Tom Sorensen

Tom Talks: Spartanburg stories – how a city and Carolina Panthers grew together

I’ve been driving to Spartanburg since the Carolina Panthers began to train there in 1995. The city looks markedly different. It has full-scale Marriott hotels now, and a Starbuck’s.

If any of us had the foresight to buy property in Spartanburg in 1995, when the Panthers first reported, we’d need an accountant. And if we already have one, we’d need another.

The price of real estate has leaped like former Panther Josh Norman did when he hurdled the bull in Pamplona, Spain. Good restaurants have multiplied. I know a great wine bar. It wasn’t always that way.

Many years ago, a bunch of us went to a Spartanburg bar and I ordered a chardonnay.

“I don’t know if we have that,” the woman working behind the bar said.

Instead of giving up, she looked through the bottles beneath the bar and, a few minutes later, finally pulled one out that was covered in dust.

“I never served one of these before,” she said.

How long have you worked here?

“Three years.”

Fans, too, differ. They’ve made the Panthers theirs. They show up before practice, don’t leave until after it ends, and when they encounter a player at a restaurant, they make sure he knows how they feel. It’s a neat coming together, the big-time sport and the town of about 40,000. The Panthers’ arrival is an event.

After the 2019 camp, the team no longer will be contractually bound to practice at Wofford, the alma mater of Panthers founder and long-time owner Jerry Richardson.

David Tepper, who this season will begin his second as owner, will build new headquarters outside Rock Hill. The team will comprise the epicenter of a development that will attract a variety of businesses. When completed, the Panthers will train there.

Until it’s ready, the Panthers could train on practice fields outside Bank of America Stadium, or even return to Wofford for a truly final time.

If players could vote, they would train as close to Charlotte as they could. They’d stay near their families and their friends, and they’d stay in hotels, and not dormitories. Sticking a 6-foot-5, 300-pound nose tackle on a Wofford dormitory bed sounds like punishment. While staying at Wofford probably develops camaraderie, staying at a hotel in Charlotte or outside Rock Hill also could.

Spartanburg has been great to the Panthers, and the Panthers have been great for Spartanburg. But this is 2019, and continuing to hold an NFL camp at Wofford is like holding a NASCAR race in North Wilkesboro or keeping an NBA team in Fort Wayne, Ind.

If this is Carolina’s final camp in Spartanburg and at Wofford, and it ought to be, I hope the city and the school enjoy it.

Luke Kuechly: Young Prince of the Gridiron

There are days when Luke Kuechly seems less a football player than the star of the pre-teen novel: Luke Kuechly: Young Prince of the Gridiron.

This summer day in 2014 is one of them.

The late morning is humid enough to make a mannequin sweat. Players knock each around on the Wofford practice fields, and after practice most head straight to civilization, the air-conditioned locker room.

Kuechly, the NFL’s 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, will be the last to arrive. Rookies often carry the helmets of veterans. Kuechly, the veteran, picks up the helmet of Star Lotulelei, who joined the Panthers the season after Kuechly did. Kuechly looks for Lotulelei, hands him the helmet, and sees a toddler with tight end Ed Dickson.

“Is that little Ed?” Kuechly asks, and they hang out for a few minutes.

Kuechly encounters a family with enough pull to get on the field, and the dad asks if he’ll pose for a picture with them and, smiling, Kuechly complies.

To get from the practice fields to the team’s locker room, players must walk up a steep hill. Autograph seekers stand next to a rope all the way from the bottom of the hill to the top. Kuechly’s walk is especially slow since he signs all the way. He’ll take a few steps, hear kids and adults shout his name, and sign again. Long after practice has ended, only two other players still sign — Lotulelei and Byron Bell. Soon there is only Kuechly.

When Kuechly finally reaches the top of the hill, he walks to the security guards and thanks them for waiting.

Without stopping to see if any puppies need saving, Kuechly finally walks inside.

He changes clothes and meets the media. As always, he’s humble. Man, he is humble.

Think about this. At the age of 22, Kuechly was named the best defensive player in football. Yet the man or woman who just snuck the ball past the windmill into the third hole at the miniature golf course celebrates more loudly.

Is there ever a point at which Kuechly acknowledges how good he had to be to win the award? Is there ever a point where he simply shouts it?

I try to find out. OK, Luke, I ask. When you’re alone at home, when nobody else is in the house, do you ever catch your reflection in the mirror and yell, “I am the best defensive football player in the whole world!”

Kuechly smiles.

“No,” he says. “I don’t. One of the things I like about football is that it’s a team game.”

He removes himself from the conversation and talks about Carolina’s defensive line.

“Those guys make linebackers’ jobs look easier,” he says.

