Davante Adams finds his bliss en route to the Las Vegas Raiders

ByTim Keown ESPN logo
Sunday, September 11, 2022

ON A FINE spring Saturday about a decade ago, Derek Carr asked his friend and Fresno State teammate Davante Adams if he wanted to go whitewater rafting. Adams shrugged. Sure, why not? Boating, he thought. Sounds fun. Adams' life experience to this point, it should be noted, had better prepared him for a trip to the moon than whitewater rafting. At least he'd seen the moon.

This adventure -- with a four-person crew of guide Ryan Soares, Adams, Carr, and Carr's girlfriend/now-wife, Heather -- took place on the notoriously turbulent Upper Kings River in the southern Sierra Nevada. It started with Carr and Adams, a record-setting quarterback-receiver combination with obscenely lucrative careers ahead of them, standing on the shore, struggling to sausage themselves into too-tight wetsuits. They looked at the raft and the relatively calm waters at their feet and listened as Soares laid out the dangers that lie ahead.

Soares kept repeating one rule, over and over:

Whatever you do, don't stop paddling.

It started easy enough -- "a lazy river," Adams says -- before everything changed about a quarter-mile into the run. The sound of Banzai Hole came first, the roar of angry water Dopplering toward them, louder and louder, an enveloping sound of pending doom. "That's when their eyes got big," Soares says.

We won't bore you with all the technical talk of cubic feet per second, but one CFS is colloquially described as the water equivalent to one basketball rolling down a hill. Banzai Hole is a Class III rapid that can ascend to a Class IV when it's flowing like it does in the prime of late-spring snowmelt, at roughly 6,000 downhill basketballs per second. The water is just part of the problem with Banzai Hole, though; the 75-foot rock face on the other end of it is another. "If you fall out and end up having to swim, you're not going to die," Soares says, before rethinking it. "Well, technically, you could."

Just before they entered the rapid, the biggest on the Upper Kings, Soares screamed over the roar of the water, "Hold on and don't stop paddling! If you stop, you'll flip the boat!"

Adams grew up in East Palo Alto, California, a city of roughly 30,000 with a 2020 per capita income of $32,000, a stark contrast to its Silicon Valley neighbors. (Menlo Park, right next door, had a per capita income of more than $88,000.) He was 14 when he looked out the front window of his grandparents' house and watched a car creep along the street and stop in front of the house next door. As the windows were rolled down and someone began firing a gun at the house, Davante sprinted out the door and pulled his younger twin sisters back into his grandparents' house and to safety. Adams spits out a brittle laugh and says, "We don't whitewater raft in East Palo Alto."

But on that river with Carr all those years ago, with Banzai Hole thundering ahead, he caught the urgency in Soares' voice, though, and thought, Hold on? Hold on for what? What's about to happen? "So what do I do?" Adams says. "I stop paddling as soon as we get through there because -- literally -- we were going down."

Carr stopped paddling, too, which left it to Soares and Heather, whose outdoor -- and listening -- skills far exceeded the men's. "I had these two ripped, strong guys," Soares says, "and the moment I needed their power the most, they weren't there."

Adams was the first one to fall completely out of the raft, followed by Derek and Heather. Adams contends Soares stayed in the boat -- "He had the only seatbelt," he jokes -- but Soares says no. "The boat was cleared that day," he says, using rafting-guide talk for the unfortunate and unintended dispersal of all humans. "I can count on my hands the number of times I've cleared a boat on the Kings, and that was one."

So there they were, in nature's washing machine, bobbing in the churning froth, all those liquid basketballs pummeling them without mercy, their heads surfacing just long enough to steal a breath before being dragged under all over again.

Well, I guess this is where I die, Adams thought.

Soares estimates there's about a 10-second window for rafters-turned-swimmers to reach the shore before being forced to contend with the 75-foot rock face. They struggled, but they struggled in the direction of safety, and as they stood on the shore taking inventory while their hearts raced like hummingbirds, Soares relayed the news that at this point, with no way to leave the canyon, there was no choice but to finish the run.

