John Kasay was one of the finest gentlemen and best players the Carolina Panthers ever employed. So it was altogether fitting that he signed a one-day contract with the team Tuesday so he could officially retire as a Panther.
After a 21-year NFL career, Kasay, 43, has already moved onto a new role as Charlotte Christian’s head athletic director and assistant high school football coach. Generally one to avoid the spotlight, Kasay decided to let it shine on him one last time Tuesday so he could use it to reflect his thanks to all the fans who watched him kick for the Panthers from 1995-2010.
“I told Mr. Richardson the reason I wanted to do this is I can’t write 70,000 thank-you notes,” Kasay said. “I wish that I could. But this is my feeble attempt to tell everybody thank you.”
Eventually, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson should induct Kasay into the team’s Hall of Honor. There is no more deserving recipient to join the late linebacker Sam Mills – the only former Panther player in what now is a very small hall. But the Panthers have a five-year post-retirement waiting period for consideration, they say, so the earliest that could happen would be 2018.
Kasay was known as “The Last Original Panther” for so long that the phrase seemed part of his name. The left-footer kicked for the Panthers when they were an expansion team, playing home games in Clemson, S.C., in 1995, and for the next 15 years after that.
Kasay outlasted three Panther head coaches and overcame two significant injuries while in Charlotte. He never got to kick for Carolina’s fourth head coach, Ron Rivera, because the Panthers made the ill-considered move of firing Kasay in the summer of 2011 and signing Olindo Mare in his stead. That didn’t work. The Panthers are now on their third attempt at replacing Kasay since they released him.
Kasay went to New Orleans for one year after the Panthers fired him, kicking for the rival Saints. But when the Saints’ regular kicker got healthy they in turn released Kasay prior to the 2012 season. Although he had one other undisclosed opportunity, he did not kick in the NFL last year.
Even during his season in New Orleans, Kasay’s deeply rooted family stayed in Charlotte. For years, Kasay banked goodwill in the Charlotte community by becoming the team’s leading scorer by a mile while also coaching youth baseball teams, speaking to area churches about his deep Christian faith, quietly supporting charities and signing autographs for hours.
Thanks to the fans
When the Panthers abruptly released him, rather than getting angry, Kasay penned a gracious, 257-word handwritten note to Panther fans thanking them for their support. He then dropped the note off at The Charlotte Observer and entrusted me to publish it.
The note read in part: “It is my hope that the greatest years in Panthers history are still to come. A franchise decorated with numerous Lombardi Trophies. Dozens of Hall of Fame players. And a region that swells with pride whenever they speak of their beloved Panthers.”
While kickers are often considered flaky, Kasay’s persona both on and off the field was one of calm strength. “John is a very thoughtful person,” Richardson noted Tuesday. “He’s not flighty.”
With his wife and four children watching, Kasay choked up briefly during his news conference at Bank of America Stadium Tuesday – most notably while talking about his wife Laura. But he didn’t want the day to be a downbeat one, saying that days like Tuesday too often “come off more like funerals than they do celebrations” and joking that he “wasn’t dying.”
Kasay ended up with 1,482 points as a Panther. He also won 11 games for Carolina with last-second field goals.
Once, Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden growled after Kasay had beaten Tampa Bay in 2006 with four field goals over 45 yards, including a last-second game-winner: “Let’s not send him any Christmas cards this year …. I don’t like that guy. I do not like John Kasay. He’s killed me before, and he got me today.”
Kasay remembers the game-winning kicks, certainly. But he also said he liked the “game icers” just as much. Those kicks, when he put a game out of reach and got to enjoy his teammates’ reactions, were just as satisfying.
One of those occurred in the first Panther playoff game ever – a 1997 home game against a Dallas team featuring Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders. Kasay had four field goals in that game, including a 32-yarder that sealed a 26-17 Panther victory with 1:48 to go.
“I was so full of adrenalin,” Kasay said of the last field goal. “I remember when I hit the ball, the ball went up over the net. We leave those nets high, so that doesn’t happen very often. I hit that ball so hard. It was such a big day for everybody.”
Almost every Kasay memory that Carolina fans have is a positive one, because he was so good in the clutch and made nearly 83 percent of his field-goal attempts as a Panther. There is one high-profile memory, however, that wasn’t.
Kasay hooked a kickoff out of bounds in fourth quarter of the 2004 Super Bowl, with the game tied at 29-all and 1:08 left in regulation. Starting at his own 40 after the penalty due to the errant kick, quarterback Tom Brady got New England into field-goal range and the Panthers lost their only Super Bowl in the final seconds, 32-29.
Kasay said he “agonized” afterward about that kickoff.
“I had practiced that kick for years and years and years,” said Kasay, who was trying to kick the ball toward the corner to give New England’s return man fewer options. “You can try to kick it on a straight line over there. The other way is you can almost bend the ball like in golf. I did both at the same time … because I wanted it to be so perfect. If I had just given myself more of a margin of error …. When my toe hit the ball I remember thinking, ‘Oh no.’ ”
I have always believed Tom Brady would have gotten the Patriots into field-goal range even if Kasay had booted the kickoff through the end zone and New England had started from its own 20. Brady was just too good that day and the Panther defense was exhausted.
Still, it stung Kasay, because he hated so much to let his teammates down.
Kasay came to Charlotte in early 1995. I covered his first news conference. Carolina had signed him away from the Seattle Seahawks. Kasay was the father of a baby boy then, which seemed impossible since he looked maybe 12 years old.
Now that newborn boy, the oldest of the four Kasay kids, is going off to college in the fall. Kasay and his family have grown up together in Charlotte along with the team’s fans.
The only real awkwardness in the Kasay-Carolina relationship – his untimely and undeserved firing – was erased Tuesday. The circle closed. It was a good day for the franchise, and also for one of the best men the Panthers ever had.
Scott Fowler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler
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