After the Panthers selected A.J. Klein in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL draft, Klein went with his family and friends to Tanners Grill and Bar in Kimberly, Wis.
The restaurant was the same one he and his high school teammates ate at before Friday night games during their two state championship seasons. And it was where the former Iowa State linebacker wanted to go that Saturday night four years later to thank his supporters.
Im representing a small Kimberly town, Klein said. Im only the third guy from my high school thats made it to the NFL. The whole entire town took pride in that.
From a town of fewer than 7,000 people, Klein was overlooked by most big-time college programs coming out of high school. And even on draft weekend, the Panthers were surprised he fell to them in the fifth round.
But now that hes in the NFL, he plans to make his mark, and it started this past weekend at Carolinas rookie minicamp.
Klein was one of five draft picks that competed alongside 54 other players vying for a permanent spot on the roster. Kleins ability to play all three linebacker positions as well as work as a special teams player will allow him to contribute immediately.
I do want to play special teams, mainly because I do want to see the field as early as I can and I think thats my ticket to get on the field early, Klein said. Thats a way I can make myself versatile and make myself a person people want to have on their team.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Klein will first and foremost add depth at linebacker, with the trio of Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis as the starters. Rivera said he noticed Klein moved more smoothly than he expected this weekend.
We really do feel that was a value pick, Rivera said. We feel our last two picks (Klein and former Oregon RB Kenjon Barner) were value guys. They had good college careers that did things consistently over a period of time. Guys like that, they may not become superstars, but theyre definitely going to be contributors.
A contributor on an NFL team was a far-away dream for Klein when he was in Kimberly, though. He got scholarship offers from just four schools Wyoming, Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and Iowa State.
He said Oklahoma was prepared to offer him, but before the Sooners could, three linebackers committed to the school.
Just to get that exposure early, it kind of put a chip on my shoulder, Klein said. Having a big program like OU recognizing me and seeing that I have talent but then the other schools pushing me to the wayside, it put a chip on my shoulder, and I wanted to prove something. I felt like I did that at Iowa State.
He was named Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Big 12 his junior year and finished his four-year career with 361 tackles, including 117 in each of his final two seasons.
Klein said hes one of three players from Kimberly to get to the NFL. Matt VandenBoom played two seasons with Buffalo in the 1980s as a defensive back, and Mike Verstegen was an offensive lineman for the Saints and Rams in the mid-1990s.
Hes humbled to be a part of that group, he said. And with the veterans in the Panthers linebacking corps, along with the Defensive Rookie of the Year in Kuechly, Klein hopes he can glean as much knowledge from them as possible to remain in the league for years to come.
Obviously they have some experience and know what theyre talking about, he said. Im going to try to grasp and hang on to one of them at training camp and learn as much as I can from them. Im going try to find my niche on defense or special teams. It doesnt matter. Im just trying to make an impact.