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Hall of Honor: 4 Panthers legends, 60 seconds in the spotlight before enshrinement

The four men who will enter the Panthers’ Hall of Honor on Sunday have faced many challenges on the field at Bank of America Stadium, but none quite like this:

They will each get 60 seconds — and only 60 seconds — at halftime of the Carolina-Jacksonville game to thank everybody in the world who led them to this afternoon.

Wesley Walls, Jake Delhomme, Jordan Gross and Steve Smith will take turns with the microphone in speeches so brief that you’ll miss all of them if you get stuck in a long concession line. So plan ahead — make your concession run midway through the second quarter, or watch the ceremony streaming live on Panthers.com or any of the team’s social platforms.

“I’m just going to give my one minute to Steve,” joked Gross, who also is slated to bang the “Keep Pounding” drum before the game. “Steve’s the one everybody wants to hear anyway.”

“I’m not even going to use a full minute,” laughed Jake Delhomme. “You can hold me to that. I’m Cajun – I can talk really fast.”

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Three of the four new members of the Panthers’ Hall of Honor celebrated this Steve Smith touchdown in 2003. From left to right: Smith, quarterback Jake Delhomme and offensive tackle Jordan Gross. CHRISTOPHER A. RECORD

These guys know how to communicate, so they’ll get it done. Walls was a five-time Pro Bowl tight end for the Panthers’ early teams and remains a magnetic storyteller from Mississippi. He has stayed in Charlotte and become a real-estate developer. The other three are actually in the communications business — Delhomme and Gross alternate as the Panthers’ color analyst on the team’s official radio broadcast, and Smith works as a TV analyst for NFL Network.

Before all that, though, they communicated in other ways. For instance:

This was in Chicago, at Soldier Field, on Jan. 15, 2006. Ron Rivera was the Bears’ defensive coordinator. Delhomme was the Panthers quarterback, Gross was Carolina’s starting right tackle and Smith was, at the time, the best receiver in the NFL.

Carolina had the ball, 45 seconds into a 0-0 playoff game, and faced a second-and-8 at its own 42.

“We ran a play that was a staple in our offense, called 50 Hitch Oregon,” Delhomme said in a phone interview. “Steve had the hitch route.”

On the play, Smith was lined up by himself on one side of the offense, with two receivers on the other side who were mostly decoys.

If the cornerback played 7-8 yards off of Smith — and that often happened, due to Smith’s speed — the wide receiver was to run eight yards and then cut inside to pick up the first down. If the cornerback got up close to Smith at the line of scrimmage, however, Smith was allowed to change the route on the fly to a “takeoff,” where he went deep.

Charles Tillman, another future Panther, was playing corner against Smith. Tillman was no fool. He lined up well away from Smith, willing to concede a short pass if necessary. But Smith diverted from the plan.

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Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith and quarterback Jake Delhomme knew each other so well that Delhomme could tell by the position of Smith’s head whether he was about to break off a called route and go deep. JEFF SINER JEFF SINER - jsiner@charlotteobs

“I look at it in my peripheral vision and Tillman is 7-8 yards off and I say, ‘Good, I’ve got the hitch,’” Delhomme said. “So I take my five steps, I turn and plant, I’m about to throw — and Steve is running the 100-meter dash!”

Smith had changed the route from a hitch to a takeoff on his own, thinking he could beat Tillman deep anyway and that Delhomme would just figure it out. Delhomme, fortunately, knew Smith’s “tell” when he did things like that.

“I always watched Steve’s head,” Delhomme said. “His head would tell me if he was gone or if he was about to make a move. If his head was in that cocked position, tilted down a little, he was motoring. If it was kind of up, he was about ready to make a break. And it was down. So I recoil. I was always an ‘arm thrower,’ and I just slung it out there. Steve catches it, the safety is too late to get over, and he scores (on a 58-yard touchdown, only 55 seconds into the game).

“We come to the sidelines and I’m just laughing,” Delhomme continued. “Our quarterbacks coach, Mike McCoy, is laughing. We are like, ‘Freaking Steve. Only Steve.’ And then Steve comes over and looks at me with that scowl. Then he slaps my hand and he screams: ‘That’s the way to know what I’m thinking!’”

Future classes unclear

These four men accounted for a lot of moments like that, which is why they are the Class of 2019 for the newly revived Panthers’ Hall of Honor. Long dormant, the hall was more like a forgotten closet for decades.

Under former owner Jerry Richardson, only one former Panther player was inducted in the team’s first 24 years — former linebacker Sam Mills, in 1998. It also includes former team president Mike McCormack and the team’s permanent-seat license holders, who were inducted as a group. David Tepper, the Panthers’ new owner, decided to revive the idea — a notion received enthusiastically by Panther alumni.

