Within a strange and sad two-day period, the Carolina Panthers lost two former players last week.
Former Panthers quarterback Jeff Lewis – once thought to be the team’s quarterback of the future – died Saturday in Phoenix at age 39. Coach George Seifert was once so enamored with Lewis that he fired Steve Beuerlein with the idea that Lewis would be his starter. Lewis’ cause of death has not been made public.
Bryan Stoltenberg, a center who used to snap the ball regularly to Lewis in practice and games during the late 1990s, died Friday at age 40 at his home in Sugarland, Texas. Stoltenberg started 18 games for Carolina in 1998-2000. He is survived by a wife and three sons.
Stoltenberg was an All-American at Colorado. The school’s website announced his death and also said he had undergone several surgeries after being in a car accident in mid-December. He likely died of a blood clot, according to the school.
The deaths were completely unrelated, but both made former Panthers teammate Mike Rucker think about his own mortality.
“It blows my mind to think that both of these guys are gone,” Rucker said. “I’ve been combing through articles, wondering why so many guys that I played with have left us too early.”
Seven former Panthers I know of have died. Rucker, 37, played with or knew six of them well (Reggie White, Al Lucas, Fred Lane, Sam Mills, Lewis and Stoltenberg). The only deceased former Panther who came before Rucker’s time with Carolina was center Curtis Whitley.
Of Lewis, Rucker said: “Jeff was just a great, lighthearted, clean-cut guy. And Stoltenberg was a funny guy – and he had two of the biggest calves you have ever seen on a man.”
Former Panthers safety Mike Minter, 38, also played with both men. He hadn’t heard of either death until I called him Sunday afternoon.
“I knew Lewis better,” said Minter, who is now the football coach at Campbell. “He was kind of a tough guy, and very competitive. It didn’t work out the way he wanted it to in Carolina, but he was always a guy with high character.”
Lewis had most recently been employed coaching receivers at Northern Arizona, his alma mater where he was a four-year starter and part of the school’s hall of fame. He took that job before the 2012 season. Previously, he was an assistant for three years at Louisville. He had one son.
The Panthers traded for Lewis in 1999, shortly after hiring coach George Seifert. Seifert was very enamored with Lewis, who had the sort of mobility the coach liked and who had once been considered the heir apparent to John Elway in Denver before he blew out his knee in a pickup basketball game. Elway called Lewis “a great teammate” in a tweet during the weekend.
The Panthers traded a third-round pick in 1999 and a fourth-rounder in 2000 for Lewis. Seifert wanted him to eventually replace the immobile Beuerlein as the starter. Beuerlein kept playing too well for that to happen, however, making the Pro Bowl in 1999 and also playing decently in 2000.
In the spring of 2001, Seifert sped up the timetable by making one of the most bizarre moves in Panthers history – he released Beuerlein in March with the idea of making Lewis his starter. That move began a downward spiral for all concerned.
Lewis had two awful games in a row in the 2001 preseason, throwing three straight interceptions in one of them. The mercurial Seifert then demoted him to the fourth team and cut him outright before the season began, making rookie Chris Weinke his starter. The Panthers went 1-15 and Seifert was fired.
Lewis was sensitive to his mistakes during his three rocky years in Carolina, understanding that he had not fulfilled expectations. He made millions as a Panther, but never threw a touchdown pass in 11 exhibitions and some very limited regular-season duty.
“I’m not going to make any excuses,” he said after being released. “Obviously, I’m disappointed it didn’t work out. I tried as hard as I could. I probably tried too hard.”
When asked if anything could have been different about his time at Carolina he said then: “I want to take the high road on this whole thing. I played as hard as I could every time I was out there.”
And he did. He just wasn’t a very good player by NFL standards. But by all accounts – including mine – Lewis was a good person.
Stoltenberg – often known as “Stolty” – was a relatively obscure but versatile offensive lineman who came in and did his job the best he could, playing for Dom Capers and Seifert. He played guard, too. And then there were those calves.
“The two sets of calves everyone always remembers are Stoltenberg’s and John Kasay’s,” Minter said. “When it all came down to it, man, they were both great guys. Connected the way quarterbacks and centers always are. And to pass away on the same weekend? I just can’t believe what I’m hearing.”
Fowler: email@example.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler