Any story about Panthers offensive lineman Geoff Hangartner has to begin with his nickname.
Formers Panthers center Jeff Mitchell watched Hangartner, then a rookie at his first minicamp, pull around the line pumping his arms close to his body with a short stride and was reminded of a certain farm animal.
“(Mitchell) said, ‘You look like a little piggy running around the edge on that pull,’ ” offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. “We had a good laugh and for some reason (it stuck). I think they call him Piggy in staff meetings now.”
Everyone but Hangartner’s wife and offensive line coach John Matsko calls him that.
But the name belies an intelligence and athleticism that will allow Hangartner to shift from right guard to center this week following the season-ending foot injury to Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil. Gross said Hangartner, who has more career starts at center than guard, has the smarts to recognize defensive fronts and handle the line calls Kalil made.
“His value on the team is showing right now because there won’t be a dropoff in communication, organization, as far as where we’re headed with the protection and all the run plays,” Gross said. “That is so valuable in this offense. It is so key that we have him to fill in for Ryan because the center in this offense carries a heavy load.”
Hangartner, 30, in his second stint with the Panthers, was surrounded by TV cameras and reporters at his locker Wednesday – more media attention than he received the rest of the season combined, he said.
With a pair of Pro Bowlers in Kalil and Gross on the line, Hangartner is content to hang in the back and let them do the interviews.
“I am cool with that,” Hangartner said. “I’ll just go hop in the shower, go get a cold tub in while they’re talking to you guys.”
“When you’re an offensive lineman, it’s OK to be kind of anonymous,” he said. “Usually if you’re an O-lineman and people know about you, it’s because you’re a perennial Pro Bowler or you give up a lot of sacks. So if I haven’t been a perennial Pro Bowler, hopefully people don’t know about me because I haven’t given up a ton of sacks.”
People who get to know Hangartner pick up on his friendly demeanor and dry sense of humor – not to mention his intellect. Hangartner reportedly scored a 47 out of a possible 50 on the Wonderlic test, believed to be the highest score ever for an offensive lineman on the test the NFL uses to measure a draft prospect’s intelligence.
Hangartner, a Texas native who majored in business administration at Texas A&M, does Sudoku puzzles on the team plane and loves word puzzles.
“I crush everybody in Words with Friends, except my wife,” Hangartner said. “My wife sneakily beats me pretty regularly now.”
Hangartner met his wife, Christina, when he played in Buffalo in 2009-10. He returned to Carolina last season, and started all 16 games at guard for an offense that finished in the top 10 statistically.
Hangartner is not just a word nerd.
The 6-foot-5, 300-pounder has a single-digit handicap in golf and might be the most athletic of the Panthers’ linemen.
“He’s the type of lineman who can throw a football almost as good as a quarterback,” Kalil said. “He can catch with the best of them. He long snaps. He’s kind of a jack of all trades. He can play any position.”
“He’s kind of like a Renaissance man,” Gross added. “He’s good at golf. He can throw darts. He can shoot pool. He can water ski. He’s not going to win an award in any of them. But you can throw him in any situation. And he’s probably one of the most level emotional guys you’ll ever see. It’s hard to get him worked up, which is good.”
Hangartner likes to talk politics. Though he won’t divulge his party affiliation, he does not object when someone brings up his background in right-leaning Texas.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera respects Hangartner’s football IQ.
“He understands line play,” Rivera said. “He has a dry sense of humor. You have to be careful around him. I think the guys respect him, the young guys do, because he’s played a long time in this league. He and Jordan have a great relationship. Having guys like that around really helps develop the young guys.”
Kalil said having Hangartner next to him was like having a second center on the field to remind each other of a defense’s tendencies in certain personnel groupings. Hangartner said replacing Kalil is no easy task.
“He does a lot of stuff. In the last year and a half, Ryan has taken a lot of control and a lot of leadership in making the right calls and really taking some stuff off Cam’s plate,” Hangartner said.
“Ryan’s so good at it, he can set protections and things like that that not a whole lot of centers around the league do. His plate has gotten pretty full. Now he goes down, and that puts a lot of responsibility on my plate.”
Put another way, Piggy’s trough runneth over.