Brenton Bersin is all too familiar with Spartanburg.
He’s spent 10 straight training camps at Wofford College – six with the Carolina Panthers and four as a Wofford receiver. Of the 13 receivers on Carolina’s roster, Bersin’s been with the team the longest, and he’s as familiar with the Spartanburg restaurant scene as he is with the Panthers’ offensive playbook. At 27, he’s a veteran in the receivers’ room.
“It gets easier every year,” Bersin said.
But each year, it seems unlikely the hometown receiver will make it back.
Bersin played high school football at Charlotte Latin and grew up in the neighborhood where Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who played receiver at Wofford in the late 1950s, lives. Bersin even tied Richardson’s school record with nine receiving touchdowns as a junior. Yet Richardson has repeatedly cut ties with Bersin, only to bring him back to Wofford the following summer.
It started in 2012, when Bersin signed with Carolina as an undrafted free agent. He didn’t make it through the preseason, so he spent some time in the Arena Football League before signing with the Panthers in 2013. He was cut in the preseason and spent the year on the practice squad before making his NFL debut in 2014 – but he’s been cut twice since, including in the middle of last season, when he re-signed three days later.
Through five years in the NFL, he has more contracts signed than seasons played. And he’s never sure which one might be his last.
“I never know. When they release me or cut me, I don’t know what my future’s gonna be,” Bersin said. “I’m willing to go somewhere else if they don’t want me around, but obviously I want to be here. Luckily, I’ve been able to stay around.”
In some ways, he is fortunate to still be with his hometown team. In his first season in 2014, Bersin played 15 games and caught 13 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown. But in his playoff debut, Bersin muffed a punt against the Arizona Cardinals in embarrassing fashion. He hasn’t returned a punt since.
He hasn’t done much on offense to erase that memory, either, totaling 11 catches for 136 yards in the past two seasons. Yet the Panthers haven’t found stability among the receiving corps since Bersin first signed in 2012. Five years later, he’s the longest-tenured receiver on the roster.
Bersin has admitted his connection with Richardson and former team president Danny Morrison, both Wofford alumni, helped him get a chance with the Panthers. Bersin said his relationship with Richardson is similar to other players, though, and he credits his longevity on the roster to hard work – both during the season and in Spartanburg.
“You have to have confidence,” Bersin said. “Regardless of what happens, you get cut, you still gotta be confident in yourself and believe in yourself.”
He says he feels like a fan favorite because of his local ties, but some fans refuse to believe in him until he purges the playoff memory from three seasons ago. At this point, it’s on Bersin to earn that respect on the field.
Friday’s practice was the first step. Bersin missed most of the offseason recovering from ankle surgery in early June, but in the Panthers’ first padded practice of training camp, the 6-foot-2 receiver made the case for the roster spot he’s flirted with for five seasons.
Bersin showed off his route-running on a sharp dig route along the left sideline, and he flashed his hands in traffic on a ball thrown behind him by backup quarterback Derek Anderson. He later held on through contact on a pass over the middle, and he followed it up with a quick sideline catch on the very next snap.
Yet none of those plays excited Bersin quite like the crack block he threw on linebacker Shaq Thompson, who is three years younger and 20 pounds heavier.
“It was a pretty good block,” Bersin said, smirking.
It all counts for the Charlotte native, whose spot on the roster is never secure. But training camp highlights aren’t enough – not after 10 seasons in Spartanburg. Now, Bersin needs to translate his experience to regular-season success.
If he does, he’ll have an 11th straight trip to Spartanburg waiting.
C Jackson Cowart on Twitter: @CJacksonCowart