After signing with the Carolina Panthers in March, one of the first calls linebacker Chase Blackburn made was to free agent receiver Domenik Hixon.
Blackburn wanted to know whether the Panthers had contacted Hixon, who informed him the two sides were talking.
“Well, following me around has worked out for you so far,” Blackburn told him. “You might as well come to Carolina.”
A week later Hixon signed with the Panthers, and the two were teammates again.
Hixon and Blackburn went to rival high schools in Ohio, played and lived together at Akron and won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman, who spent 15 years in the Giants’ front office, likes the championship experience Hixon and Blackburn bring to a team that last season had no players who had won a Super Bowl.
“They know what it takes. They’ve been through the wars, and they’ve shown the consistency in their careers that most guys don’t have,” Gettleman said. “That’s why Chase is in his ninth year and Domenik’s in his (eighth). To have that professionalism in the locker room and on the field is big.”
Said Panthers coach Ron Rivera: “Guys that have had that success, they stand out and players notice it.”
Hixon said a couple of players have asked to see his Super Bowl rings. Blackburn has had a few question him about what Super Bowl week is like.
Both former Giants said they were interested in coming to Charlotte in part because of the way the Panthers closed last season, with wins in five of their final six games. They see similarities between the Giants and Panthers, whom Blackburn called two family-oriented franchises, and believe Carolina is a team on the rise.
“The way they responded the last six weeks of the season, that said a lot to me,” Blackburn said after a minicamp practice last week. “When I was in the free agency market and talking to teams, I’ve won two championships. I want to win more. That’s why you play this game. I came here because I felt like we had an opportunity to win.”
Hixon, who is a year younger than Blackburn, met Blackburn in 2002 during his recruiting visit to Akron. The two had gone to different high schools in the Columbus area, and Hixon remembered Blackburn having a good game when their schools played.
Hixon said Blackburn was instrumental in his decision to go to Akron. The two worked out together the summer before Hixon’s freshman year, and were defensive teammates for two seasons when Hixon played free safety and Blackburn was a linebacker.
They were roommates for a year with two other teammates at a four-bedroom rental house near campus. Nearly 10 years later, both remember the address – 356 Rankin Street – and the backyard grill.
“All the young guys used to come over and hang out. We used to barbecue all the time,” Hixon said.
What was on the grill?
“Whatever was on sale at the local grocery store,” Hixon said, laughing.
The Giants signed Blackburn as an undrafted free agent in 2005. That fall Hixon caught 75 passes for 1,210 yards to help Akron win the Mid-American Conference.
Despite breaking his left foot at Akron’s pro day, Hixon was drafted by Denver in the fourth round in 2006. He spent the season on the reserve list with a non-football injury, and played four games in 2007 before the Broncos waived him.
Then-Giants special teams coach Thomas McGaughey, who was with Denver when the Broncos drafted Hixon, went to see Gettleman, New York’s pro personnel director, when he saw Hixon had been waived.
“Tom came through my office door like a fullback running downhill and he said, ‘You’ve got to look at this guy,’ ” said Gettleman, who studied Hixon’s tapes and recommended to general manager Jerry Reese that the Giants claim him.
“I was shocked that he passed through waivers,” Gettleman added. “It was a big bonus for us.”
Blackburn told the Giants they were getting a playmaker.
“I was able to (tell) the guys, ‘Look, he can play. I’m telling you, put him back there returning,’ ” Blackburn said.
Eventually, the Giants did.
Hixon averaged 27.6 yards on eight kickoff returns during the regular season, and was critical in the Giants’ postseason run. He averaged 31 yards per return in a divisional round win at Dallas, and established a Giants playoff record with 290 kickoff return yards on 12 runbacks in four postseason games.
Blackburn was a special teams contributor during the Giants’ 2007 Super Bowl season, with five tackles in four playoff games. He was an unlikely hero in 2011 when the Giants returned to the Super Bowl and again beat New England.
Despite leading the team in special teams tackles six consecutive seasons, Blackburn was not in the Giants’ plans for 2011. He was preparing to teach middle school math in Ohio when the Giants called following a rash of injuries to their linebackers.
“At the end of November, Jerry (Reese) and I looked at each other (and said), ‘We’ve got to bring Chase back,’ ” Gettleman said. “When Chase walked into the locker room, you would’ve thought Ray Nitschke, Sam Huff and Dick Butkus had walked in. The respect the players had for him was huge.”
In his first game back against Green Bay in Week 13, Blackburn intercepted Aaron Rodgers in the second quarter of the Giants’ 38-35 loss. It foreshadowed a momentum-swinging play by Blackburn in Super Bowl XLVI.
With the Patriots leading in the fourth quarter, New England quarterback Tom Brady heaved a long pass for tight end Rob Gronkowski. Blackburn, in single coverage, out-jumped Gronkowski and came down with the interception at New York’s 8.
The Giants went on to win 21-17.
Hixon expects to win
Hixon played only two games in 2011 before tearing the ACL in his right knee for the second year in a row. He came back last season and caught 39 passes for 567 yards as the Giants’ No. 3 receiver behind Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz.
Like Blackburn, Hixon was impressed by how the Panthers finished last season. He hopes to help instill a winning attitude in a franchise that has never had back-to-back winning seasons.
The Panthers have faltered down the stretch under Rivera, going 2-12 in games decided by a touchdown or less. During his six years in New York, Hixon said the Giants expected to win when the game was on the line.
“When it came down to the last two minutes, having the ball and needed a score (or) needed a stop, we felt like we were going to get that,” Hixon said. “Just that culture to win. It takes time to build. It doesn’t just happen overnight. And I see that being the thing here, ending last year and hopefully getting a great start to this year. Just keep it rolling, and get that winning culture.”
Hixon, who missed the Panthers’ three-day minicamp with a hamstring injury, is considered the favorite to win the No. 3 receiver spot behind Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell.
Blackburn, who turned 30 last week, is an all-purpose player who can play all three linebacker spots.
But Rivera said the value of Hixon and Blackburn goes beyond their on-field contributions.
“Watching Chase and the way he handles things on the defense is really kind of a neat thing. Here’s a guy that’s used to doing things on a championship team,” Rivera said. “He can relate, ‘This is what we did. This is how we do it.’ And I’ll be quite honest, he’s a guy that came in here and has made an impression right off the bat with those guys.
“Domenik’s the same way. There’s a professionalism about him that these young guys can learn from.”
Since arriving in Charlotte, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Blackburn has proven to be an athlete for all seasons. He was MVP of offensive tackle Jordan Gross’ charity kickball tournament, and hit three home runs when the Panthers took batting practice before a Charlotte Knights game.
“I think it was (fullback) Richie Brockel who said, ‘Boy, he just wins,’” Rivera said. “That’s what you want is that kind of attitude and that kind of atmosphere. That’s what we’re trying to create.”
Before one of the Giants’ playoff games, Blackburn said former New York running back Tiki Barber showed teammates the ring the Giants received after their loss to Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV.
“He was like, ‘You don’t want one of these. This is not what we’re playing for. We’re playing to get the ring that the other guys got. Not for this.’ ”
As for their own rings, Hixon and Blackburn said they plan to show them to their new teammates at the appropriate time.
“I think there’s no more motivation than seeing what’s at the end of the rainbow,” Hixon said. “I’ve been talking to guys about it. They ask me, ‘How’s the Super Bowl?’ Just telling them what it was like gives them more motivation to want to get there.
“The guys on the team, as soon as I came in, just the work ethic and the work that they’re putting in is the same caliber (as) New York, or even better, to get to the Super Bowl.”
Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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