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Former Saint Roman Harper rocks the gray hair, settles in with Panthers

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
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David T. Foster, III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
Carolina Panthers' Roman Harper (41) talks with Tre Boston (33) during the Wednesday morning session of training camp at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C.

SPARTANBURG Before we get to his hit on Steve Smith or the way he plans to stop former teammate Drew Brees, or the turf toe that is keeping him out of practice, let’s talk about Roman Harper’s hair.

To see Harper without a helmet is to do a double-take, because few NFL players have ever sported that much gray. Harper is only 31, but he doesn’t care to dye it or cut it off. Instead, he wears the gray proudly.

“I rock the gray hair, man,” Harper said as we sat across a table Wednesday at training camp. “I got my first gray hair when I was in seventh grade – my barber showed it to me – so I’ve been actually been graying the majority of my life. I had it in high school a little bit. I had it throughout college.

“I’ve had it forever, and it’s part of who I am. It’s part of my strength. It’s more of a distinguished look, and it’s always a conversation starter. I am a young man with gray hair.”

In general terms, yes – Harper is a young man, as well as an entertaining and extremely confident one.

In NFL terms, no, Harper isn’t young at all. He played eight years in New Orleans, long enough to win a Super Bowl, make two Pro Bowls (in 2009 and ’10) and notch 17 sacks (the most among NFL defensive backs from 2006 through ’13).

He has read the eyes of Panthers quarterbacks Jake Delhomme, Jimmy Clausen and Cam Newton.

The Saints released him in February.

“The black and gold was great to me,” Harper said. “But that time has passed.” Carolina signed him in March.

“It feels good to have a coaching staff that wants you and accepts you for the player you really are,” he said. “They want me to just be me. It’s not like they want me to be Superman. We’ve already got Superman in Luke (Kuechly).”

Everyone expects Harper to lead and to start, but he’s nursing a turf toe injury and has barely practiced this week. He also missed seven games in New Orleans in 2013 with a right knee injury, and that led to the worst season he has had as a pro.

Harper is starting over in Charlotte, with a new team and a new set of fans who mostly remember him from the blatant late hit he laid on Steve Smith at Bank of America Stadium in 2011.

Smith was strolling in for a touchdown when Harper came over and blasted him in the end zone, which drew a 15-yard penalty (and ultimately a $15,000 fine). Just like that, Harper became the villainous face of the Saints to many Panthers fans.

“It’s brought up all the time,” Harper said. “I was setting a tone. I didn’t like the way Steve started to celebrate a little bit before he walked in. Me and Steve have hashed it out since then. … But one thing I can hang my hat on – it made this more of a rivalry than it was before. You know what I mean?”

I do know. But how long will it take Panthers fans to get fully on your side?

“The fans?” Harper laughed. “They’ll waver. Just like LeBron. The Cleveland fans hated him when he left. Now they love him again. Once I start to make plays here, they’ll love me.”

As a gray-haired fan of big plays, I agree with just about everything Harper has said so far. I even like the way he plays pool against teammates during his down time at Spartanburg – taking his time, making the smart shot.

But the thing I worry about is that turf toe. That mild-sounding injury can be extremely problematic.

“It’s healing up quick,” he said, although no one expects him to play Friday night in the first exhibition against Buffalo. “I don’t miss (regular-season) games. It will be fine.”

As for Brees, Harper said the only real way to make him struggle is to make him play “left-handed.” This, he explains, means taking Brees out of his comfort zone by knowing the quarterback’s first option or two on each play and taking those away – sort of like making a right-handed basketball player always go to his left.

“If you can get Drew off his spots, it makes him seem a little more human,” Harper said. “Because he’s out of this world when he’s on.”

It will seem weird when Harper suits up for real for the first time in a Carolina No. 41 instead of a Saints No. 41. But maybe more weird to us than to him.

“I look great in Carolina’s colors,” he said.

How would he know, I ask? Turns out he has worn them many times before, as a kid growing up in Alabama.

“The first NFL jersey I ever owned was a Panther jersey,” Harper said. “Tshimanga Biakabutuka – No. 21. The Panthers were new. I really liked the colors and Biakabutuka was great in college, so I got his jersey.”

Now Harper is a Panther again, but this time for real – a true graybeard, trying to make one more run at a title.

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