In Sunday’s game at Tennessee, underneath his Carolina Panthers gear, assistant athletic trainer Jean-Baptiste Laporte wore a shirt with a large image of the French flag.
He wasn’t making a statement. He wasn’t trying to get around NFL rules. But he needed to wear it for his mother and childhood friends who live in Paris, within miles of where several of last Friday’s terrorist attacks occurred.
Laporte, 37, has lived in the United States and worked with the Panthers as a trainer and physical therapist for three years after spending 10 years in Montreal. He’s a quiet guy whose English is superb, though there’s no mistaking French as his first language.
Friday he was finishing his work around 5:30 p.m. when he first received word of the attacks. The first explosion was just north of Paris near a soccer stadium. Then the attacks moved southeast and near his childhood home in Saint-Mandé.
Laporte contacted his mother right away. She was out of town at his brother’s home. She assured him she was safe. But he had trouble reaching some friends.
He had been to the Bataclan theater before. He had eaten at some of the restaurants where attacks were coordinated. Less than 2 miles and four Metro stops separated his childhood home from several of the attacks.
“It’s always difficult to be far,” Laporte told me this week. “That’s the first thing that comes to your mind. I’m so far. I’m far. Even though you have access to anything you want – you can talk to the person, FaceTime. But the first thing was I’m very far and there’s not much I can do.”
It wasn’t until nearly midnight that he accounted for all his close friends. While it’s impossible to be unaffected by the attacks, Laporte said all of his family and friends were safe.
Members of the Panthers’ training staff – Ryan Vermillion, Kevin King and Mark Shermansky – were among the first to reach out to Laporte on Friday. So, too, was tight end Greg Olsen. Laporte tried to return texts to all the players he treats who messaged him, but he was focused on locating his friends first.
On Saturday he returned to work as the Panthers prepared to fly to Nashville, Tenn., for Sunday’s game against the Titans. He said players offered words of support.
“Everybody was very kind about it,” Laporte said. “They don’t have to ask a lot of questions. They know it’s difficult, and so they showed support and we don’t have to talk about it too much. The goal was to keep going and moving forward. That’s life, too. It’s work.”
The terrorist attacks happened in neighborhoods where young people frequent. They “were made for you to stop believing,” Laporte said.
But he won’t. He can’t.
He continued giving treatment to players. He went to Mass. He followed the aftermath on social media.
The Panthers are his closest family in the United States. Laporte has friends and a girlfriend, but these are the people he spends seven days a week with. He’s one of the guys behind the scenes who have helped a 9-0 team stay relatively healthy through 10 weeks of a brutal NFL season.
Before Carolina’s 27-10 win against the Titans, veteran cornerback Charles Tillman wrote “Prayers for Paris” on his blue cleats in silver Sharpie.
Tillman has known Laporte for only about eight months, since signing as a free agent in the off-season. Tillman had torn his tricep for a second time in two years in 2014 and was still recovering when the Panthers signed him. Laporte worked closely with Tillman to get him back to full health.
“When we’re injured, tired, sore, sick, they’re the guys that patch us up and get us back on the field,” Tillman said. “J.B. is one of the best. He does a lot of the rehab for the guys here. He’s an awesome individual and a great guy.”
Laporte didn’t know until after the game that Tillman had written the message on his cleats. Tillman did not make a show of it. The NFL might not even know until someone from the league office reads this. Tillman had not heard from the NFL as of Tuesday morning.
The league prohibits players from writing personal statements on equipment, and Tillman’s gesture is enough – based on precedent – to warrant a fine of less than $6,000.
“If I get fined I’m OK with it, because I know what I did was right,” said Tillman, the NFL’s Man of the Year award winner in 2013. “I was comfortable with getting a fine for what I did and what it stands for.
“If they can’t appreciate the fact of what I did, well forget them. I’m OK with it. It was the right thing to do. And if that gets me a fine for doing the right thing, then I’m OK with it.”
After the game, Tillman tied the cleats together, entered the training room of the visitors’ locker room and handed them to Laporte.
Laporte didn’t risk putting the cleats in an equipment bag and potentially losing track of them. He put them in his personal bag and brought them back home to Charlotte.
“I’m going to try to remember it as proof of generosity and support from Charles and the people,” Laporte said. “I don’t need the cleats to remember that specific date.
“I will try to make it something like a gift – an act of humanity in times of trouble.”