After offensive tackle Jordan Gross broke the Panthers' record for most career starts, he stood in front of his locker last Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago and tried to explain how the Panthers had let another slip away.
No one mentioned Gross' milestone, and no game ball was forthcoming after a loss.
Gross has manned the demanding position of left tackle for the Panthers for the past decade and become of the team's most respected players – a de facto spokesman always willing to address the media after a win or a loss. He has experienced both highs and lows since the Panthers drafted him in the first round in 2003.
As a rookie, he started on the Panthers' only Super Bowl team.
But lately, there have been a lot of games like Sunday's 23-22 loss at Chicago, where the Panthers twice coughed up two fourth-quarter leads. Other than a few congratulations from teammates, Gross' record went largely unnoticed.
“It's funny, you'd love to have something like that in a win and everybody's excited and there's a lot of celebration. But we didn't,” Gross said. “I've always been happy to be a part of this team and organization. I wouldn't have done anything any different.”
Gross made his 142nd start against the Bears, breaking the mark shared by former wideout Muhsin Muhammad and ex-safety Mike Minter. Steve Smith, the team's longest-tenured player in his 12th season, has started 137 games.
Gross, 32, has missed nine games in 10 seasons, despite facing the opponent's best pass-rusher most weeks. He attributes his longevity to an old-school workout regimen that includes push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups and the like.
Gross is 6-foot-4 and weighs 301 pounds – same as he has since his sophomore year at Utah.
“I'm a big believer in being an in-shape lineman, if there is such a thing,” he said. “I think that's been key for me. I don't ever really get out of shape that much. I'll do less immediately after the season, but I'm always trying to be active.”
Gross has a 40-acre alfalfa farm in Idaho that he works during the offseason. He has a weight room in the garage that opens to the fields.
Gross has two years remaining after this season on his current contract, and is unsure whether he'll sign another one.
“That would put me at 12 seasons. I think that would be a time that I would have done everything I wanted to do as far as length,” Gross said. “That's a point where you'd have to assess where you're at and what the team wanted. But honestly at this point, 10 years of being a starting left tackle, each year is precious.”
Panthers offensive lineman Geoff Hangartner, one of Gross' closest friends on the team, said Gross is still playing at a high level.
“I think his career has kind of been like this record – really solid, really good. He's a really good player but doesn't get a lot of publicity or hype,” Hangartner said. “I don't think he's slowed down yet. He's 32 years old and still playing at a really high level. He always ends up playing the other team's best rusher, and does a fantastic job.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera didn't know much about Gross when he arrived before the 2011 season, other than he was the team's longtime left tackle.
“I’ve gotten to know him the last year and a half,” Rivera said. “Before I got here it was just that he was an All-Pro, Pro-Bowl caliber football player. He’s an anchor to who we are as far as our offensive line is concerned.”
Gross has been to two Pro Bowls – in 2008 and 2010. While playing in the Super Bowl stands as his highlight, he said his roughest year was 2009, when he missed seven games with a broken leg and quarterback Jake Dehomme was released after the season.
Gross said this year's 1-6 start is symbolic of the team's inconsistency during his tenure.
“I never have a clue how our team's going to be. (In) '03, I didn't know any better, we went to the Super Bowl. (In) '04, I thought we were going to be just as good and we started out 1-7,” he said. “This year I told everybody I thought we were going to be really good and score tons of points. We haven't scored a lot of points and haven't won hardly any games.”
He hopes to help change that before his career is through.
“I came in on great times. We went to the Super Bowl and the NFC Championship Game my first three years. Right now, it's tough times,” he said. “But I feel confident that it will swing back around before I'm out of here. And that's really my goal is to leave this place the way I found it.”
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