With the amount of turnover the Carolina Panthers have faced during the 2020 offseason, there’s much more than just snap counts and coaching staffs that need to be replenished.
Yes, 64% of the snaps played on the defensive side of the ball are no longer on the roster – and they’ve been replaced, through both the 2020 draft and the free agency process.
Yes, four of the five players that wore the captains patches in 2019 will not be suiting up in black and blue in 2020 – but there will be Panthers at midfield during the coin toss and and leading players-only meetings throughout the season as they step into newfound – or newly grown – leadership positions.
And yes, the Panthers will move forward without two of the best players in their history, one who owns most of the offensive records and another who owns most of the defensive. Without the tight end with the fifth-most yards and receptions in the history of the NFL. Without the winningest coach in franchise history.
Players’ and coaches’ on-field contributions can attempt to be replaced with new faces and rookies – but the Panthers weren’t the only ones that suffered a lot of losses this offseason. The community around the team suffered those losses, too – the team transcends what happens on the field of play every Sunday. And it will be up to new players to step up in their stead.
“I think it takes courage to lead, it takes courage to act. We talk about being a leader in the locker room and being a football leader – there’s a lot of courage that goes with that,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said Wednesday morning. “When players understand that football isn’t their purpose in life. It’s their passion, it might be their gift. But it’s not their purpose. So if they understand that, it makes things way bigger than just “I’ve just got to worry about football.”
Cam Newton wasn’t just a former MVP – the foundation that bears his name has provided over $5m in grant funding, year-round programming resources and donations to schools and non-profit agencies in Atlanta and Charlotte. Over 12,500 student-athletes and coaches have participated in Newton’s EVERY 1 PLAYS initiative and almost 12,000 need-based youth have been provided meals and gifts through Newton’s signature annual programs: “Cam’s Thanksgiving Jam” and “Santa Cam’s Surprise Sleigh.”
Greg Olsen’s Heartest Yard Program helped raise millions for Levine’s Children Hospital. Thomas Davis’ Defending Dreams Foundation encouraged students to develop the essential life and social skills that would make them leaders of tomorrow through education, empowerment and defense. Julius Peppers started a fund in fall of 2018 to help those affected by Hurricane Florence around North and South Carolina. Eric Reid kneeled during the national anthem every Sunday to protest systemic oppression.
Ron Rivera held a yard sale at his former Charlotte home to benefit the Humane Society that raised over $30,000 – the Panthers former head coach was extremely active in the community and the players on his roster followed suit.
There are countless others who did their part – and now, the Panthers and the rest of the local community will turn to a new class of leaders to help lift up their fellow man and use their stage and reach to bring light to the issues they find important, while helping to improve the lives of those around them and those less fortunate – that has already begun during the 2020 offseason.
It starts at the top – owner David Tepper has donated millions of dollars to COVID-19 relief as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of school supplies since buying the team in May of 2018. The players have followed suit – and leaders in the locker room and on the field have already begun to adjust to their roles as community leaders as well.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Christian McCaffrey – undoubtedly the face of the franchise with Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly no longer with the team – launched the ’22 & You’ campaign to support front line medical workers, specifically in the Carolinas and his hometown of Denver – it raised over a quarter of a million dollars. In addition, the running back partnered with Lowe’s and surprised essential employees in Charlotte with a video call and tickets to an upcoming Panthers game.
“Seeing the hospital workers hold up signs that say, ‘thank you, 22 and You’ with their masks and gloves on in the hospital. That’s really cool, it means a lot to me,” McCaffrey said last month. ‘Seeing all the Lowe’s employees and how excited they got – especially a couple in particular, they got really happy, it was a fun deal, it was rewarding.”
“I think when you have the opportunity to play with great players like Cam, like Luke, like Greg, Thomas Davis, Julius Peppers – all those guys – I think the biggest thing you can do is learn from them, and see how they approach things, and take the good things from them, and make them into your own formula.”
.@Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey (@CMC_22) partnered with @Lowes to help launch #22andYou to support frontline healthcare workers fighting COVID-19.https://t.co/t5JVKzjd4J #DraftAThon pic.twitter.com/9132wNFlCR
— NFL (@NFL) April 25, 2020
Shaq Thompson, who signed a four-year extension worth more than $54m last December, has also made himself more visible in the community – he partnered with Atrium Health, Bojangles, and local restaurants to deliver 2,000 meals for healthcare workers at four different Atrium Health campuses across the Charlotte area in April as the world stayed at home.