“I want to thank Mr. Tepper for expanding the Hall of Honor,” said Walls, adding that he’s proud to be “the senior member of this group.”

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Panthers tight end Wesley Walls celebrates after a score. Walls, who joined Carolina in 1996, made the Pro Bowl five times as a Panther. CHRISTOPHER A. RECORD

Each player will be presented a Hall of Honor sports coat in Panther blue, which they will wear at halftime. The big “unveil” Sunday following the halftime speeches will be new, bolder signage throughout the stadium honoring each inductee. Busts of the four former players are also being created and will eventually go on display in the stadium, but those aren’t quite ready and will be unveiled at a later date.

As for when the next class of inductees will be honored, that’s currently up in the air. The five-person committee that decided on this class will now be instructed to figure out when the Panthers should add their next Hall of Honor class, said Steven Drummond, the team’s vice president for communications and external affairs.

“There could be a Class of 2020 coming next, or a Class of 2021 or whatever,” Drummond said. “That’s still to be determined. There are obviously lots of worthy candidates.”

For the Class of 2019, only players retired for at least two years were eligible, or else Julius Peppers would surely have been inducted. In the future, coaches and other Panthers staff members will also be considered for the honor. Retired players like Muhsin Muhammad, John Kasay and Michael Bates all would seem to be shoo-ins down the road, as will a number of current players (Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Greg Olsen and so on).

Of the four going in Sunday, Walls and Smith still live in Charlotte. Gross lives in Idaho, where he runs an 80-acre farm that grows vegetables, hay and alfalfa.

“We got our first frost this week,” Gross said. “I know that’s hard to believe in Charlotte. What we do is community-supported agriculture. We’re trying to do it more for community impact and to create jobs as opposed to trying to take over the world with a farming monopoly.”

Delhomme lives in Louisiana, near where he grew up. The former quarterback is broadcasting 10 Panthers games this year on the radio — including the one Sunday — while Gross is doing six.

Gross — who weighed 305 when he played for Carolina and now weighs 240 — actually started working for the team a few years ago on the radio broadcast and website. He loved the job but wanted to move back home, to Idaho. Splitting the analyst job with Delhomme worked out perfectly. “It’s a dream job, honestly,” Gross said.

Gross sounds off

Gross had a unique relationship with each of his fellow inductees — playing in college with Smith at Utah, making a point to get to know Walls while in Charlotte and protecting Delhomme from getting sacked for close to a decade. To close this column, I’ll let him speak about each of the three men going in with him Sunday.

Gross on Delhomme: “I honestly didn’t know who Jake was when I got there (in 2003, the same year Delhomme joined the Panthers as a free agent backup quarterback). I had only heard of Chris Weinke and Rodney Peete. But Jake was a major overachiever. He has a magnetic personality. You want him to approve of you. If he likes you and believes in you, you know that you’re doing things right. He was an outstanding leader — consistent every single day — and his ‘give-a-damn’ was just so high. He cared about all of it. He just really wanted to win, to do well, to be there for his teammates.”

Gross on Walls: “Wesley was ahead of his time on the field. He was an outstanding pass-catching tight end and probably could have been even more of a receiver than he was. I think the 1990s was an awesome era in the NFL — the culture, the fighting, the celebrations. That’s when the NFL was really made, in my opinion. He was a big part of that. Off the field, I’ve gotten to know him as an extremely generous guy, both with his time and his charitable contributions. People are just drawn to him — his size and stature, and that Mississippi accent.”

Steve Smith Rams X clown playoffs touchdown 2004
Former Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith scored the game-winning walkoff touchdown on a throw from Jake Delhomme against the St. Louis Rams on Jan. 10, 2004. The play was called “X-Clown”, and it lives in fame as perhaps the best Panthers play of all time. Charlotte Observer file photo Charlotte Observer

Gross on Smith: “Steve and I go back to when I was a teenager at the University of Utah — he’s only one year older than me. We played together for two years in college. He never ceased to amaze me with what he could do on the field and how passionate he was about competing. Our relationship got better and better over the years.

“We were kind of the yin and yang when it came to being team captains for the Panthers, because our approach to things were so different. He and I got into the University of Utah hall of fame, too, a couple of years ago together, so I’m kind of following him around on these things. He just wouldn’t back down from anybody — ever. And I always admired that about him. He did not care if you were best friends from high school. If you were on the other side of the field as him, he was going to try to take your head off.

“I’m not that way, I tried to treat people kindly out there. But Steve? You talk about having a switch? Steve had the biggest example of that of anybody I’ve ever seen.”

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Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.
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