Soares stops here and laughs before making an admission: He had a text exchange with Carr last month to make sure it was OK to discuss any of this. Carr replied, "Make us look like heroes." So Soares tells me, "After we cleared the boat, we had a talk on the shore, one more time, about how important it is to never stop paddling. From that point on, they were the best paddlers I ever had."

Adams relays the story as a testament to the unique bond he and Carr have developed over the years. ("We almost died together," he says. "People don't know that.") They set records in two seasons at Fresno State, worked out together every offseason, and now -- after a vigorousrecruiting campaign by Carr that led to the seismic trade of Adams from theGreen Bay Packers-- they'll attempt to navigate the roiling waters of the Las Vegas Raiders, with whom a capsized boat is traditionally a precursor to an encounter with a 75-foot rock wall.

Along with a new head coach (Josh McDaniels and all the attendant Patriot business that comes with it), Adams gives them hope for something more, something better and more meaningful than earning a mere playoff spot, a feat the Raiders achieved last season for just the second time in 20 years. He gives Carr, a quarterback who has amassed massive but often hollow statistics, something he has never had: a superstar receiver.

"I'm not here to be Superman," Adams says. But the first time Carr walked to the line at training camp and looked over to see his old friend in a Raiders uniform, the quarterback says, "It was surreal. Like, 'Oh, my gosh, I can't believe we're doing this again.' Then the first touchdown I throw him, I'm like, 'Here we go. This is just the start.'"

The Raiders' playoff run last year, ending with a loss to theCincinnati Bengalsin the AFC wild-card round, was unlikely for many reasons. Among them: losing their head coach, Jon Gruden, after the release of a series of sordid emails; losing former first-round wide receiver Henry RuggsIII after he got drunk and killed a woman while driving 156 mph in the small hours of the morning; losing cornerback Damon Arnette, another first-round pick, when he was released after brandishing guns on social media.

"I mean, we had loss of life last year," Carr says. "We had a young player lose his career with a life-altering decision. We had our coach's situation. We had a first-round pick waving guns around. ... In my nine years with the Raiders, I've had to answer questions that I don't think anyone should ever have to answer, especially at 20-something years old. But now that Davante's come, and the coaches have made it just all about ball, it's been refreshing for me because I'm not answering questions about this controversy or that. I'm literally just answering questions about football."

The rapids, the Raiders -- the message never changes:

Whatever you do, don't stop paddling.

Sometimes the metaphors write themselves.

THE HOUSE LOOKS like a warehouse from the future: more than 10,000 square feet of glass and steel, a six-screen game room with one screen constantly beaming the Golf Channel, a kitchen so big Adams rides his electric bike around it -- circling the island, veering past a refrigerator the size of an SUV -- with his 2-year-old daughter, Daija, in his lap. The lights of Vegas are down the hill, just far enough away. There's a championship golf course visible from the backyard, so close you can smell the sand trap baking in the sun.

You know you've made it when you live in a house that requires you to pass through two gates, and key in two separate gate codes, to reach it. Adams is sitting in the game room of this house -- his house -- draped across a massive sofa like a throw rug. He had just excused himself to put Daija to bed -- "Daddy's the only one that can do it," he says, beaming, as he heads upstairs -- and he's trying to convey how gratitude and disbelief collide in his brain every time he stops and remembers that this is where he lives.

"I came from the complete opposite of this," he says. "I'd never even seen anything like this until it was time to make it a reality for me and my family."

Adams, his wife, Devanne, Daija and infant daughter Dezi got here after a series of events that felt chaotic and rushed but in reality were put into motion years ago. The March trade that ended his eight-year tenure with the Packers and sent him to the Raiders for two draft picks can trace its roots to the on-field chemistry and off-field friendship between Adams and Carr that began as soon as Adams showed up on the Fresno State campus.

