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Panthers lose a rudder in retiring tackle Jordan Gross

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

One of the classiest Carolina Panthers ever will walk out the doors of Bank of America Stadium for the last time as a player Wednesday, when Jordan Gross says goodbye.

The offensive tackle played 11 years in the NFL, all with Carolina. He bookended his career with playoff appearances – starting in the Super Bowl as a rookie and then starting in 2013 for the NFC South champions. He was amazingly durable in a brutal sport, as he holds the team record for 167 career starts and started all 16 games for the eighth time in his career in 2013.

I hate to see him go on a personal level, as Gross was one of my favorite guys in that Panthers locker room ever. But the Panthers should hate to see him go on a professional level, too. Their best tackle – and Cam Newton’s blindside protector – is leaving the building.

This should clear up what position the Panthers should be picking with their first-round choice in May. The offensive line was already short a couple of hog mollies, and it just got worse.

But back to Gross. In 11 years, he missed a total of nine games – seven of them in 2009 when he suffered a broken leg. He just finished playing in his third Pro Bowl. At one point in his career he was a great player, and even now he’s still very good. After the requisite five-year waiting period, Gross should eventually be inducted go into the team’s lonesome Hall of Honor. It remains closet-sized – including just one actual player who played for Carolina.

Like former kicker John Kasay and wide receiver Steve Smith once his career ends, Gross deserves his own statue.

Gross has long wanted to leave the Panthers as good as he found them, and he has done that. He didn’t want to go out after a 2-14 or a 7-9 season, and instead he is leaving after a 12-5 one in which Carolina made it to the NFL’s final eight.

And although it would be better for Carolina if he stayed, you can’t blame him for deciding it’s time. Gross has given the Panthers 11 extraordinary years. I think it’s inevitable that he will end up working for the organization in some capacity – they would be crazy not to use him at least as an ambassador of some sort.

To get a handle on how long Gross has been in Charlotte, think of some of the quarterbacks he has protected: Jake Delhomme. Cam Newton. Vinny Testaverde. David Carr. Matt Moore. Jimmy Clausen.

Gross was universally liked in the locker room not only because he was a good player, but because he was a good teammate. He could have fun – Gross photo-bombed a Newton press conference once and his “This is Gross” podcast on the Panthers’ website was often hilarious. He could also use the velvet hammer to tell a guy who wasn’t playing well or hard enough just what needed to happen.

Gross, 33, is by nature both optimistic and old-school. He attributes some of his longevity to a workout regimen that includes pull-ups and pushups. He teamed with Smith at Utah and before that he was a baby-faced three-sport terror in Fruitland, Idaho.

As Gross said shortly after the Panthers selected him with the No. 8 overall pick of the 2003 draft: “My high school class had 86 members, and my varsity football team had 21 guys. So, it’s pretty amazing to me that my dream has come true to get to this position.”

What the Panthers will miss most, besides his nimble blocking, is his leadership. Gross was a perennial team captain, one of those guys who was born to wear the “C.” He told me this a few months ago, and I have thought of it several times since.

“Brandon LaFell gave me a compliment last year (in 2012),” Gross said in that interview. “It was during a TV timeout at New Orleans. We were backed up in our own end zone and the crowd was going nuts. He came up to me in the huddle and said, ‘I love being in the huddle with you because you always make me feel comfortable and confident.’ To me, that’s what a captain should be. Even if you don’t feel like you’ve got it all together, you act like you do. Just provide guidance and solace – the rudder for the team.”

That was Gross. Guidance and solace. The rudder for the team.

The Panthers will need to find a new left tackle, yes. But just as importantly, they will need to find a new rudder.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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