The Carolina Panthers showed up again at Wofford College on Tuesday for training camp after a one-year, COVID-related absence.
Some things are always the same in a Panthers training camp at Wofford: The heat, the fervent optimism and the horrible ride down Interstate 85 to get to Spartanburg.
But as always happens when you get 100-plus players and coaches together in a small space, there were some oddities. Based on my perspective of watching the Panthers’ “First Day Of Camp” scene unfold for 20-plus years, here were six of the weirdest things I saw on FDOC 2021:
Shaq Thompson’s T-shirt
Linebacker Shaq Thompson, one of the Panthers’ most important players, showed up in a “Talladega Nights” T-shirt featuring Will Ferrell’s character “Ricky Bobby” on the front and Ferrell’s slogan: “If you’re not first, you’re last.”
Thompson then quoted the 2006 movie — which was filmed partially in the Charlotte area — when asked about the shirt, saying the defense planned to “shake and bake” in 2021.
It may be worth noting here that Ferrell once showed up in Carolina’s locker room after a win in 2005 when he was filming this movie, and I’ve never seen elite athletes act more star-struck.
DJ’s tub and Burns’ hat game
Panthers wide receiver DJ Moore came ready to make friends, with an enormous clear tub filled with snacks and candy that someone helped him get into his dorm room. Air Heads were a significant part of the stash.
Panthers defensive end Brian Burns, meanwhile, tried to be efficient by wearing six hats at the same time while walking to his dorm.
Denzel Perryman’s ticket
New Panther linebacker Perryman was far from the first player in team history to get a ticket for speeding on I-85 on his way to camp, but he’s the first I remember to make it so public.
Perryman told reporters he’d gotten the ticket, showed it to them, said it was for going 91 mph (it wasn’t clear what the speed limit was at the time) and added that it would cost him $350 and six points on his driver license. The maximum speed limit on interstates in South Carolina is 70 mph.
Driving 91 mph is obviously dangerous. Perryman is also obviously a character; he walked toward his dorm room with his helmet already on his head and a Starbucks cup of coffee in hand.
Said Panthers coach Matt Rhule later of Perryman: “I love him on the field. I love him off the field, too. He’s got a great personality.”
The Panthers’ new dorm
Although David Tepper officially bought the Panthers three years ago and has certainly made the team and Bank of America Stadium his own since then with a variety of high-profile moves, at Wofford the team’s founding owner continues to loom large. Jerry Richardson has given more than $262.6 million to his alma mater overall, with the result being that about every other building on campus seems to be named for either him or his wife.
So perhaps you will find this ironic — I certainly did — but the Panthers for the first time this year are staying in Jerome Johnson Richardson dorm (a fancy way of saying the dorm that Jerry Richardson’s money built). It’s a natural choice for the Panthers in some ways, as the 150-bed dorm only opened in 2020 and is far newer than most other on-campus housing accommodations the Panthers could have commissioned.
Still … it’s a little weird. Richardson sold Tepper the Panthers in 2018, shortly after an explosive Sports Illustrated report about Richardson’s workplace misconduct that was largely borne out by an NFL investigation.
What McCaffrey said — and didn’t say
Christian McCaffrey, the face of the franchise, looked and sounded fresh after playing in only three of 16 games last season due to injury. When I asked him if fantasy football players should draft him No. 1 overall this season, McCaffrey first said: “I don’t play fantasy football.”
But what about hypothetically?
In that hypothetical case, CMC said, you should definitely take him first overall.
So that was fun. But I still don’t understand why McCaffrey won’t go ahead and say he’s been vaccinated, especially since it appears he has been.
According to an Observer source, about 92% of Panther players have had at least one shot, which is laudable and puts the team at third-best in the NFL.
McCaffrey, though, won’t say whether he’s in that 92% — even though and seemingly has had the shot, given that NFL protocols dictate you must speak to the media with a mask on for an in-person interview if you aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19. McCaffrey, quarterback Sam Darnold and Thompson all talked to the media without masks on Tuesday, although they wouldn’t say if they had been vaccinated.
I think it’s a mistake for McCaffrey not to simply say “I was vaccinated” and leave it at that. He’s obviously a role model and could influence other young football players to get it.
What’s not there for Panthers
The last thing on this list is what’s not there yet for the Panthers, and that’s an identity.
The Panthers have gone 5-11 over each of the past two seasons, which means they are searching for something. Darnold could be part of that something. McCaffrey better be. A lot of the young players will need to be.
But this is a Carolina team without the high-profile veteran leaders who drove monstrous tricked-out golf carts around Wofford as a sign of their good-natured dominance (we miss you, Thomas Davis) or lugged a $20,000 hyperbaric chamber into their dorm room as they tried to hang on for another year (I would say we miss you Dan Morgan, but now you’re thankfully back in the front office).
These Panthers are so young at many key positions that Thompson, who’s 27, joked Tuesday that he felt “old as hell” and “like a 2015 Honda with 15,000 miles on it.”
Such a car can still get up and go, though.
These Panthers think they can, too. Can they really? Ask me in a month. Spartanburg is about to take its pound of flesh, and we’ll know a whole lot more after that payment is made.