"When he showed up, I was like, 'This guy's different,'" says Carr, who was in his second year at Fresno. Adams was a redshirt freshman, and over the course of Adams' two seasons in Fresno, they combined for 38 touchdowns and more than 3,000 yards. As professionals, after both were taken in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft, Adams and Carr lived near each other in the San Francisco Bay Area during the offseason and worked out together.

"He had this Raiders shirt he would wear when we would go hoop," Carr says. "I never made a big deal of it because I was just hoping he was speaking it into existence. And here we are."

Team executives and coaches are not allowed to contact opposing players, but there's no such thing as player-to-player tampering. "Oh, man," Carr says, "I was egregious." After the Raiders lost in the playoffs, Carr called his friend. "As soon as I saw his name pop up, I knew what it was about," Adams says, laughing. On the phone, Carr told him, "Hey, whenever you're ready, I'm ready. Let's figure this thing out." The Packers were preparing to play the 49ers in an NFC divisional-round game, and Carr wished him luck, doing his best -- but probably failing -- to give his friend the space he needed to focus on the moment. But that Sunday, after the Packers unexpectedly lost at home, Carr asked himself the existential question: How many days of mourning should a friend give another friend before hitting him with the full-court press?

"I'm not going to lie," Carr says. "I texted him the next day. I couldn't help myself."

As he walked off the field at Lambeau for what he knew might be the final time, Adams looked around and felt the emotion of the first eight years of his NFL career climb the back of his throat. On the day he and Devanne flew back to California, it was minus-13 degrees. "That was my last taste of Green Bay," he says. "It's kind of cool now that I think about it. It definitely sent me out on my way with a memory."

It's easy to picture Carr, more than halfway across the country, sitting at home, drumming his fingers and wondering how egregious was too egregious. They'd talked about this before, especially in 2017 before Adams signed on to stay in Green Bay, but this time felt different. The bond they forged in college through shared goals and personality traits -- devotion to family, ultracompetitiveness -- was nothing if not durable, lasting through eight NFL seasons.

Carr's recruitment efforts continued through the next two months, over golf -- a relatively recent outlet for Adams' ultracompetitiveness -- and throwing sessions. The Packers placed the franchise tag on Adams, which would have paid him roughly $20 million with no security beyond this season. (Adams, who refused to play under the tag, calls it "a horrible thing for the players.")He had discussions withAaron Rodgers, and even though sources indicate it was occasionally difficult for the two to connect during the offseason, the Packers quarterback, who had signed a new three-year contract, suggested his time in Green Bay was nearing an end and that Adams should make the decision that was best for him and his family. Adams ultimately asked the Packers for a trade even though they offered him what he admits was a bigger contract than the five-year, $141.25 million deal he signed with the Raiders. Adams says, "It's not like I orchestrated this; nothing like that," but it was obvious from the beginning that Las Vegas was his preferred destination, and the Packers -- in deference to his contributions to the franchise, and probably to move him out of the NFC -- made it happen. And so the fourth-leading receiver in Green Bay history, a first-team All-Pro in each of the past two seasons, a 29-year-old, still-in-his-prime superstar with 47 touchdowns in his past 57 games, became the biggest star to change teams this past offseason.

"The time came where I had to think about my overall life and happiness," Adams says. "Where do I want my kids to grow up? I love Green Bay but I'm a West Coast dude and a lot of family -- especially my grandparents -- haven't been able to see me play in close to a decade of playing pro ball. It's all the same people that's coming -- and it's not a whole lot. It's hard to get into Green Bay, and it's expensive, too -- I'm like, why the hell is it expensive to get into Green Bay?

"I had to leave every single weekend of OTAs to come back to California. Literally every single weekend I was flying back and forth, two flights each way on commercial flights. Four flights each week just to see my family. I wanted to be able to do OTAs and be with my team but not have to leave my wife and kids. That's huge for me. I'm a family man, and that was hella unnecessary travel."

He found out about the trade the old-fashioned way: through Twitter. Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, a former assistant with the Packers, texted Adams a screenshot of a tweet breaking the news of the trade just as Heather Carr texted Devanne Adams the same news. "There were probably 100,000 people out there who knew I was on the Raiders before I did," Davante says. Derek Carr's recruitment campaign, a comprehensive strategy that began years before, had finally worked.

