positive for them. Not allow his own work habits to change, realizing he set the example. That was part of being the leader he yearned to be.

That would become even more apparent when Carr’s career with the Raiders came to a disappointing end. Carr had started 142 games for the team since it drafted him in 2014; he had been the face of the franchise through the move from Oakland to Las Vegas. The Raiders cut Carr in February after the quarterback refused to waive his no-trade clause to facilitate a trade.

It was difficult for Adams, not just because he lost his quarterback, but also because he lost someone who had been one of the closest people to him since their days at Fresno State, where Carr begged his coaches not to redshirt Adams.

In nearly a decade in the NFL, Adams had seen plenty of teammates get released or traded; he knows the NFL is a business. “You almost get numb to it a little bit,” he says. “It’s a little bit different when it’s one of your good friends.”

It comforted him to know that his friendship with Carr, of course, wasn’t going to end just because they were no longer teammates. “It doesn’t stop us from being able to have our same brotherhood that we had, that we sustained our whole career,” he says. Adams kept checking in on Carr, who eventually signed with New Orleans, but couldn’t allow himself to wallow in the situation.

Adams is committed to turning things around in Las Vegas, but a full-blown rebuilding process may take longer than he can afford at this point in his career. “I don’t have enough time for that,” he says. He has to figure out how to help this team win now. How to harmonize the competing elements tugging at him: patience and urgency, ambition and time.

Those competing elements weigh on Adams as he looks ahead to the 2023 season. He’ll be playing with a new starting QB again, and the Raiders will have to find a rhythm quickly to compete in a division and conference that are loaded with talent. “We got to figure out the big picture,” he says.

Garoppolo started his career playing for current Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels, when the latter was the offensive coordinator in New England. The QB spent the last five and a half seasons playing for Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco. Garoppolo went 38-17 in regular-season games for the 49ers, and played in a Super Bowl, which the Niners lost to the Chiefs.

Adams says he has talked a bit with Garoppolo: “He’s a really cool dude, talking to him. I really haven’t been around him enough to truly know what type of leader he is,” Adams says. “I’ve only heard good things from his teammates, though, so that’s a good thing, because it’s guys that I know wouldn’t mess around with stuff like that.”

Still, Adams has reservations about the Raiders’ vision for the offense: “[The front office] think this is the best bet for us right now to put us in a position to be urgent,” he says. “We don’t see eye-to-eye on what we think is best for us right now.”

​​The Raiders front office has welcomed Adams’s input on roster moves, and he says he’s grateful to be included in those conversations. Still, he knows he doesn’t make the final decisions. “I’m going to have to buy into this and try to be as optimistic as possible,” he says. “It’s not what I expected to happen, but it’s something that’s the reality now.”

After signing Garoppolo earlier this spring, both general manager Dave Zielger and McDaniels listed the quarterback’s leadership and winning record as the primary reasons why they pursued him in free agency. Familiarity with McDaniels’s preferred style of offense is part of it, too. Garoppolo was one of the NFL’s most efficient passers during his tenure in San Francisco; he gets rid of the ball quickly and is most effective on short passes in the middle of the field. But Garoppolo is not a downfield passer, and his limited mobility and inability to consistently create plays out of structure could limit Adams’s opportunities as a deep-threat receiver.

Still, Adams has already proved he can excel when changing quarterbacks and offensive schemes.

“It all depends on the style of ball that we play,” Adams says. “If we play a certain brand of ball, I can get [Garoppolo] to conform to whatever. But if we use him a certain type of way, then it’s going to make it tough for us to maximize who we should be this year.”

No matter what the offense looks like, Adams is committed to making it work. “My goal is to win a Super Bowl with this team. And that’s why I didn’t come here to just be cute with Derek,” he says. “It is to really try and have a shot and change this organization.”

That starts with his own play—controlling what I can control. Maintaining a wider-lens perspective. He’s following a mantra that Keith Williams, his former Fresno State wide receivers coach, gave him: “Chase yourself.”

Kansas City Chiefs v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

Early in Adams’s pro career, Williams, now with the Ravens, would tell him to chase this top receiver, that top receiver. Nowadays, Adams is his own barometer. And if he’s always chasing himself, he can never catch up. “That means you’re never gonna stop until you’re done,” he says, ever conscious of the clock hovering over him. “As long as I’m doing it … you’ll find a way to keep going.”

