Carolina Panthers running back Mike Tolbert enjoyed the ceremony Wednesday at Bank of America Stadium this week when players received their NFC championship rings.
But Tolbert would have preferred a different ring setting.
“Obviously, we would have rather been at the White House,” Tolbert said. “But things don’t happen always (the way) that you want. You deal with it, learn from it and move on.”
“It’s a really beautiful ring. But I’d rather have the Super Bowl ring,” Tolbert added. “But we’re going to work for that one this year.”
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Tolbert was speaking Friday morning on the artificial turf field at Ardrey Kell High, site of Jonathan Stewart’s Football ProCamp. Stewart will host about 350 players grades one through eight over two days after taking over the camp from former Panthers receiver Steve Smith last year.
The annual camp is another sign the Panthers are moving closer to turning the page on their Super Bowl runner-up season of 2015 and gearing up for another run at a ring in ’16. Players will go through a mandatory, three-day minicamp in Charlotte next week before getting five weeks off before the start of training camp.
The Panthers open the season Sept. 8 at Denver in a rematch of Super Bowl 50. The Broncos visited the White House on Monday to be honored by President Barack Obama in a Rose Garden ceremony.
Stewart agreed with Tolbert that the Panthers’ ring ceremony was a nice celebration of what the team accomplished – 17 victories, including 14 in a row to start the regular season, and a third consecutive NFC South title.
But it also served as a reminder of how the Panthers fell a game short of their goal.
“You have to kind of find a way to move on,” Stewart said. “Yeah, we went to the Super Bowl. That was great. We had a great season last year. We had a lot to be thankful for. So you’ve always got to keep that in mind.”
“I think that’s really the message of the season. But at the same time you never want to settle. You don’t want to have that mindset,” he added. “So you can’t dwell on what happened last year. I think having the ring ceremony Wednesday was definitely a good stamp on what last year was, and it’s time to move on.”
Stewart has a painful reminder of the 24-10 loss to Denver in Santa Clara, Calif.
He has been dealing with lingering pain in his left foot, which he injured in the first half when Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe tackled Stewart around his ankle and caused Stewart to get bent backward.
Stewart has been limited during the Panthers’ recent organized team activities practices. But when he was asked about it Friday, Stewart said only: “I’m good.”
Stewart was more expansive on the topic of Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, who helped Stewart with the camp for the second year in a row.
Panthers coaches, players and fans have long talked about Kuechly with boy-next-door terms of endearment, and Stewart did nothing to dispel Kuechly’s squeaky-clean image Friday.
“Public service announcement: Luke Kuechly is probably the best person on this earth,” Stewart said. “Ever since he’s been in Charlotte, since I met him, he’s probably one of the best human beings I’ve ever met. Everyone probably knows that. What better player to share this camp with.”
Stewart was asked if he had an example of Kuechly’s good-heartedness.
He shared from 2012 shortly after the Panthers drafted Kuechly in the first round. Stewart said he was in the training room after an offseason workout when Kuechly stuck his head in and asked if anyone wanted anything from the cafeteria.
“Just offering out of nowhere. Usually if you’re hungry, you just go eat,” Stewart said. “Luke Kuechly’s that guy that walks by a trash can and if there’s something on the ground it’s going to be put in the trash can.”
Kuechly and Stewart cheered on campers Friday as they competed in 40-yard sprints. Stewart took videos with his cell phone, while Kuechly listened with interest while one of the camp organizers announced the “world record” 40 times posted at ProCamp’s other stops.
Tolbert stood alongside them, too. Soon all three players will join 87 others in Spartanburg as the Panthers begin defense of their NFC championship.
Stewart believes locker-room chemistry has played a big part in the success.
“This team is definitely different than a lot of teams. We get guys that come from different teams and the first thing they say is the locker room is just different,” Stewart said. “It’s not clique-ish. It’s nothing like that. We’re really a family. Pick on each other. We support each other through good and bad. If something’s going on in somebody’s family we’re there for them. It’s literally like a family.”