“I know I’m blessed enough to be in a position to give back, and I felt like this would be the perfect time to help out,” Thompson told Myles Simmons. “This is the right time to help the first responders and their families to at least take something off their plate. So I just wanted to do something for them, tell them we appreciate them and what they’re doing for the world, trying to keep people safe.”
“For myself, I want to step up as a leader — let my voice be heard and my face be shown,” Thompson added.
As citizens around the world protested not only the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of police in Minneapolis, but the continued racism and police brutality that has plagued America for decades, Thompson and teammates Tre Boston, Ian Thomas, Andre Smith and Chris Manhertz attended a Justice Walk through some of Charlotte’s wealthiest neighborhoods organized by Seeking Justice CLT and Charlotte Uprising Monday afternoon while Reggie Bonnafon helped to clean up the streets in Louisville, Kentucky.
Manhertz and Smith head up the Panthers’ Player Impact Committee, along with defensive end Stephen Weatherly and former player Mike Rucker.
“I felt like it was very important just to show everyone that we’re supportive of this and this is something we take pride in,” Manhertz said Thursday afternoon in a virtual press conference with Weatherly and Smith. “I think oftentimes, especially athletes and people in our positions, sometimes it’s one of those things where you think about it: Should you or should you not? Shaq reached out to me, as well, and (asked) if I would like to join it. It was a kind of a no-brainer — well, a semi no-brainer because we’re in the midst of a pandemic. It was a great turnout. It was peaceful.”
“It felt good for the soul,” added Smith. “I feel like a lot of people right now feel a little gut-wrenched. You just have that real bad feeling in your stomach. So going out there, it was just like food for my soul. I felt like I could tweet all these things, I could re-post all these things. But actually going out there and doing something physically was just a totally different experience.”
“It felt liberating.”
“I want to have a team full of men whose purpose in life is not just to play football and so when I look out and I see Shaq, Tre, Chris, Ian and Andre out joining protesters, I wanted them to know that I support them with whatever they do,” said Matt Rhule. “I’m proud of our team. I’m proud of our guys that have used their voices, have used their influence to try to make change – all of us, as one single person, we can’t always make this fundamental changes, but we can make a small change.
Whether it’s guys in peaceful protests, whether it’s guys out walking, whether it’s guys turning to social media, whether it’s guys like Reggie [Bonnafon] out cleaning up the streets of Louisville yesterday, I’m proud to be associated with those people.”
Charlotte has seen protests turn violent in uptown over the past five nights – but the walk, which was attended by about 1,000 people and began at Freedom Park, was a reminder of how peaceful protests can look like. And it was an example of how NFL players, even though they want to blend in, can use their platform to bring causes even more attention than they already have – Smith was a part of the protest in uptown Charlotte on Sunday as well.
Shaq Thompson, Andre Smith, Tre Boston, Chris Manhertz and Ian Thomas all attended tonight’s peaceful “justice walk” in Dilworth/Myers Park pic.twitter.com/5KV7FWIsaR
— Bill Voth (@PanthersBill) June 2, 2020
It isn’t just returning players, it’s new additions that will make an impact once the season begins in earnest.
Linebacker Tahir Whitehead was nominated for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2019 by the Raiders. First-round pick Derrick Brown just teamed up with Sam’s Club to give five foster-care families a $1,000 gift card in his hometown of Buford, Georgia. Defensive end Stephen Weatherly hosts a youth football camp that is free for 200 underprivileged kids and launched a youth football scholarship to help sponsor an underprivileged youth football program in Minneapolis.
It’s not just wanting to reach out and do something – it’s the organization giving you the freedom to do it. And the environment that Matt Rhule and David Tepper are building clearly encourages that involvement.
“Everybody said at some point in your career you have to choose between being a football player and being black,” said Weatherly. “Like something just came up, and I’m gonna have to choose. Either I’m gonna voice my outrage with this thing — “It’s a racial injustice” — and potentially jeopardize my career.”
“I don’t have to choose anymore. I can be both. I can go out and and get these numbers and do what I can to help bring back a championship, but then also express my grievances as a black man, and those two shouldn’t interfere with the other. And it feels good, it allows me to play free or allows me to play less stressed, which in turn makes me a better football player.”
“You have your own platform, speak your truth.”
NOTE: This column was edited to add additional comments from players on the the Player Impact Committee.