Time. That stubborn thought resurfaces. He’s 30 now, playing a position built on speed and explosiveness, trying to reach heights few veteran receivers have achieved. He had 1,516 yards last season, just 37 shy of his career high; just three receivers age 30 or older have hit that 1,500-yard benchmark in the previous 20 years. He was the oldest wideout to receive All-Pro votes last year—Miami’s Tyreek Hill, who joined him on the first team, recently turned 29—and his best peers at his position seem to be getting younger. Six of the other receivers who got All-Pro votes in 2022 are 25 or younger; first-team All-Pro Justin Jefferson of Minnesota is just 23.

“At some point,” Adams says, “I’m going to sit there and I’m going to be watching the tape and I’m going to see some dude out of Cincinnati or out of LSU … and I’m going to say: ‘That little mother is better than me.’

“It’s going to happen one day,” he says, before quickly affirming: “It’s not going to happen anytime soon. But … it’s going to be a day where I have to be real with myself.”

That drives Adams. And, deep down, so does fear. Fear of not living up to his own towering expectations, which only intensify with each passing day. Each passing year. He fears something else, too: “Me not being mentioned as the best receiver in the league, it frightens me,” he says. “It gives me a certain hunger to keep going.”

“Some people get scared of being the best,” he says, “because now there’s a certain expectation that you have to put out there.” He continues: “Because when you talk about being the best, it’s the consistency every single time you do it. Every route you run, you give the DB hell.

His voice rises, his hands clench an imaginary ball. It’s as if he’s been transported to the field, breaking tackles after making an impossible one-handed catch. He mentions asking a couple of defensive backs at the 2023 Pro Bowl Games what they thought the difference was between him and other top NFL receivers.

“Every time I line up with you, I gotta buckle my seat belt. I know we’re gonna go on a ride,” he remembers them saying. “It’s not just going to be you just give me an easy rep this time. … If I’m there, I got lucky or I really had to work.”

With that mentality, that inner focus, he no longer seeks external validation. The All-Pro recognition, too, quieted any lingering narratives in his mind. He’s the one in control of how he works, how he leads, how he dominates. He says he wouldn’t be bothered if, in some other world, games would no longer be televised. He’s proud of the way he scored a career-high 18 touchdowns in 2020 while playing in empty stadiums.

He didn’t need the crowd. He didn’t need the noise. He didn’t need anything to motivate him other than the one thing he now realizes he’s had all along:

“All I need is me.”

Adams felt he had left everything on the field by the end of last season. He caught at least 100 passes for the fourth time in his career, and finished the season with 1,516 yards, the second most in his career. Yet he fixated on his seven drops, beating himself up about it. “He is his worst critic,” says Pam, his mother. “He’s harder on himself than anyone could be.”

There were times after games last season when she and Davante would play dominoes, and Davante would randomly think back to what happened on the field and blurt out: “This play. I messed up. I promise, I would never in my life ever make this mistake again.”

“Davante, it’s not that serious,” Pam would say. “Nobody even noticed.”

But he noticed. “It doesn’t matter,” he’d reply. “I don’t care what everybody else is saying. It’s me. I need to fix it for myself.”

Just when he had let it go, he would bring it up again later: “I can’t believe I made that mistake!”

Eventually, he does let it go—vowing to do better the next day.

Control what I can control.

That new, pressing voice inside comforts him. Now, his kids also help, as he realizes more and more what truly matters in the grand scheme. Coming home after a taxing day and seeing his wife and his daughters, Daija, 3, and Dezi, 1? “That’s what really drives my happiness,” Adams says.

“Your kids don’t care about how work went. They just care about being with dad.”

NFL: SEP 26 Packers at 49ers Photo by Samuel Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Family was a big reason Adams wanted to be traded to the Raiders in the first place. It wasn’t purely a football or financial decision. He wanted to be closer to his hometown of East Palo Alto, California. He says his quality of life has improved since moving back west. “It’s done a lot for me mentally.” He can go out with his family after a tough loss, or even play a round of golf, unencumbered by the cold as he would be in Green Bay. He can visit with his mom, enjoy her home-cooked meatloaf, one of his favorites.

As disappointing as last season was for the team, Adams still feels Las Vegas was the right choice. “There is no regret,” he says. “To put in almost a decade of work in Green Bay … I gave that place everything I had.”

“I value and appreciate my time there,” he says. “And I loved it.” But he was ready for a change. Part of that was because Rodgers’s future plans were uncertain. The quarterback was heading into his 18th pro season in 2022 and it was unclear at the time, as it had been for the previous few seasons, whether Rodgers would stay in Green Bay or even retire. That didn’t seem worth the gamble to Adams. Las Vegas seemed a safer bet.

