Captain Munnerlyn will be the smallest player on the field for the Carolina Panthers on Sunday for their highly anticipated matchup with the Saints in New Orleans.
Everyone from Panthers coach Ron Rivera to linebacker Thomas Davis, whose locker is next to Munnerlyn’s, has jokingly poked fun at Munnerlyn’s diminutive stature during his two stints with the team.
But the 5-9, 195-pound cornerback wears his size proudly, and with good reason – one that Munnerlyn has shared this week as part of the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats campaign.
For the second year in a row, players will showcase their charitable causes by wearing custom cleats during Week 13 games.
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Munnerlyn’s Nike cleats promote his foundation, which supports his annual football camp in his hometown of Mobile, Ala., a holiday toy giveaway and the March of Dimes.
Munnerlyn’s involvement with the March of Dimes, which works toward preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality, is personal.
Munnerlyn was a premature baby himself, arriving three months early and weighing 3 pounds when he was born in Mobile in 1988.
The size-8 cleats Munnerlyn will wear Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome feature an image of a man on top of a mountain, reaching down to help pull another person to the summit.
Munnerlyn wants his story of perseverance – from 3-pound infant to nine-year NFL veteran – to inspire other children who were born prematurely, as well as their families.
“My mama always tells me I could fit in a shoe box when I was so young. I was in and out of the hospital for the first year. I consider myself as a blessing,” Munnerlyn said this week. “That’s why premature kids and the March of Dimes is a big part of what I stand for.”
Friends and family members say Munnerlyn’s birth experience and short stature have helped shape him into a feisty, competitive player who will not back from an opponent, no matter how many inches or pounds he might be giving up.
“I think it really has made him what he is. He’s always had a chip on his shoulder,” Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said. “He’s always felt like he’s had to prove himself. And that’s kind of how he’s lived his life. He’s a tough kid and we’re definitely happy to have him back.”
Stress in Happy Hill
Munnerlyn grew up in a tough section of Mobile called Happy Hill, an ironic name given the amount of violence that took place there.
Evelyn Munnerlyn said there were no physical issues that caused her to go into labor three months early with the youngest of her four children. She wonders whether the stresses of the neighborhood were a factor.
“That was a place where a lot of killing was taking place,” Evelyn Munnerlyn said. “And it was not a great place to bring up a young man.”
Captain, who was named after his great-grandfather, spent several months in the neo-natal intensive care unit. The nurses would call Evelyn frequently to inform her that her tiny baby had succeeded in dislodging one of the various IVs or feeding tubes he was connected to.
“He was feisty even then,” Evelyn said this week during a phone interview.
Munnerlyn had two brothers who were much older – and bigger – than he was, which has become something of a laughing matter in their house.
“I always joke with my mom if she could’ve held on a little longer I probably would have been 6-1, 6-2 like my brothers,” Munnerlyn said.
Munnerlyn has his own theory on why his growth was stunted, blaming it on the sleepovers at his grandmother’s house.
“My grandma had me drinking coffee at 5, 6 years old, man,” Munnerlyn said, smiling. “Watching ‘Matlock’ and ‘Heat of the Night,’ those old shows. Waking up with her at 5, 6 o’clock in the morning.”
Interestingly, Munnerlyn said he was not that much smaller than elementary school classmates. He also lifted weights at an early age, and says he was the same size as the other players on his pee-wee football teams.
“I think everybody just started catching up to me,” he said.
‘He can play some football’
Munnerlyn had stopped growing by the time he reached eighth or ninth grade. As a sophomore wide receiver at Murphy High, Munnerlyn marched into coach Ronn Lee’s office one day and said he wanted the ball more.
Lee told him the next day he could grab a blue jersey and play defensive back.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, Coach. No, no, no, no, no. I’m a receiver. I’m not a defensive back,’” Munnerlyn recalled.
“You said you want the ball. If they throw the ball to you on defense and you don’t catch it, that’s your own fault.”
Lee later told Munnerlyn that he moved him to defense because colleges might recruit a 5-9 defensive back, but most of the big schools likely would pass on an undersized wideout.
Munnerlyn, who also was a sprinter on Murphy’s track team, drew scholarship offers from a number of schools, including South Carolina, West Virginia and Tennessee.
