Jordan Gross has just finished another football practice, one of the thousands he has completed in his career. He stands there, sweaty and polite, as I ask him: “Are you 100 percent healthy?”
“One hundred percent is a relative term,” the Panthers’ longtime left tackle says. “I couldn’t honestly answer yes to that question for the last five or six years.”
That’s what the NFL does to your body, even to a man who is 6-foot-4 and weighs 305 pounds. Gross will begin his 11th NFL season this year, all with the Panthers, and he along with everyone else knows it could be his last.
And yet Gross is optimistic. He has seen 10 previous Panthers teams come and go, including three that made the playoffs. He thinks this one could – and should – get there, too. He would like this to be part of his legacy, to leave the Panthers in a better place than where he found them.
“We’ve got all the pieces in place,” Gross says. “We’ve drafted well the last few years. Those guys are getting better and better. We drafted well this year. A few old guys are still hanging around to try to plug some holes. There are really just no excuses for us not to do well.”
Gross, 32, is one of the old guys. Standing as a voice of reason in the Panthers locker room much like Jake Delhomme, Mike Minter and Sam Mills did before him, Gross is perennially elected a team captain.
“Brandon LaFell gave me a compliment last year,” Gross says. “It was during a TV timeout at New Orleans. We were backed up in our own end zone and the crowd was going nuts. He came up to me in the huddle and said, ‘I love being in the huddle with you because you always make me feel comfortable and confident.’ To me, that’s what a captain should be. Even if you don’t feel like you’ve got it all together, you act like you do. Just provide guidance and solace – the rudder for the team.”
Gross holds the team record for most starts in franchise history, at 151. He started for the Panthers as a rookie on the 2003 Super Bowl team. He has protected the blind side for quarterbacks from Delhomme to Cam Newton and from Vinny Testaverde to David Carr.
In 10 seasons, Gross has missed a total of nine starts – an average of less than one per year. Seven of those came in 2009 when he broke his leg. Then he came back to make the Pro Bowl for a second time in 2010. He attributes his durability in part to an old-school regimen that includes pushups and pull-ups.
“He is leaving a legacy,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera says of Gross. “He’s got Amini Silatolu on his right side (at left guard) and when you’ve got a young guy like that who really came into his own at the end of the year – Jordan had a big part in that. And he puts his arm around the other young guys, too.”
Fight or flight
A former first-round pick out of Utah, Gross entered the NFL in 2003 as a baby-faced, All-American tackle who hadn’t allowed a single sack during his final two seasons of college. He almost never lost one-on-one battles.
That changed immediately when he got to the Panthers, who made him face Julius Peppers every day in practice. This was essential to Gross’ quick development. Said Peppers at the time: “I’m going to give him everything. I really want to prepare him. He won’t see anything new after I get done with him. Because if you can stop me, you can stop anybody.”
Gross liked it, though. “This is going to make me a better player in a hurry,” Gross said then. “It’s a fight-or-flight thing for me.”
He has fought for more than a decade now and, in the meantime, grown to love the Carolinas. He wouldn’t mind having some sort of role with the Panthers when his career is over.
Gross restructured his contract and took a pay cut to remain on the team for 2013. Beyond that his NFL future is very iffy, as his contract essentially voids after this season. He preferred not to move his family from Charlotte and believes he ended up making the right decision monetarily, too, given the softness of the NFL free-agent market.
“I feel lucky and blessed to be here,” Gross says. “This could have gone a different way and I wouldn’t be here now.”
But he is here, as everyone watching Newton’s news conference was reminded of on Wednesday. Gross and some of his teammates were watching the in-house TV feed at Bank of America Stadium. They noticed how somber Newton looked while answering questions and decided to lighten it up. Gross walked up to the podium behind Newton and started silently making faces behind the quarterback while Newton purposely ignored him.
“I just was having fun,” Gross says. “We were just watching it in the lunchroom and just thought it would be funny to go mess with Cam…. May hijinks.”
There’s no doubt Gross isn’t as dominant as he once was as a left tackle, but he still has surprising quickness for such a big man. Rivera says he believes Gross can still handle the other team’s best pass rusher, which is usually No. 69’s assignment.
A promising roster
“I feel good,” Gross says. “Better than I’ve felt the last couple of years. And I don’t think there are a whole lot of areas that trouble me on our team…. When you look at the roster and the depth, it’s not too bad anywhere and that’s a great thing.”
With his career clock ticking, Gross has a sense of how important this season is to him personally. He would love to bookend his career with Super Bowl appearances, or at least a fourth and final Panthers playoff appearance.
Before that, though, he and Kalil will visit American Samoa this summer to work Troy Polamalu’s football camp.
Then Gross will return to Charlotte – bearing down for one more push and providing the Panthers their rudder one last time.
Scott Fowler: email@example.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler