Panthers Put Sordid Past Behind En Route To Super Bowl
Posted January 24, 2004 3:21 a.m. EST
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Rae Carruth was found hiding in the trunk of a Toyota sedan in the parking lot of a Tennessee motel, 500 miles away from the Carolina Panthers and the murder charge he faced for his girlfriend's death.
Fred Lane's body was discovered just inside the doorway of his Charlotte home, where he was shot to death by his wife.
That is just part of the sordid past of these Panthers, who have desperately tried to distance themselves from a laundry list of off-field crimes ranging from drunk-driving arrests, domestic abuse and two slayings.
They can only hope that a victory over the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl will be enough to move them past what owner Jerry Richardson referred to as "the two terrible tragic things that were the darkest" moments in the franchise's brief history.
"We're trying to do the best we can," Richardson said about trying to maintain a trouble-free program. "We're trying to do now what we tried to do when those tragedies occurred."
He added: "Life's a struggle. If you live a life and think you're not going to have struggles, you're naive."
Even before Carruth was arrested for planning the shooting death of his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams, there were signs of trouble. The fairly new franchise was wrapped up in scandal after scandal, losing season after losing season.
Kerry Collins, the first draft pick in franchise history, got caught up in being a big star in a small city. He loved the nightlife -- such as it is in a sleepy Southern town -- and was a regular at various watering holes.
The quarterback developed a drinking problem, got into fights with teammates after using racial slurs and eventually quit the Panthers, saying his "heart was no longer into it."
Then the Carruth scandal hit. And as Carruth sat in jail awaiting trial, Lane walked into his Charlotte home one day and was shot by his wife -- once in the chest and once in the head.
He never even had time to take his keys out of the front door.
Deidra Lane, who said the shooting was in self-defense, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter.
"People talked about Fred Lane and Rae and Collins, and that was all Charlotte was known for," defensive end Mike Rucker said. "Whenever you said Charlotte, that's what they referred to."
Safety Deon Grant, drafted about two months before Lane's death in July 2000, was not sure what he was walking into.
"I saw what they had going on in Charlotte, and it was like a curse," Grant said. "You had one guy killing someone. Another guy was killed. It was all negative."
The team owner, born and raised in the Carolinas and so proud of bringing an NFL team to his home community, could not take another moment of humiliation.
"Mr. Richardson got to the point where he said: 'Enough is enough,'" Rucker said.
That meant placing a focus on character, community responsibility and respect that the Panthers had never seen before.
Richardson now makes it a point to visit with every draft pick, giving them a personalized tour around the stadium accompanied by a stern lecture on the core values he finds important.
He told the story Friday of his first meeting with defensive tackle Kris Jenkins in 2001, recalling how excited Jenkins was to be picked in the second round. By the time Richardson was through with him, Jenkins' spirit had nearly been broken.
"I talked to him about conduct and our responsibilities to the team and the community," Richardson said. "He has since told me that when I got through with him, rather than a pep talk, he felt like he had been slammed to the ground."
The cleaning up in Carolina wasn't easy, and the off-field problems were punctuated by a 1-15 season in 2001.
Mortified by angry letters he received from fans who were humiliated and disgusted by the Panthers, Richardson fired coach George Seifert a day after the 2001 season finale and quickly hired John Fox.
In Fox he had a no-nonsense coach who held the same principles as Richardson and wouldn't tolerate bad behavior. Richardson felt confident that the off-field problems that had plagued the team would be few and far between.
"If any of us think that over the next 30, 40 or 50 years, everything is going to be hunky-dory, we are being naive," Richardson said. "But I am confident the players in that locker room understand how I feel about it. I think there is zero chance that they do not know."
Special teams star Jarrod Cooper considers it a miracle that he's still a Panther after two drunk-driving arrests. The latter, in late September when he was also found to be in illegal possession of prescription drugs, terrified Cooper of facing management.
"I didn't even want to leave the jail," Cooper said. "I knew it was bad, especially because everything was on track and going so well."
Richardson has made a practice of calling players to his home for a "trip they do not look forward to making." He lets them sit alone in his living room, the steady tick-tock of his clock heightening the drama of the moment.
When he finally enters the room, he waits in silence to see what the player has to say. When the player is through, Richardson delivers his message.
"I got into some trouble my first year, and he pulled me to the side and told me I am either going to get my stuff together or he was going to have to let me go because he was trying to clean up Charlotte," Grant said.
Cooper got a list of conditions he had to meet -- "nothing outrageous, just do your job and do the right thing."
The Panthers are now dealing with players on a case-by-case basis.
Offensive tackle Chris Terry was released midseason last year for missing a court appearance on domestic abuse charges.
Receiver Steve Smith was suspended one game for beating up a teammate in a film session.
Running back Lamar Smith was placed on paid leave after his drunk driving arrest.
The result is a close-knit team that the community is no longer ashamed of: Thousands turned out Friday for a downtown pep rally in honor of the Super Bowl trip.
"We are finally giving them something to refer to that is positive," Rucker said. "Something that will overshadow the other stuff, and I really feel like people will remember us for what we are doing now, and the other stuff will go away."