Whether it's running on the beach in Aruba, working the weights inside Bank of America Stadium or avoiding late-night eating, Carolina's Muhsin Muhammad is committed to taking care of his body.
The results are obvious.
At age 35, he's tied for 10th in the NFL in pass receptions (22) and is 11th in receiving yards (287). Nearly two-thirds of his catches (14) have resulted in first downs.
So far, the man known simply as Moose to teammates and fans, has been even better than expected since returning to his original team after a three-year exodus to Chicago.
At a time when most players his age are either retired or slowing down, it's almost as if he's found an aging antidote.
Kansas City Chiefs coach Herman Edwards, whose team face the Panthers today, said some aspects of Muhammad's game seem better than ever.
“I've always respected him as a tough, physical guy,” said Edwards. “But he looks a lot quicker to me.”
Muhammad looked as good as ever last Sunday, catching eight passes for 147 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta.
As familiar as it was seeing No.87 scoring on a 36-yard pass from quarterback Jake Delhomme, there are also things about Muhammad that have changed since he last played for the Panthers.
He seems mellower, more mature, more secure, more of a leader, less edgy, less self-promoting.
“I'm at peace, man,” he said in the locker room this week.
“I'm living a dream. I have a great family. I'm playing in a city that has embraced me, and with an organization that's good.
“I don't have a whole lot of worries. My children are doing well. The family is good. I have a good relationship with my Father in heaven. As long as that's in good shape, everything else is easy.”
Muhammad was a peacemaker the day at training camp when Steve Smith punched Ken Lucas and played a supporting role in their reconciliation.
When he outgained Smith 147 receiving yards to 96 last week, he quickly shunned the notion that he had proven he still could be “the guy.”
“I'm the other guy, the co-host,” he said. “I am not the guy by any means. Steve is a heck of a talent, man. It's great to be able to play with him. He's definitely the guy.”
Muhammad and the Panthers say they never wanted to part ways after the 2004 season, but their inability to agree on contract terms resulted in a separation that now has come full circle.
Fullback Brad Hoover said he sees a “night and day” change in Muhammad this time around.
“I think he just appreciates being on the field a little more,” said Hoover. “Any time you start getting up in age, you appreciate those things. Naturally with age, you become a little wiser with how you treat yourself and deal with the ins and outs of everyday football.”
Muhammad's life away from the field has become fuller, too.
Long known in Charlotte for his community service and work with youth, he and his wife Christa made a life-changing decision last year by deciding to adopt two Ethiopian orphans and add them to a family that already included four children.
“It's really allowed me to put certain things in my life in perspective, like what's important,” said Muhammad. “It's a humbling experience. I hate to say it makes you soft a little bit, but it really opens your heart up to see and makes you examine corners of you, where maybe you didn't know certain feelings existed.
“To love a child you didn't birth, and truly love them, is a part of me I didn't understand was possible. But it's very possible.
“My kids are all a blessing to me. They are all equal. I love them all the same.”
Originally, Muhsin said he and Christa were interested in adopting an infant, but wound up with two older children, a girl, now 9, and a boy, 5.
“The more we saw the need for (adopting older) children in that country, we were like, `Where can we help? What can we do?' “ he said. “Siblings who get split up touched our heart. (So did) older girls who never get placed and wind up going into God knows what.”
They named their new daughter Journey as a reminder of their adoption journey and their son Maddon, which, like Muhsin, means “charitable giver.”
Their blended family now has six children between the ages of 4 and 11.
“Every day is an adventure,” said Muhsin. “Never a dull moment.
While Muhsin concentrates on his job with the Panthers, his children participate in cross country, soccer, football and dance.
“The only thing we don't do is underwater basket weaving,” said Christa.
Home sweet home
Panthers receivers coach Richard Williamson was thrilled to get Muhammad back on the team.
Williamson began tutoring Muhammad as a rookie in 1996 and is proud of his development.
“He just fit right back in,” said Williamson.
As Williamson spoke, Muhammad stood a few feet away catching passes from a machine. Practice had ended, but Muhammad was staying late, as he routinely does.
“He keeps himself fine-tuned,” said Williamson.
“The surprising thing is he's got his quickness and he's got his speed. I don't think he's lost any speed. If he has, it's very, very little. It's very unnoticeable.”
Muhammad also remains an outstanding blocker, which makes him a force when the Panthers run the ball.
His weight-lifting prowess helps with that aspect of his game. He recently bench-pressed more than 400 pounds.
“I get stronger through the year because I continue to lift through the season,” said Muhammad. “When I end the season, I'm a lot stronger than when I started.”
So far this season, Muhammad has more catches and receiving yards than any of the receivers still in the league from the 1996 draft, which produced such stars as Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison, Keyshawn Johnson and Joe Horn.
Steve Smith, however, got testy when asked about Muhammad's vintage play.
“What's wrong with 35?” Smith said. “You're saying it like he's 900 yards old. He's running around great. He's muscling guys. If he can catch the ball like he's doing and like he's playing, it doesn't matter if he's 25 or 35.”
But, Smith was reminded, there aren't many 35-year-olds playing receiver in the NFL.
“There aren't a lot of 25-year-old receivers who do what he's doing right now,” Smith said in a quick come-back. “Some of those young bucks are sitting on the bench on other teams.”
Some expected Muhammad to be on the bench playing behind D.J. Hackett. But it hasn't turned out that way.
Muhammad's streak of consecutive games started when healthy has grown to 167, counting playoffs, dating to 1997.
Against the Falcons last Sunday, he caught his 600th pass with the Panthers and broke the team record for TD receptions (45)
Though with each passing week it seems more and more like he never left, the reality is Muhammad didn't know until the Bears released him for salary cap reasons on Feb.18 whether he'd ever have a chance to return to the team that drafted him and where his family kept their home.
“Everything works out for a reason,” he said. “My mom says she never threw away any of my Carolina Panthers stuff when I went to Chicago. She's a real spiritual person, though. You go figure that one out.”
Charles Chandler: (704) 358-5123.
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