The day free agent left tackle Matt Kalil signed with Carolina last week, his older brother – Panthers Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil – was on the other side of the country tending to a previous commitment in California.
That’s the way it’s been for the Kalil brothers throughout their careers, beginning with the Corona Chargers in a youth league in southern California. Because Ryan was four years older, he was always moving on – from the Corona pee-wee league, Servite High and Southern Cal – a season or two before his younger brother arrived.
Barring injury or an unlikely roster move, the Kalil boys will be teammates for at least the next two seasons in Charlotte, becoming the first set of brothers to play together for the Panthers in team history.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play with your big brother,” Matt Kalil said. “The guy you kind of missed by a couple years throughout your whole career.”
Even when both made the NFL, they didn’t get to spend much time together.
Ryan settled in Charlotte with his family over the past decade. Matt, who played his first five seasons with the Vikings, lived in Minnesota, where his wife grew up.
“We talk (in Carolina) about creating a team and a family (atmosphere),” Ryan Kalil said. “That being a real family, I think there’s a great advantage there to create that bond and become closer to my brother, not only as a family member but a teammate.”
The Kalils will make up two-fifths of the offensive line for a Panthers’ team looking to bounce back from a 6-10, post-Super Bowl letdown.
All the warm and fuzzies from the Kalils’ feel-good story figure to get swallowed up if one or both of the brothers struggle in their return from season-ending surgeries in 2016.
The Panthers invested $55.5 million in Matt Kalil, who will make a guaranteed $24 million over the first two years of his five-year deal.
The younger Kalil made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2012 after the Vikings drafted him with the No. 4 overall pick out of USC. But he has struggled in the four years since, giving up an average of six sacks and 40 quarterback pressures per season over the span, according to Pro Football Focus.
Change of scenery
The Panthers hope a healthy Kalil – he had hip surgery in September to repair his labrum – will flourish under offensive line coach John Matsko, who helped Michael Oher re-energize his career in 2015.
Matt Kalil doesn’t make excuses for his pass-blocking problems in Minnesota, but thinks a change of scenery will do him good.
“My first couple years with the Vikings were good. But I never progressed the way I should have. I don’t know what that’s attributable to. It’s not all on other people. It’s on me as well,” he said last week during a conference call with Charlotte reporters.
“I think it’s a great change. It’s new scenery obviously, new coaching. I think it’s all for the best. It’s kind of reigniting that fire that I lost for a little bit.”
Ryan Kalil defended his younger brother, saying to focus only on his negative plays in Minnesota is to “ignore the amount of positive (game) tape on him.”
General manager Dave Gettleman does exhaustive film study on the Panthers’ draft and free agency targets.
“He’s a former scout, that’s what he’s done his whole life,” Ryan Kalil said of Gettleman. “I know he spent a lot of time watching the tape on Matt and he was more excited about the good than any of the inconsistencies that he’s had.”
‘The best I’ve seen him’
The Kalil brothers worked out together several times throughout the offseason in southern California, not far from where their parents still live.
“It’s the best I’ve seen him in a long time,” Ryan said. “I’m excited by the fact that (hip) got fixed and we get a better player out of Matt Kalil.”
Ryan is coming off surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. He tried to play with the injury during a Thursday night game against New Orleans before aggravating it.
Ryan pointed out that his brother started the Vikings’ first two games with his hip issue before going on injured reserve.
“The one thing you can say about Kalils is we’re tough guys that do our best to put the team first,” Ryan said.
Ryan, 31, has been on IR twice in his career: His first stint came in 2012 following surgery on his left foot. Matt, 27, had started the first 66 games of his career before being sidelined by the hip issue he says has bothered him since college.
“So we break every five years,” Ryan joked. “They got a good lease on (Matt) for five. So we’ll be good to go.”
Same family, but different
Former Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross played with Ryan Kalil for seven seasons and has known Matt since 2008, when he gave a tear-filled toast at Ryan’s wedding reception.
Gross said the Kalil reunion is the first time since he retired in 2013 that he’s felt like he’s missing out on something.
“I think it’ll be so neat to see this relationship,” he said.
Ryan Kalil has a quick wit and is known for his locker room pranks and his off-the-field interests, which include publishing a rookie handbook last year and starting an L.A.-based production company with NBA star Blake Griffin.
Kalil and Griffin are teaming with “Blackish” creator Kenya Barris on a remake of the 1992 basketball comedy “White Men Can’t Jump.”
Matt Kalil is more of an outdoorsman who likes to hunt and ride snowmobiles and whom his brother described as a “reserved wild man.”
“He’s gotten a lot better now that he’s married,” Ryan added. “And when I say wild man, I don’t mean he’s like Gronk or anything like that. He and I are very different. I’m more calculated and he sort of just gets after it and sees what’s happening.”
They’re also different size-wise.
Gross says seeing the 6-2, 300-pound Ryan next to his 6-7, 320-pound brother reminds him of Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie “Twins.”
“He’s still scared of me,” Ryan said. “Even though he’s bigger and stronger, you just give him the older brother stare and he backs down every time.”
The fire within
Asked to share an embarrassing story about his brother, Ryan quickly volunteered the time Matt and his middle-school buddies were using fuel from a remote-control car to sear their names and initials on to the street.
Unbeknownst to Matt, some fuel had leaked down his shirt on to his back and arm.
“One of the flames got too close and he got lit on fire and had to do a full-on sprint to the backyard,” Ryan said. “Luckily we had a pool and he just dove right in. Very minimal burns.”
But the pride in Ryan’s voice was evident when he talked about how Matt was the more coveted football prospect – a Parade All-American who had his choice of schools but followed his brother to USC.
Matt says the two always talked about the possibility of playing together one day, but weren’t sure it would happen. Then Michael Oher landed in the concussion protocol for five months and the Panthers were looking for a left tackle as Matt was entering free agency for the first time.
“It’s one of those things ... you kind of just bring up over a family gathering, like, ‘Hey, wouldn’t that be crazy if we ever played together for the same team?’” Matt said. “Once that opportunity arose, it was kind of surreal.”
Matt says it’s great joining an organization he’s been familiar with for years. Early during his USC career, he worked on his pass-blocking sets in Gross’ backyard.
A new home
Ryan’s wife, Natalie, is helping Matt and his wife, Haley, a former Miss Minnesota, look for homes in Charlotte. Matt isn’t sure he’ll end up in his brother’s neighborhood, but conceded there would be perks.
“If I happen to be next door, I’ll be the favorite uncle,” he said. “I’m sure all my nieces and nephews (would be) excited to have me over there.”
Frank Kalil, the former Buffalo Bills center who played two seasons in the USFL, says his boys will give each other space.
“They’re close and they’re brothers. (But) Ryan does his own thing. He’s got more things going on than whatever,” Frank said. “I think having them both together will give them an opportunity to have some fun and get after it. It’s going to be a great little ride here.”
Ryan Kalil is under contract through the 2019 season, and said his brother’s presence would not necessarily convince him to extend his career beyond that.
But both brothers are fired up to be teammates ... finally.
“Aside from all his athletic abilities, I can’t think of another guy I’d want as my teammate than that big mama jama,” Ryan said. “Because as big as he is, he’s got the heart to go with it.
“And when we talk about how incredibly challenging it is to play in the National Football League and how incredibly challenging it is to win these games, I can’t think of anybody else I’d want to go to battle with.”