As the Carolina Panthers get ready for another shot at the Super Bowl title they’ve had a realistic chance at winning since (incredibly) their second year of existence, I think back to the role that a Johnston County football legend played in the Panthers’ early success.
In case you weren’t around then, or you’re one of those bandwagon fans all those folks on Facebook seem to be trying to out for whatever reason (Folks, mind you, who had never mentioned the Panthers before November on their feeds.), the Panthers went 7-9 in their first season and were 12-4 and a division champ with two wins over the reigning Super Bowl champ 49ers in 1996.
Anchoring both of those teams’ offensive lines at center was Smithfield-Selma grad Curtis Whiltey. Whitley, who succumbed to his addiction demons in 2008 at age 39, was one of the big free agent signings by Carolina general manager Bill Polian as the franchise got its start.
At the time, Whitley, a Clemson standout, had been released by the Chargers after a DUI accident. After a stay at the Betty Ford Clinic, Whitley answered all of the Panthers’ questions about his issues. And then spent the 1995 season helping a Carolina offense — one without a true, proven running back — turn into the run-based, defense-focused unit that head coach Dom Capers wanted.
Whitley was the perfect fit for the expansion club.
“We were a gang of rag-tags,” said fellow 1995 Panther lineman Matt Elliott in a 2004 interview. “Half of us were throwaways, and the other half were just trying to hang on a little longer.”
Whitley was the rock amid a line of scrap heap free agents and rookie tackle Blake Brockemeyer. Truth be told, the former SSS star was probably one of the five most important and productive Panthers in that 1995 season. He started all 16 games.
It all worked better for Carolina than it had for any other first-year expansion club in the NFL, to the tune of seven wins and an immediately passionate fan base.
The Whitley family had one of its best weeks ever in mid-October of that first season. Curtis’ daughter, Hannah Jane, was born two days before the Panthers’ sixth game of the season. The Panthers broke their 0-5 streak to start the season with a historic 26-15 win. Carolina went onto win six of its final 10 games that season, all with the Smithfield farm boy starting at center.
The next season brought more addiction battles for Whitley, who was suspended for four games, but more success for the Panthers who advanced to the NFC Championship game.
Milhouse shines in NFLPA Collegiate Bowl: Garner grad Greg Milhouse was one of the highest graded players coming out of the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, according to Pro Football Focus. Milhouse, a defensive tackle from Campbell University, had two hurries and a batted down pass in the game, which featured some of the prospects for the 2016 NFL Draft.
Spartans come back home this week: Smithfield-Selma’s basketball teams will play their first home games since Dec. 17 on Tuesday when the Spartans host Western Harnett. Lighting issues with new lights at the gym have forced changes in the SSS schedule since the start of 2016. SSS interim athletic director Lori Rose said that the new lights which were sent to the school were the wrong style and didn’t light the gym enough.
New lights were ordered but they got held up in the snow/ice storm of last week and were just delivered on Tuesday.
Individual wrestling regionals: Princeton will host the 1A East Regional Individual Wrestling Championships on Feb. 12-13. The tournament determines four of the state championship qualifiers in each weight class.
Wrestling on Friday starts at 5 p.m. and begins at 9 a.m. on Saturday. A tournament pass is available for $15 covering all rounds. Admission on Friday is $8 or $10 for Saturday’s early rounds. A championship round ticket is $6.
All of the area wrestling regionals have similar schedules and ticket pricing options.