After the interview, a reporter tells Kuechly he should have asked me if, when I’m alone, I yell, “I’m the best writer at training camp!”

“I should have,” Kuechly says.

(I’ve never thought about it.)

Many of us tell ourselves that if we attained all that Kuechly has, we’d be as humble as he is.

We’re wrong.

Josh Norman: In no hurry to leave

As training camp finally ends on this Thursday, almost everybody wants to escape. Camp has been a long and sweaty grind, and freedom is four wheels and the entrance ramp to I-85.

Some years, one player remains after all the others leave, and on Aug. 20, 2015, that player is easy to identify. After practice, he runs sprints with the other defensive backs. They finish, and head toward the locker room.

Cornerback Josh Norman walks to the other end of the field and sits. Two members from the equipment staff await. They stand on either side of him, and throw him passes. All are hard, and some are flung as if from a catapult. Norman is Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix,” but sweatier, catching everything.

Norman says he learned the drill from veteran cornerback Chris Houston, only briefly a Panther because of an injury. But Houston had one man throwing balls at him. Norman added a second. Now he falls to his back, the passes coming hard.

“Oh man, that’s hand-eye coordination with the ball,” Norman says.

He does the drill for 15 minutes at the end of every practice.

But this is the final practice. You’ve worked out the last two days with the Miami Dolphins. You went at it. You could be on I-85 running three-wide back to Charlotte. Why stay?

“There’s no substitute for hard work,” says Norman. “No matter where you go, no matter what level you go to, there’s no substitute. At any given moment, I could be in that position (on the ground) in a game. So, I put in something extra until it becomes second nature.”

Do coaches even notice?

“Definitely,” says Carolina coach Ron Rivera. “Before I leave the field, I take a step back and look. I most definitely notice who stays. I also notice the players who leave as soon as practice ends and run to the showers.”

As we talk, Rivera watches Norman.

“He really wants it,” Rivera says.

Norman plays for Washington now, the highest paid cornerback in the game. He lives like he practices, driving a race car at Charlotte Motor Speedway, jumping out of an airplane (with a parachute), surfing and snowboarding and riding horses and, this offseason, jumping over a bull. He jumped over a bull, and cleared it with room to spare.

Picturing Norman airborne above the bull is easier than picturing him in a Barcalounger.

When Norman finishes catching passes, he walks to the fence and signs autographs for the few fans who remain.

As he signs, I ask if he’s ready to go home.

“Oh, my, gosh,” Norman says. “This has just been the longest. The longest. I love South Carolina (Norman is from Greenwood and played at Coastal Carolina). South Carolina, I love you! You know what you’re going to get in Spartanburg. But it’s too long. It’s too long.”

The last player in Spartanburg is ready to go home.

Appreciating the underdogs

I have a training camp reputation. I write about underdogs. They almost always get cut. Maybe that’s why I like boxing.

Who doesn’t get cut? I tell you who doesn’t. Captain Munnerlyn. A seventh-round pick out of South Carolina, the Captain can play. Whenever there’s a scrum, he’s in the middle of it. The Panthers released him five months ago. He’s played 10 seasons, and is only 31. Once an underdog, always an underdog, I guess. Somebody will call.

Munnerlyn is the kind of guy who will be watching a Panthers game on TV, see a fight break out, and get on the next flight to wherever Carolina is playing. A cornerback, he was undersized. But he offered value. And you always knew he was there.

I know that some of you go to training camp every season, see a player have an outstanding practice, and wonder who he is and where he’s from. When he breaks big, you can say you saw him first.

The underdogs usually are great to interview. They’re not accomplished enough to be pompous, they want to make a good impression in case a coach sees what you write, and the crowds around them are really small.

They excelled at football in middle school and high school, and usually in college. Maybe they’re a step slow or an inch short or not quite – sufficient.

When you talk to them, there’s almost a pleading quality, as in: “I can do this. If I get a chance, they’ll see how hard I work and how I will give all that I have. I can do this.”

Alas, there are more good football players than there is room for good football players. That’s why I hoped the Alliance of American Football would make it – there was much about that league to like – and that the XFL will.

The players on the periphery of the roster do the same drills as the stars, compete with and against the stars, eat the same food and do interviews in the same area, albeit at smaller tables.

The underdogs are so close to making it. And then they’re gone. And the players you get to know a little before they’re cut?

You hope they get another chance somewhere. And that you didn’t jinx them.

Short takes: Walking the hill with Nate Newton

Nate Newton is a big man. He played guard for the Dallas Cowboys from 1986 to 1998, and in ’99, his final season in the NFL, he plays for Carolina. He’s a funny guy, an affable guy, nicknamed The Kitchen.

