SPARTANBURG After one hotter-than-usual August morning practice at Carolina Panthers training camp, Kealoha Pilares walked back to the locker room as a handful of fans called out his name.
“KAY-ah-low-hah,” they yelled to the Hawaiian-born receiver.
The training camp crowds are often filled with fans wearing jerseys of their favorite Panthers — Cam Newton’s No. 1, Jon Beason’s No. 52 and Steve Smith’s No. 89. But on this day, one of the fans calling Pilares’ name was a young boy wearing a green No. 21 Hawaii jersey.
“Hey,” Pilares said, surprised, “that’s my jersey.”
When the Panthers host Miami on Thursday night, Pilares will be wearing No. 81— a uniform he hopes to keep long enough that fans will wear his Panthers’ jersey, too.
He’s the team’s kickoff returner and one of a handful of candidates for the No. 3 receiver position. A versatile breakaway threat, he’s run back kickoffs, caught passes and even run end-arounds to ensure his spot.
“When you’re in the NFL, any way to help the team out is my mentality,” Pilares said. “Coach always talks about knowing your roles, so I have to just go out and look for ways to help out the team.”
Time of transition
Pilares starred at running back in high school in Hawaii, and he was prepared to go to the Air Force Academy to be the Falcons’ go-to guy in the backfield.
Before he was to leave home for the first time, Pilares got a tribal tattoo on his right leg with markings from ancient Polynesian, Maori and Tahitian tribes symbolizing independence and protection. It also integrates symbols from his family.
When he found during orientation he wasn’t meant for the Air Force, Pilares enrolled at the University of Hawaii. The Warriors’ coaches wanted him to play slot receiver, but much like the current Panthers’ roster, they were deep at the position. They decided the quickest way to get Pilares on the field was running back.
He rushed for 388 yards his freshman year and added 249 receiving yards. Gradually, he was shifted to a full-time receiver role as a senior.
In his first full year in the slot, Pilares racked up 1,306 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns and emerged as an NFL prospect.
Making the NFL
This time last year with the lockout-shortened offseason, Pilares was drowning in the playbook after being selected by the Panthers in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. He was battling for a wide receiver position while also attempting to stand out enough on special teams to sneak into one of the final 53 spots.
With cool trade winds in Hawaii, Pilares had never trained in such heat like in Spartanburg. But he worked hard enough to make an impression on then-first-year coach Ron Rivera, and scoring a touchdown the first time he ever touched the ball in an NFL game probably helped.
In the fourth quarter of a preseason game against the Giants, Derek Anderson found Pilares on a swing route and he darted down the sideline for a 35-yard score.
“It was crazy. It’s something you dream about, but when it actually happens you’re stunned,” he said. “It went by just like that.”
Pilares scored his first regular-season touchdown on a 101-yard kickoff return against the Lions in Week 11. He finished the season with 590 yards on 23 returns, which placed him eighth in the league in average yards per return (25.6 yards).
This year is different for Pilares.
K, as his teammates call him, is letting his hair grow out for the first time. He says he’s always recognized in his native Wahiawa, Hawaii, and he wonders if that will be the case the next time he shows up with his plush, curly locks.
It appears he’s also battling for more playing time, not just to make the cut.
Rivera hasn’t settled on a third receiver behind Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, saying that different offensive sets will bring different receivers to the third spot. Carolina is more overcrowded at wide receiver than at any other position, but Pilares has gotten plenty of reps at the No. 3 wide receiver along with Louis Murphy, Seyi Ajirotutu and rookie Joe Adams, the team’s punt returner.
“(Pilares is) dynamic with his hands. He’s quick and agile. He can make people miss and he’s a playmaker,” Rivera said. “He showed some of that last year and he’s flashing right now. You want the ball in people’s hands that make plays. There are a couple neat things that he’s able to do, so that’s exciting.”
Pilares is soft-spoken, humble and rarely shows emotion on the field, even after a big play during training camp. During an interview, he often talks about his blessings.
Cam Newton, he says, is a blessing because of his athletic talent.
Steve Smith is a blessing because he’s taught Pilares as much on the field as off it.
So, too, is the opportunity to have a more secure spot on a roster — something he’s not taking for granted.
And on that unusually hot afternoon at camp — a day where he especially missed those Hawaiian trade winds — an exhausted Pilares clutched a protein drink as he walked toward the fans behind the fence.
“KAY-ah-low-hah,” he heard fans call, then he excused himself from an interview, saying he had to take care of the kid wearing the Hawaii green.
He stopped to talk briefly and sign his old college jersey. Then, Pilares continued up the hill along the fence, taking time to sign his autograph for anyone who asked.