“To go to another team or whatever and just chase money, that wasn’t my goal. It wasn’t just to go get the biggest bag,” he says. “It was about going somewhere where I felt like I could really enjoy the end of my career and go somewhere that my family would enjoy.”

Despite splitting up, Adams and Rodgers kept in touch throughout last season. As Rodgers contemplated his future this offseason, there were rumors of the two potentially reuniting on the Raiders. “I would even go as far as trying to make it happen,” Adams says.

As much as Adams had yearned during his first year in Las Vegas to show that his success was based on his own merit and not just who was throwing to him, he knew that he and Rodgers together made a remarkable pair. And given that Adams felt that he had squashed any lingering Green Bay narratives, why not reunite? “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” he says. “Having that distance, and time away, kind of made me miss him.”

The two even played a round of golf in Vegas, just hanging out, talking. Like old times. Because when they are out of uniform, out of the spotlight, they are still just people. People who have their own desires and aspirations—and whose paths continue to diverge.

Any hope of a reunion on the football field faded on March 15, when Rodgers announced on The Pat McAfee Show that he intended to play for the Jets. It took over a month for the Jets and Packers to work out the details of the trade that was finalized in late April. Yet the two are still friendly, having been seen together recently at the Kentucky Derby. Adams was in multiple pictures of the large group that included former Packers teammates Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb, David Bakhtiari, and others.

“I don’t take it to heart,” Adams says of Rodgers not ending up in Las Vegas. “It is what it is. I left. You gotta make your decisions sometimes.”

Change, Adams is realizing, is the one constant in life. Adams himself has changed a great deal since he first came into the league, back when he was a rookie hellbent on proving he belonged after not hearing his name called on the first day of the 2014 NFL draft. He remembers how nervous he was sending the first text to Rodgers after being picked in the second round. He had to play it cool while staying professional, and he fiddled with the right words before introducing himself.

“I was a kid at that point. My whole voice sounded different,” he says. He had left Fresno State after his sophomore season. “I literally was supposed to be in school still.”

Dawson Putthoff

Dropout,” says Devanne, sitting next to him as he recalls the moment. They start laughing, briefly holding each other’s gaze. They’ve built a life together, one that began in college when Davante started helping her with her math homework. It’s a beautiful and strange feeling for Adams, thinking of how quickly time has passed since then.

More and more, he’s reminded of it. During this past Super Bowl week in Phoenix, he attended an event alongside some 2023 draft prospects. One of them approached him and thanked him for everything Adams has done for the game.

Damn! Adams thought. I ain’t that old!

The exchange stuck with him—how you’re a rookie for one fleeting moment and then suddenly you’re a veteran. You surpassed the people you were so desperately trying to catch and now a new crop is chasing you.

Some of them aren’t even in middle school yet. Adams recently held his youth football camp in Las Vegas. Around 600 campers, their tiny bodies swallowed up by black-and-white no. 17 T-shirts, ran up and down Spring Valley High’s field under the sun, hoping to catch a glimpse of their hero.

Adams didn’t just sign autographs or take pictures; he participated in the drills and games, even throwing to one kid who made a marvelous touchdown catch. Adams sprinted over to him, screaming: “LET’S GOOOOO, BOYYYYYYY!!!!” They danced. Adams looked like the biggest kid out there, unbridled joy spilling out of him.

When he has a moment to himself, back at his home, after he’s read Daija her favorite book about dinosaurs and kissed Dezi good night, Adams thinks more about longevity. What it means to not just endure in this league, but to thrive. What it means to play with a sense of urgency, but at the same time to let go of what he can’t control.

His friends and family sense a different aura about him now, a calmness, a poise, even as more change awaits. For so long, Adams had been trying to prove that he was the player he knew himself to be. But no more. He now knows the only opinion that matters is his own. “True confidence, it’s all about how you actually feel,” he says, “and not about what you say.”

He brings up an example: If you asked 50 NFL receivers whether they’re the best in the league, Adams says they would all likely reply yes, because they think they should. Because it’s almost a prerequisite to have that kind of unflappable confidence in the NFL. Or, because they fear being perceived as insecure or weak.

“Real confidence,” Adams says, “is when you truly believe it in your heart.”

All I need is me.

That sentiment feels ever more prescient as he walks up the stairs of his home and opens the front door, looking ahead into the distance. In a matter of hours, he knows darkness will surrender to dawn, when his chase will begin anew. When he’ll push himself past his limit, attempting to bend time to his will.

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