He recalls former Gamecocks assistant Ron Cooper visiting his school and being surprised at Munnerlyn’s height, or lack thereof.
“I think they lied to him to get him to Mobile. They told him I was like 5-11, 6-feet,” Munnerlyn said. “When he came down there he was like, ‘Uhhhh, he’s not 6-feet. But he can play some football.’”
Munnerlyn played three seasons at South Carolina before leaving early for the draft. He was the 216th player selected when the Panthers took him in the seventh round in 2009.
But his low draft status didn’t stop Munnerlyn from starting four games and becoming the Panthers’ primary punt returner as a rookie. More than Munnerlyn’s stats, Davis was impressed with the way Munnerlyn held his own against former Carolina wideout and tough guy Steve Smith.
“I think that was really when you knew he wasn’t going to be a kid that was going to be pushed around,” Davis said. “Watching him go out and not being afraid to compete against Steve, that really was one of the things that opened my eyes to Captain.”
A home in Charlotte
Munnerlyn started 41 games from 2011-13, which were Ron Rivera’s first three seasons as head coach. But former general manager Dave Gettleman turned the secondary over after the ’13 playoff season, and Munnerlyn signed a free agent deal with Minnesota.
He kept a house in Charlotte and maintained his friendships here, including one with a family he met through a March of Dimes event.
Dan Bambini is a pediatric surgeon in Charlotte whose practice was supporting the fundraiser at the Carmel Country Club, which included a silent auction. The family bid on an autographed ball from Munnerlyn and two hours of his time, which came at a backyard party.
Munnerlyn ended up befriending Cole Bambini, who’s now a sophomore at Charlotte Catholic. Though none of the Bambini’s children were born prematurely, the family has a strong involvement with the March of Dimes.
Cami Bambini, Cole’s mother, said Munnerlyn’s personality and background won her over.
“The other thing that impressed me was not only that he was a survivor as a preemie, but also his mother’s faith,” she said.
Evelyn Munnerlyn endured a lot of other hardships besides her son’s premature birth.
When Captain Munnerlyn was 6, his father, Larry Crear, was shot and killed by a cousin in a dispute over a woman. Crear was not married to Evelyn Munnerlyn and had left the family a few years earlier.
The following year, Munnerlyn’s brother, Timothy Moore, was charged with murder after shooting at a man he thought had stolen from him and ending up killing a 15-year-old bystander. Moore, 42, spent more than 18 years in prison before being paroled in 2014.
Moore lives with his mother while working in Mobile.
“It’s always good to have your kids back in your life, no matter what path they go,” said Evelyn Munnerlyn, who said she’s leaned on her faith during the tragedies in her life. “It’s good to have family. No matter what they do, you have to continue to pray that they get it together.”
Close to home
Just about all of Munnerlyn’s family, including his sister Christian Munnerlyn, will be in New Orleans this weekend for the big NFC South battle royale. With Mobile a little more than a two-hour drive to New Orleans, it’s as close as Munnerlyn gets to a home game on the NFL schedule.
Munnerlyn – who’s still “feisty,” to borrow his mother’s phrase – was a little salty after only playing 11 snaps in the first meeting with the Saints. And he wasn’t thrilled when the Panthers made him skip the Jets game last week while he was getting over a virus.
But he’s feeling better and looking forward to getting back on the field at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
If he makes a tackle or a big play against the Saints, there’s a chance the Fox broadcast will get a shot of his cleats and mention his cause.
Either way, Munnerlyn is proud to be standing up for something he feels strongly about. So is his mother.
“He survived it and he’s been a fighter ever since then,” she said. “I think he came out early so he could be a survivor and show other young men they could come through it.”
While he jokes about being 6-1 or 6-2 like his brothers, Munnerlyn wouldn’t want it any other way.
“If I was a tall guy, I don’t know if I’d be the same player. I think me being a shorter guy has definitely been an edge for me. It always kept me working hard,” he said. “It always kept that dog in me, that chip on my shoulder and always kept that go-get-‘em in me. So I love it.”
Panthers at Saints
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans
When: 4:25 p.m. (FOX)