After the media interviews wrapped up, and the hugs and handshakes from coaches and teammates were through, Panthers wide receiver Domenik Hixon checked his cell phone and found 50 congratulatory texts waiting for him.
He spent much of Sunday night responding to them.
“The whole night I wanted to make sure I hit everybody back, and thanked them,” Hixon said.
Forgive him if he wanted to soak up the moment.
Hixon called his game-winning, 14-yard touchdown in the 17-13 victory against New Orleans the biggest catch of his career, narrowly edging his touchdown that lifted Akron over Northern Illinois in the 2005 Mid-American Conference championship game.
That it came in the Panthers’ biggest game in five years made it all the more memorable for Hixon, whose first four months in a Panthers uniform were easy to forget.
For the first 15 weeks this season, Hixon was rarely seen and seldom heard. He kept his mouth shut and went about his business, even though the former New York Giants wideout was the odd man out in the receiving rotation.
Hixon caught three passes for 21 yards in his first 13 games.
When Steve Smith went down with a knee injury in the first half against the Saints, Hixon found himself open in the end zone for a diving catch that clinched the Panthers’ first playoff berth since 2008.
With Smith sidelined at least this week with a sprained knee ligament, Hixon will get a chance to do more. Hixon, who won two Super Bowl rings with the Giants, will join Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. in the receiving rotation for the regular-season finale Sunday at Atlanta – and maybe longer.
“With Steve’s situation, who knows?” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said this week. “Going forward, (Hixon) might be a guy in this run now that we have that could play into it.”
Career hampered by injuries
Hixon, 29, can empathize with Smith’s situation.
Type Hixon’s name into Google and the first thing that pops up is “Domenik Hixon injuries.” He’s had two ACL surgeries on his right knee – season-ending procedures that limited him to two games in 2010 and 2011.
He was on injured reserve in 2011 when the Giants beat New England to capture their second Super Bowl over the Patriots in a five-year span.
Hixon played a part in their run to the 2007 Super Bowl. He returned a kickoff for a touchdown in a close loss to New England in Week 17, and he recovered a fumble late in the fourth quarter of the NFC championship game against Green Bay.
Hixon, 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, returned from the ACL surgeries to catch 39 passes for 567 yards and two touchdowns last season for the Giants, who chose not to re-sign him. After Dave Gettleman, the Giants’ longtime pro personnel director, was hired as the Panthers’ general manager in January, he approached Rivera about bringing in Hixon.
“Domenik’s got a lot of qualities that intrigue you,” Rivera said. “He’s got good size, good quickness and speed. He’s very strong at the point (of attack), has good body control and good hands. And he’s been on championship teams. So there’s a lot he and (former Giants linebacker) Chase (Blackburn) bring to the table that we lack.”
Something else Hixon had was a lengthy injury history. He broke his left foot at Akron’s pro day in 2006, an injury that sidelined him his rookie season after Denver drafted him in the fourth round.
Hixon missed three games last year with a concussion and an ankle injury. He was limited to one preseason game this year because of issues with both hamstrings.
“The hard thing was he got hurt. … You really wished you’d been able to see him develop because he’s starting to turn into a guy that you can sit there and say we can rely on,” Rivera said.
“One of the things Dave always says is, if this guy can stay healthy, he’s as good as anybody he’s been around in terms of doing all the little things,” Rivera added. “Being that jack-of-all-trades that you need.”
‘He just knows what it takes to win’
Gettleman said last spring Hixon and Blackburn would bring professionalism to the Panthers’ locker room, in addition to their Super Bowl bling.
Coaches and teammates say that has been the case.
During training camp at Wofford, Hixon attended the special teams meetings even though he was not on any of the special teams depth charts.
“He was in on every single meeting,” Blackburn said. “He just knows what it takes to win.”
At Akron, where Blackburn and Hixon were teammates, Hixon was a starting safety and one of the Zips’ best defensive players. He didn’t object when he was moved to receiver the following season, Blackburn said.
Likewise, after Hixon’s injuries gave Ginn an opening to seize the No. 3 receiving spot, Hixon didn’t go to coaches or the media to complain about playing time.
“He’s just a true pro. He’s a team player,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “I’m sure he wants to play more but has never said a word. He’s always been positive and encouraging the other guys. … When Dom scored (against the Saints), the receiver bunch probably couldn’t be any happier.”
Hixon, whose expectant wife Erica is an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., said he’s never been one to complain.
“I’m really not the guy to go and (say), ‘Hey, why am I not playing?’ I ask coach, ‘How am I doing? What can I do better?’ And just let everything else work itself out,” Hixon said. “My role is not to meddle with that.”
Hixon, who signed a one-year deal with Carolina, said he’d like to stay with the Panthers. And while he’d welcome a bigger role in the offense, he said he’s enjoyed his year in Charlotte – never more so than when he cradled the game-winner against the Saints.
“Everybody wants to play. Who doesn’t want to be a No. 1 receiver getting 12 balls a game?” Hixon said. “But I like winning. So winning’s been fun.”
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