"The coolest part wasn't the football part; it was that I got my friend back," Carr says. "I think that's the coolest part."

IT'S HARD TO tell whether Davante Adams has an incredible memory or a penchant for grudges, but he can recite the name and draft position of every wide receiver who was chosen before him in the 2014 draft. ("They can't judge what a true dog is like on the field," he says.) He can probably come pretty close to giving you their statistics, too, and how they compare to his, which in most cases is poorly, some horrendously.

It's worth the rundown: Sammy Watkins at pick No. 4; Mike Evans at No. 7; Odell Beckham Jr. at 12; Brandin Cooks at 20; Kelvin Benjamin at 28; Marqise Lee at 39; Jordan Matthews at 42; Paul Richardson at 45; Adams at 53, the 21st pick of the second round. When he wasn't chosen on the first night of the draft, he instructed everyone at his East Palo Alto draft party -- there was an ESPN camera there, adding to the frustration -- to wear black on the second night. "That was the funeral right there," Adams says. "We were going to make sure everyone felt the wrath for not picking Davante Adams sooner."

He's not the biggest (6-1, 215) or the fastest, but a combination of obsessiveness and unrelenting competitiveness has made him one of the two or three best receivers in the NFL. There are times when the game gets so far inside him he literally detaches from reality -- in a good way, of course. Nick Robinson, Adams' best friend from high school and now a business associate, was having a conversation with Adams in Green Bay a few days before a 2020 Week 14 game against the Lions when he noticed his friend had checked out.

His eyes remained fixed on Robinson, his face went into rictus and sweat beaded on his forehead. Adams was gone, retreating into the crawl space of his mind.

"Bro," Robinson said, "you all right?"

As if responding to a hypnotist's finger snap, Adams came back.

"Oh, sorry," he said. "I was just thinking about what I'm going to do to the Lions."

What he was going to do, he told Robinson, was score on a long pass play early in the game. "Fifty or 60 yards," he said, "after a short pass."

On the Packers' first possession, with a little more than eight minutes left in the first quarter, Adams released from the line with a stutter-step fake to the outside, then hit cornerback Amani Oruwariyewith three quick strides to the sideline to gain a remarkable amount of separation in a remarkably short amount of time. Adams caught a Rodgers pass in stride and ran 43 of 56 yards unimpeded into the end zone. By the time he reached the end zone, there was no player, Lion or Packer, anywhere near him. He dropped the ball in the end zone and jogged back toward the sideline with all the exuberance of a detective rolling up on a crime scene.

"He goes into this trancelike state -- only a few people have seen it," Robinson says. "I don't think he even knows he's doing it. It's just so weird when it happens." Maybe that's why Adams is rarely enthused when he makes a big catch or scores. It's hard to act surprised when you know what's coming.

THE MOST INTERESTING stuff happens on the margins, away from the eyes of the world, in a place like North Gym at Fresno State. There's an entire Bible's worth of parables to be found in the pickup games on North Gym's basketball courts.

Adams was a sophomore at Fresno State and regularly the best player on the court at North Gym when he found himself matched up against a guy we'll call "The Mouth" (not his real name). The Mouth was good, too, and he may or may not have been a member of the Fresno State track team, but the particulars are lost to the mists of time. This guy was the stereotypical antagonist writ large, strutting around, proclaiming his greatness in that unique way peculiar to good basketball players in casual settings.

Most of the talk was directed at Adams. "This guy could hang with Tae," says Wyatt Mitchell, a classmate and, that day, a teammate of Adams. "It was very rare to find someone who could do that." Adams let the talk go, pretending he didn't hear it or that it didn't matter. But then something changed. The Mouth said something only Adams heard but everyone else felt. Adams stayed silent, but the molecules in the atmosphere had shifted.

"You could just see the look in Tae's eyes change," Mitchell says. "I thought, Here we go."

