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Panthers fullback Breitenstein gets back to work

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.

Ever watch a player excel in small college football and wonder why he can’t make it in the NFL?

Of course the game will be faster and the players will be faster – and bigger and stronger and more athletic. But won’t the qualities that distinguished him still apply?

“What I see and what I know must be different than what they’re looking for,” says Wofford coach Mike Ayers. “He could do something. He could do something big.”

Ayers is talking about his fullback, Eric Breitenstein, whom the Carolina Panthers invited to the three-day rookie minicamp that concludes Sunday.

Breitenstein was not selected in the NFL draft. But about 15 minutes after it ended Panther scout Khary Darlington called.

“Then I shifted from disappointment (about not being drafted) to, well, this is another opportunity to get back to work and get ready to play,” Breitenstein says.

First impression: Breitenstein is compact at 5-10 and 230 pounds, wears a beard, and never stops smiling.

At Wofford, he gave fans a reason to smile. Working out of the triple option, Breitenstein ran for a school record 5,730 yards. He rushed for a Southern Conference record 321 yards in one game. He ran for 2,035 yards as a senior. He was the conference’s offensive player of the year as a junior and as a senior.

Last season South Carolina beat Wofford 26-7. The Gamecocks had a big-time defense. Breitenstein was big-time, rushing for 126 yards and a touchdown and averaging 4.5 yards a carry.

He was a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, the Football Championship Subdivision’s Heisman Trophy.

The NCAA was going to fly him to Philadelphia for the ceremony. Maybe they’d send him first class. He’d at least get a window. The ceremony would be fantastic. Only thing that would make it more fantastic was if his offensive line accompanied him. The line dropped subtle hints such as: TAKE US!

“It was their idea but I was all for it,” says Breitenstein. “Any time you play for a team you only do things because everybody else is doing their job. I had the line the whole time I was at Wofford and they were just phenomenal.”

So was the 650-mile ride from Spartanburg to Philadelphia. With the school’s permission the group grabbed a Wofford bus and took off.

“If you can get with eight or nine fat guys in a bus and ride to Philly it’s pretty great,” Breitenstein says. “I laughed pretty much the whole way up.”

Panthers’ practice begins Saturday morning and the jokes end. Breitenstein can’t show the Panthers how well he blocks; players don’t wear pads. So he shows them he knows the offense, as a running back and a fullback, shows them he can catch the ball out of the backfield, shows them he’ll work and fight.

“He looks like an everyday kind of guy,” says Carolina coach Ron Rivera, who smiles when I ask about Breitenstein, who played at Watauga High. “But, man, he’s got some sneaky ability and it showed because he had a great career at Wofford. What his role can be will be interesting because he ran the ball there very well. He’s shown very well out of the backfield (at rookie camp) in terms of catching the ball so he’s flashed, he’s caught our attention.”

Is Breitenstein familiar with Brad Hoover? Of course he is. He even knows the high school Hoover attended. Hoover is the role model. A fullback not much bigger than Breitenstein, Hoover came out of Thomasville, starred at the Southern Conference’s Western Carolina and was not drafted. He played 10 seasons for the Panthers.

Ayers, who has coached the Terriers 26 years, says Breitenstein is the best player he’s ever had.

“When he touched the ball you had a warm feeling things would go well for you,” Ayers says. “He had gaudy stats, but every day he goes to work. If we had 22 of him, I guarantee we’d never lose a game.”

Breitenstein has a degree in Environmental Science. You can see him someday working for a non-profit. He grew up in Valle Crucis, less than 10 miles from Appalachian State. But Wofford went after him first.

Breitenstein did amazing work there. He’s not ready to stop.

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