Carolina Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross wanted to leave on a high note.
Ryan Kalil, Gross’ friend and teammate, wanted that too.
Gross’ retirement press conference Wednesday at Bank of America Stadium featured lots of laughter and tears, and concluded with Kalil, the Panthers’ Pro Bowl center, serenading Gross with “Happy Trails” as part of a barbershop quartet.
It was the only way Gross – whose leadership and playing ability were matched by a keen sense of humor and a unique perspective on life and football – could go out.
Gross, 33, who played all of his 11 NFL seasons with the Panthers, could have come back for another year. The team was interested in re-signing him.
But he said he learned in college at Utah that bad things happen when you stay at the party too long. He leaves on the heels of his third Pro Bowl appearance, the Panthers’ first playoff berth in five years, and without any debilitating injuries.
“I just know if I’d stayed, the product would start to diminish. And I don’t want to do that,” Gross said. “What better way to leave than when everybody’s sad to see you go?”
Players, coaches and front office personnel crammed into the visitors locker room – the media room is under renovation – to send off Gross, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2003 who started at right tackle as a rookie on the Panthers’ lone Super Bowl team.
After opening remarks by owner Jerry Richardson and coach Ron Rivera, Gross stood at the podium and immediately started getting emotional and tearing up. But he managed to keep the mood light.
While thanking members of the organization – from the equipment staff and security personnel to Richardson – he said former general manager Marty Hurney drafted him and changed his life.
Gross then said to current GM Dave Gettleman, seated in the front row: “I didn’t like you very much last offseason, but I got over that.”
Gross was among the veterans Gettleman approached last year to restructure their contracts, and in Gross’ case, take a pay cut. But Gross said his reworked deal, which automatically voided in February, proved to be a blessing because he decided the 2013 season would be his last.
“I could enjoy this year like crazy and lay it all out there and give talks to the team,” Gross said. “The whole thing was just awesome.”
Teammates had the sense this would be Gross’ last season. Kalil said he prepared for that eventuality “because it was such a battle for him physically, more so than any other year I’ve played with him.”
Gross didn’t miss any games last season because of injury, and sat out only nine games in 11 years. But the wear-and-tear of more than 10,500 regular-season snaps began to take a toll.
“And how many more than that in practice?” Gross said. “It adds up.”
Gross said it became tougher later in his career to maintain weight on his 6-foot-4 frame. He has lost 25 pounds since the end of the season – down to 280 – and jokingly told Rivera he dropped the weight so the Panthers wouldn’t try to change his mind.
“It was my choice. The team wanted me back, but they were so great when I said I was done. And that meant a lot,” Gross said. “And I always said I didn’t want to leave until I felt like things were in good order, and they are. The team’s going to be good for a long time.”
Gross put together a slideshow of about 20 photos, and provided commentary. Among the highlights were pictures of:
• Former Panthers coach John Fox: “He said he wanted smart, tough players. And luckily for me I could do those two things.”
• His first NFL game vs. Jacksonville: “First play of the game I missed my block and fell down. I thought I was a bust for sure.”
• Steve Smith, his teammate at Utah and Carolina: “He’s an interesting person, but he means a lot to me. He taught me what it means to fight and play with your heart.”
• Ex-Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers: “This guy’s like my worst nightmare. Seven years in a row of being his practice dummy will either make you or break you. I had to look through all the Panthers’ archives to find one picture where it looked like I was winning (a drill with Peppers).”
• Kalil: “Ryan’s like the one guy I claim that I’ve really helped. If it wasn’t for me he’d be terrible. ... He said he needs me to get a job in the building so he can just pretend I’m on (injured reserve).”
• The offensive linemen posing with Cam Newton after the Panthers clinched the NFC South in Atlanta: “That was my proudest moment because I felt like I got us back where we belong.”
• His family – wife, Dana, and two children – with him on the field after the Pro Bowl last month: “That picture says it all. That’s what everyone would dream their career would end up being. That’s why you quit, right there.”
After Gross finished his slideshow, public relations director Charlie Dayton asked for questions. A man posing as a reporter stood up and said he had a comment from a teammate he wanted to share.
Then the rest of the Zero Hour quartet stood up and started singing, including Kalil, who spent 60 minutes rehearsing with the a cappella group last weekend and paid them to perform.
Kalil personalized the lyrics, including the last line: “You'll be missed on third-and-10,” he crooned.
Kalil said he’d miss his friend for other reasons, too. So will the Panthers.
“Not just from a playing standpoint, but a leadership aspect, too,” Kalil said. “He’s just so respected in the locker room and it's not because they threw a ‘C’ (for captain) on his chest. … It’s going to be tough to replace that.”