A little background: Adams was a star point guard on Palo Alto High's basketball team, and his mother, Pamela Brown, says, "We all thought he was going to the NBA." He missed his first two seasons of high school football after breaking the same arm three times, and he had decided to concentrate solely on basketball when his cousin Eric Washington told him, "You should really get out there and play wideout."

Adams, who had been a quarterback in youth football, said, "Really? You know I'm a hooper; that's what it's about."

But Cousin Eric, dispenser of wisdom, said, "Man, you're 6-1 -- it's 6-8 point guards these days. You could go from being a small guard to a big wide receiver."

Adams teamed up with quarterback Christoph Bono, son of former NFL quarterback Steve Bono, to help propel Palo Alto to a state championship in 2010, and the exposure provided by that stage attracted college recruiters. Fresno State's scholarship offer came before any basketball offers, and he accepted it to ensure his mom didn't have to pay for his education. He went to Fresno State intending to play both, but the time commitment to academics and football ended that dream. He told his mom, "I don't want to get hurt playing basketball and lose my football scholarship." Football paid the bills.

Anyway, back to the North Gym:

Adams called for the ball on the post, about 5 feet from the hoop on the left side. What followed is something Mitchell, now a college adviser at Montana State, says he'll remember for the rest of his life: "It was an athletic feat only a handful of people in the world could pull off." With The Mouth behind him, Adams spun and leaped into the air. The Mouth went up with him as Adams -- now facing the basket -- kept rising until he slammed the ball through the hoop with both hands. Along the way, he managed to wrap his legs around the defender's chest, so he was holding The Mouth in the air by his armpits. It was from this position that Adams did a chin-up on the rim, lifting not only his own weight but The Mouth's as well. ("I know, I know," Mitchell says, "but I swear this happened.") As he started to let go of the rim, he released his legs and left The Mouth sprawling on the floor.

Quietly, almost under his breath, Adams said just four words:

You can't guard me.

After a slight pause to reflect on what they'd just witnessed, everyone in the gym erupted at once. The Mouth scrambled to his feet, threw his arms in the air, collected his stuff and left the gym without saying a word.

ADAMS IS TALKING about how he became what he jokingly refers to as the Release King, and he has decided that words only go so far. He bounds off the couch and stands in front of the bank of big screens, his head covering the middle third of the Golf Channel. He's going to show me what he does when the ball is snapped, how he makes decisions based on split-second observations and frees himself in microseconds. He does this better than anybody, maybe anybody ever, and this private showing feels like an invitation to watch van Gogh demonstrate brush strokes.

He starts with what he calls The Hop, his most admired move, where he rises up like a kid about to get measured against a wall and then immediately drives past the corner -- inside, out or straight ahead, doesn't matter -- faster than thought. No move is preplanned; he never knows what he's going to do until the defensive back's reaction tells him. Each move is a variation of a basketball move, and it's why his mom says she doesn't miss watching him play basketball because "he plays basketball every Sunday." The Hop, Davante says, "is literally the same as a basketball crossover. In front of the screens, with the couch as the designated sideline, he does it once to the right, showing how he reads the defender's shoulders and subtly directs them away from where he's headed, and then repeats it to the left. ("I've obsessed over this," he says, unnecessarily.) Every move is intended to create indecision in the mind of the defender and eliminate the need to use physical contact to break free. It's fine to be known as a physical receiver, which he is, but another to be someone who needs to waste valuable seconds engaging in line-of-scrimmage jujitsu.

He sits down and says, "I've got to see how [a DB] moves naturally, and then from there I can almost design you. It's almost like a meal plan. If you're allergic to peanuts, you're not going to have peanut chicken, right? That's what I do, I give 'em peanut chicken off the line."

The obsession has led him to watch film not just for tendencies but emotions. He looks across the line and into the eyes of the defensive back and searches for one thing: fear. He knows it's in there -- some bury it deeper below the surface than others -- and he knows he doesn't have to say a word to let it be known that he has detected its presence. He's unnerving, this man with the ice-cold temperament in a world of aggrieved, hot-blooded loudmouths who power their engines on slights both real and perceived. Attuned to false bravado, they're uncomfortable with quiet confidence.

"Nobody expects this, but the fear factor is really big in the NFL," Adams says. "The fear factor takes people out of their game before you even start the snap. It has a lot to do with how I'm able to win at such a high rate. People already have it in their minds that they can't stick with me, and it's hard for them to overcome that. Now they're just trying to soften the blow. They're not trying to dominate."

Once he senses the softening, Adams wins before the ball is snapped. His reputation for releasing off the line precedes him, allowing him to look across the line and decide if it's necessary to break out one of his better moves. Often, the mere threat of a good move negates its necessity.

"You need people like me to tell these types of things because it gives a better in-depth look at what the league looks like from the inside," he says. "It's human beings, not superheroes. This isn't a movie; these are people with real emotions, and fear is one of those emotions. I'm not one of the dudes you know much about. I don't put a lot out there. With me, they have to go strictly off the film. They know I'm not some joker out here doing a bunch of s--- just for the attention. It's like a mystery man who is completely dominating everybody. That's the mindset."

Maybe he has stumbled upon the ultimate definition of athletic excellence: being so good you don't always have to prove it.

THE KIDS ARE in bed, the sun has dipped behind the mountains, and Adams and his friend Robinson have taken to the streets. They bombed out of the house on the electric bicycles, and now they're swerving up and down the sloping street in front of the house. The fierce glare of a Vegas summer afternoon has yielded to a slight golden-hour reprieve. The bikes head down the hill and back up, the sound of laughter from two grown men signaling their direction.

"I've never seen him this happy," says Brown, Davante's mom. "Never. He's relaxed. He's starting to show people who he is, and there's a light in his eyes that tells me he's finally content."

He spent eight years being intentionally strategic about how much he doled out to the public -- "I wanted to make it before I put myself out there," he says -- but now he's giving the world a few selective peeks behind the curtain. A national Taco Bell campaign that depicts a roll call of Vegas clichés -- a magician, an Elvis impersonator, showgirls and Raiders fans -- ringing his doorbell to welcome him to town.

On occasion, his mom will remind him of his promise to return to college and complete his degree -- "Look at Steph Curry," she tells him -- but Davante sweeps a hand in front of him, drawing her attention to his wife and his two little girls and this gigantic house as if to say, "How could it be better?"

Mom can't argue. Devanne calls her husband "the best girl dad," and says, "Whenever it was time to leave for Green Bay, there was always a lot of anxiety. He's much more relaxed now." Nobody appears to begrudge him this happiness. He left tracks on the high road when he left Green Bay. There was no anonymous bad-mouthing as he headed out the door. His bosses thanked him for his work and wished him well. Adams has returned the favor, praising his time with Rodgers, saying, "People have called him a bad teammate. I would never say that about Aaron. He's a great teammate, and he's a winner. ... If he treated me poorly or I saw him treat somebody else poorly, I would just say no comment."

Rodgers is still in Green Bay, cosplaying Nicolas Cage and complaining about the play of his young receivers. A Wisconsin fall is nice, but it has a wicked habit of being followed by winter. Out here in the desert, Adams' golf/throwing/rafting buddy is, once again, his quarterback. His improving golf game can now find its rightful place as a year-round obsession. Those lights down below remain just another feature of the landscape, there to entice the gullible.

There's work to do. Don't stop paddling. The games will start, and he will line up and fix his clinical gaze across the line, searching for fear. He'll remain the quiet one amid the roar, perhaps the only one who truly understands that silence is a sound all its own.

Wardrobe styling by Courtney Mays; grooming by Donald Long Jr; Look 1: Jacket, shirt and pants by Zara; Look 2: Suit by Djozen Chen; polo shirt by Zara; watch and jewelry are Davante's own; Look 3: Jacket by Alexander McQueen; Look 4: Shirt by Isnurh; pants by Moncler; shoes by Santoni.

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