During the Carolina Panthers’ organized team activities sessions, only a couple of dozen of people not employed by the team can watch practice.
Come this summer, thousands will go to Spartanburg for training camp. Thousands more will fill Bank of America Stadium for Fan Fest.
Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy likes practice, and he doesn’t care how many people are watching. That’s why, with 111.9 million people watching Super Bowl 50 in February, he treated it like a practice.
The biggest game of Ealy’s life was also his biggest performance of his career. His three sacks, interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery would have likely earned him Super Bowl MVP honors had the Panthers won.
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“The funny thing is I just thought of it as practice and I didn’t make it bigger than what it was,” Ealy said this past week at OTAs. “I just went out there with that mentality. The coaches were giving me good advice. Emotions were going to be high, but I just needed to keep it narrow.”
Ealy, entering his third year in the league, is all about “keeping it narrow.” He used the phrase no fewer than three times during an interview for this story.
That focus is part of a larger evolution for Ealy, who admits he came into the league immature and overwhelmed.
After some humbling experiences, some great play and the birth of his daughter, Ealy has developed the focus of an NFL starter.
All that in 23 snaps
It only took 23 defensive snaps for Ealy to do his damage against the Denver Broncos.
A backup defensive end in Super Bowl 50 behind Jared Allen and Charles Johnson, Ealy played 38 percent of the snaps.
But in those 23 snaps, Ealy became the first player in Super Bowl history with multiple sacks and an interception. He’s only the third player in the game’s history to record three sacks in a Super Bowl.
He attributed the performance to keeping it narrow.
“It means don’t make it bigger than what it is,” Ealy said. “Beat my man. Do my job. Be accountable. Get there. Win. I’m not waiting on the next person. I’m going after it.
“That’s not really selfish. That’s a team thing because at the end of the day, if I’m doing my job I might make someone else’s play easy. And vice versa.”
It was that kind of play that gave the Panthers confidence in the former second-round pick that he can be the full-time starter in 2016.
A better understanding
After Allen retired – he wouldn’t have been retained anyway – and Charles Johnson was re-signed on a one-year deal, Carolina decided to roll with Ealy. The Panthers didn’t draft a defensive end or sign one in free agency.
Defensive line coach Eric Washington said Ealy grasps the nuances of the position at the NFL level now.
“The thing he’s doing well is he’s understanding how to put himself in a position to be an effective one-on-one pass rusher,” Washington said. “That’s important for our four-man front and Kony understands what he needs to do within his skillset to put himself in position to be a factor and productive in that way. And he’s still learning in that way.”
Ealy said the goal is to meet the production from Super Bowl 50 in each game of the 2016 regular season, even though that’s an impossibly high bar.
“I think he set a very high standard,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “And that’s what Kony kind of wants. It’s been interesting because Kony, he’s a different young man. I believe he understands and gets what it takes now to take himself to the next level.
“And again, he’s one of those guys that when I talk about room to grow, he understands that he has room to grow. It’s going to be fun to watch him as he continues to get better as a football player for us.”
Maturity was a question
The Panthers knew before taking Ealy with the 60th overall selection in the 2014 draft that he had maturity issues, but that didn’t bother general manager Dave Gettleman.
“I’m a big believer in culture and environment. I really am,” Gettleman said. “Our culture is strong enough where on the assumption a guy is not a bad guy, as long as he’s a good person, we can get him where he needs to get to. That’s part of our job. We’re not getting ready-made players.
“We knew there was an immaturity level there, but we knew he was a good kid. He was too good of value to pass up at the bottom of the second round. I couldn’t believe it. They’re holding me back saying ‘Dave don’t trade up, relax’ I would have traded up for him with that kind of value there. We sat and he’s there and the rest is history.”
There were hints of that on draft night. Ealy wore diamond-encrusted earrings, ring, bracelet and watch to the draft, though he promised that he was simply renting the items and hadn’t bought them.
He got a hard dose of NFL life at his first training camp. Time and again he got stoned by French-Canadian rookie tackle David Foucault, who was still learning the intricacies of playing American football.
Ealy, tired and frustrated, heard his teammates shouting a mixture of encouragement and heckles, and there was a type of rookie initiation being held on the Wofford field that afternoon.
“I didn’t get it,” said Ealy when asked what he was like two years ago. “I ran around with my head cut off. Coming out of the draft, there’s a lot of things I could say negatively but I’m not going to go back there because at the end of the day it’s brought me this far.
“I’m not crying about everything. You’ve got to be a man in between these lines or you’ll find yourself outside of them real quick.”
Ealy finished last season with a sack in each of the final three games of the 2014 season and began the 2015 season as the starter opposite Charles Johnson. Johnson went down with a hamstring injury and missed eight weeks, and Ealy strung together four straight games with at least one sack while Allen started on the other side.
But when Johnson returned from the temporary injured reserve on Thanksgiving, Ealy was relegated to backup duty as Johnson and Allen started. He would total one sack for the rest of the season.
That was a trying time for Ealy, who has leaned on veterans and coaches since he came into the league.
Carolina’s coaching staff is one that puts teaching above all else. That’s why Washington has invested in Ealy and his players away from the football field.
“We try to make sure they understand their growth personally will affect their growth professionally,” Washington said. “And Kony has bought into that. He’s a tremendous listener. He’s doing a great job with the meetings and doing the mental part of the game and we’re starting to see the results of that on Sunday.”
Fatherhood as motivation
The birth of his daughter, Royal, has been a catalyst, too.
The Panthers played the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 15, and Ealy knew his girlfriend could go into labor at any moment before, during or after the game.
Ealy got a sack and three pressures on quarterback Marcus Mariota and went back to the visitors’ locker room to learn the baby still wasn’t on its way.
He boarded the plane from Nashville to Charlotte, and at some point in the air he got the message that he needed to get to St. Louis. The baby was coming.
When the plane landed in Charlotte, the players cleared the way so Ealy could hustle down the aisle and make a flight to Missouri.
“I started crying when I was running down the plane,” Ealy said. “It was kind of a funny moment because I’m this big football player crying but at the end of the day it was a good thing so people were cheering me on.”
‘A beautiful thing’
The questions about fatherhood had dominated Ealy’s mind. For years he had been taking care of his sister, Sierra, who has a rare chromosome disorder that has left her with physical disabilities.
But what about being responsible for another life? How would he adapt to being a father while also being employed in the NFL?
“It’s about taking ownership of being a man and a father,” he said. “And that starts with the little things, the things I do daily and making decisions on and off the field.”
Royal’s birth gave him new perspective on life – and on women.
“I saw everything. I was able to get there before the water even broke,” Ealy said. “And after seeing a woman go through that, I have more respect for all women because that’s crazy. It’s a beautiful thing.”