Let’s pull back the curtain on what happens when the media has access to the Panthers’ locker room.
The NFL mandates that the media be allowed to speak to players in the locker rooms on certain days, ordinarily, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. On those days, when the locker room opens, a throng of media will file into the locker room, waiting until certain players like Luke Kuechly or Greg Olsen will speak with a throng of reporters around them; other times, you can approach a player and speak to them one-on-one. Whether they wish to speak with you is up to them, but just like any other job, you form relationships with certain people and don’t know others.
Sometimes you talk football and upcoming opponents and sometimes you just chat about current events or movies or television; earlier this year, I had a spirited debate with Cameron Artis-Payne and Chris Manhertz about whether Lebron James or James Harden was the best player in the NBA.
But the day after the final game of the season, locker clean out day, is different. Instead of snacks on the table running through the middle of the locker room, it’s a plain wooden table with a silver Panthers helmet and a sharpie, obviously intended for the players to sign. Next to that is an industrial size box of black trash bags.
These trash bags are what these professional athletes use to take all of the possessions they intend to keep out of their lockers and into their homes. Some, like Greg Olsen, surveys his belongings and says to a Panthers equipment manager, “I’ll just come back and get this stuff later.”
Others, like free agent-to-be Graham Gano, strips his locker to the bone, filling two 55-gallon trash bags with belongings before tossing them into a laundry cart to roll out to his car. I give his cart the side-eye and he grins. “I’m a hoarder,” he says, before leaving Bank of America Stadium, perhaps for the last time.
Each locker has multiple iterations of each players game jersey in each color, which the players purchase from the team specifically to give to teammates; many are tagged with an autograph, but even more have a handwritten note on one of the numbers. Picture a yearbook inscription, except instead of Tim Higgins, who sat next to you in chemistry class, it’s Kevon Seymour writing a note to James Bradberry in silver that takes up the entire seven of Seymour’s 27 jersey. Seymour, acquired via trade from Buffalo ahead of Week 1, is signed through 2019, although he has almost no guaranteed salary and can be released with no hit to the salary cap.
There’s a chance the two players that shared a defensive secondary for the season may never see each other again.
Kaelin Clay stands quietly in front of his locker by himself folding jerseys; I spy a Devin Funchess with a long inscription on it in the pile. He tells me that he couldn’t get to sleep until almost 5a last night, the touchdown pass that went through his hands in the first quarter of yesterday’s playoff game has haunted him since he returned from New Orleans. He insists he costs his team the game; and he worries about his future with the team. “Absolutely, I want to come back. I love playing with this team, especially with Coach Rivera. Honestly, aside from the day I was drafted, this season with this team has been the pinnacle of my career,” Clay tells. “But at the same time, I’ve got a daughter to feed.”
While Clay contemplates his future with the team, veterans do the same thing, albeit in different capacities. Questions about whether Jonathan Stewart and Charles Johnson are thinking about hanging it up after long seasons; whether Thomas Davis might be in for a reduced role next year; whether Star Lotulelei will be resigned; these questions are more prevalent for the players who have their roster spot assured. But whether you’re an undrafted free agent rookie who spent most of the year on the practice squad and are hoping to get an invite to next year’s training camp or a candidate for the Panthers Ring of Honor, the sentiment remains the same.
“It’s bittersweet. You definitely don’t want to clean out your locker without it being a Super Bowl; but the good thing is you at least have one last hurrah with the same guys in the locker room as it is right now,” said Jonathan Stewart, cleaning out his locker for the tenth time as a Carolina Panther. “Laugh, joke, get jerseys, get autographs. It’s a pretty cool time.”
“It can be a special time, even though it can be depressing.”
Peppers is the most popular Panther in the locker room today. pic.twitter.com/tgiFasjVWc
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) January 8, 2018
Oh, and that silver helmet waiting to be signed by the entire team? It belonged to Shaq Thompson, who grabbed it and playfully put it on as he walked out the door, presumably for the last time until April.
The box of trash bags remains.