To get from the Spartanburg practice field to the locker room, you have to walk up a giant hill. I’m not saying the field is the lowest point in South Carolina, and the locker room is the highest. But it’s close. In the offseason, you might see a Sherpa train here.

Everything about Newton is big, including his career. His Dallas teams won three Super Bowls, and he five times was selected for the Pro Bowl. But he’s 37 now, and after one especially grueling Wofford practice, he struggles to walk the hill.

He keeps moving; like I said, the man was picked for the Pro Bowl five times. But at the steepest point, Newton begins to waver. He begins to move sideways. He digs a foot into the ground and pushes forward. But his balance appears shaky.

I can’t let him tumble; he’s nice. Also, he might collect members of the media along the way, and some of them also are nice.

No, the mission is clear. If he falls, I have to catch him, and I have to catch him immediately, before he gains momentum.

I look for help, but everybody is busy doing interviews, being interviewed, signing autographs, or already in the locker room.

We trudge up the giant hill, again making progress. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

If Newton falls, and I catch him, I guarantee there’s a sound. The sound is: “Get me a doctor! But get me a lawyer first!”

I dutifully trail Newton, each step slower than the one that precedes it. A player I know catches up to us, a man much smaller than Newton. He looks at Newton, looks at me, and says, “You better get out of the way.”

The player jogs up the hill.

I stay. I feel like Sisyphus, the Greek guy who spent the end of his life trying to roll a boulder up a hill.

Unlike Sisyphus, Newton and I make it all the way.

I want to shake the big man’s hand. But what do I say, “Good work, you made it all the way to the top?” I silently wish him a good season, and head the other way...

One camp, Mike Minter and I talk politics outside the dining room at Wofford. He’s a conservative. I’m not. I tell him I figure most of his teammates are liberal, and he says I’m wrong. Rather than take a poll, we agree to a bet. The next player who walks in will determine the outcome. If he’s conservative, Minter wins. If he’s not, I do. We’ll ask.

We wait, the tension building. Finally, a player begins to enter. It’s linebacker Brandon Short. Minter’s “Noooooo!” fills the room before Short is all the way inside. Before we ask Short, who has a keen interest in politics, about his politics, Minter concedes. They’ve had the discussion before...

On the day players report for training camp, a group of us talk to linebacker Jon Beason. Somehow Beason’s good friend and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis pulls up behind us in a giant truck without any of us noticing. The giant truck has a giant horn and, after Davis drives as close as he can, he hits the horn. We all leave the ground. First time I’ve been high enough to dunk. The first thing we see is Davis’ smiling face as he drives away…

Aidan Waite, once the drummer in the British band Thunderclap Newman, is responsible for the food the Panthers eat at training camp. They eat well. Items are color coordinated. If you want to cut down on fat, just find the proper color. Many salads are eaten. Much yogurt is, too.

I ask Waite who the biggest eater in camp is. I’m guessing he’ll choose a lineman, a guard, or perhaps a nose tackle. He chooses a punter.

Todd Sauerbrun, who played for the Panthers from 2001-04, has a huge leg. He also serves as field goal kicker when there’s an injury, and he can do that, too. But how many chefs around the league would nominate the punter as the team’s biggest eater?

I ask Sauerbrun to show me his specialty, and we go to the team’s dining hall and the yogurt bar. He grabs a cup and begins to concoct a sundae.

For some, making a sundae is a game. For Sauerbrun, it’s a quest. He talks in great detail about the structural importance of the sundae’s base. This isn’t about food. This is about architecture. If you fail to establish a base, everything crumbles.

I swear that by the time Sauerbrun finishes making the sundae there are colonnades and cupolas, parapets and traces of iconic order. It’s like building a house. When the interview ends, the architect moves on…

In 2005, center Jeff Mitchell drives his RV to camp. Only offensive linemen and the players at other positions who embody lineman-like traits are allowed inside. Examples of those traits: You have to work hard but you can’t act like you’re a big deal because you do. You can’t act like you’re a big deal. Even though he’s a quarterback, Jake Delhomme is allowed in.

One day, they let me in.

They’re like kids in there, big ones. They have adult jobs but have fun, too. I don’t even quote them individually because it’s as if they are one and speak as one.

Mick Mixon, the team’s fine play-by-play man, is new then, and he walks unsuspectingly toward the bus. He’s going to pass right by the front, where the horn is. Hey, look, the offensive linemen say -- Mick Mixon! Oh, man. They are going to pump that horn, and Mixon will faint or fly through the air.

Suddenly there are whispers. OK, OK, hurry. Everybody, get down. Everybody, keep it down. Ready? Go!

They lay on the horn.

It sounds as if it comes from a Power Wheels Barbie Dream Camper.

Unable to laugh at Mixon, they laugh at themselves.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Observer columnist.
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