Kealoha Pilares’ best chance at making the Carolina Panthers’ opening-week roster this year is to excel at the very thing that ended each of his past two seasons.
Pilares has undergone surgeries the past two years for injuries that occurred when he was returning a kickoff.
Yet when the Hawaiian-born Pilares lines up in the end zone for his first return Friday night in the exhibition opener against Buffalo, he insists he won’t be gun-shy.
“I haven’t really been thinking about it until you just put it in my head,” Pilares said this week, laughing. “My knee’s been feeling good. I’ve been putting so much concentration on it and just trying to get back to where it was. It feels better than ever, so I’m not going to think about it.”
Pilares has had a lot of time to think. Rather than sulking or cursing his luck while on injured reserve, he did a lot of reflecting and figuring out his place in the universe.
He grew his hair out into dreadlocks. He became a pescatarian, eating fish and cutting all other meat out of his diet.
During an lunchtime interview Wednesday at Wofford’s student union, Pilares said his dreads have come to symbolize his perseverance.
“It’s kind of taken me on a path. It’s made me focus on a lot on my inside, rather than my outside. It’s changed my perception a lot about everything, life in general,” Pilares said. “It all kind of came together because during IR you’re by yourself. So I started reading and just going that way.”
Pilares, who was raised in a Catholic family, struggled for the right words to describe his two-year spiritual journey.
“I just started looking at the world differently, like why we are here? What’s our purpose?” he said.
From a football perspective, Pilares knows he has an opportunity to win his former job back. With Ted Ginn Jr. signing with Arizona as a free agent during the offseason, the Panthers need punt and kickoff returners.
Pilares will get the first shot at returning kicks. As a rookie in 2011, Pilares led the Panthers and ranked fifth in the NFC with a 25.7-yard kickoff average.
Pilares was the NFC special teams player of the week after setting a team record with a 101-yard touchdown return in a November loss at Detroit. His 46.7-yard average against the Lions also tied a team record.
Pilares scored his first receiving touchdown the next season on a 36-yard, wide receiver screen against Atlanta. He was averaging a team-high 24 yards per kickoff return before going down with a season-ending shoulder injury against Washington.
Pilares had his legs taken out from under him returning a kick against the Redskins and tore his labrum and a muscle behind his right shoulder when he put his arm down to brace his fall.
After several months of rehab, Pilares was injured again last August while making a cut during a runback in the third exhibition against Baltimore. Pilares thought he’d hyperextended his right knee, but an MRI exam revealed a torn ACL.
While Pilares recovered from the reconstructive surgery, Ginn had a good year in what turned out to be his only season with Carolina. But with Ginn gone and Pilares healthy again, the former fifth-round pick is glad to get another chance.
“Just coming off two big injuries, it’s been a while for me back on the field. So I’m really looking forward to it,” Pilares said. “I’m excited, just grateful to be back out there running around and being able to do what I can do.”
With so many kickoffs resulting in touchbacks since the NFL moved the spot from the 30-yard line to the 35 in 2011, Pilares might not get many chances during the preseason. As long as his foot isn’t on the back line of the end zone, Pilares indicated he would run the kickoff out. Panthers coaches hope he will.
“He’ll get an opportunity and hopefully he’ll get a couple of good ones and he can show,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “We know what he’s capable of as far as that’s concerned. We’ll also watch him on the cover units as well, plus at wide receiver.”
When the Panthers practiced kickoff coverage Wednesday, Pilares was the first player down the field. He said defensive backs have told him he looks as fast as he did before his knee injury.
“I’ve seen a spring in his step a little bit. I think he’s anxious to get one and get going,” special teams coordinator Richard Rodgers said. “He’s always had quicks. So he’s got that going for him.”
Pilares, 26, and quarterback Cam Newton are the only players remaining from the Panthers’ 2011 draft class.
Pilares’ NFL path hasn’t gone how he’d mapped it out, but he says the past two years have taught him to live with no regrets.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way, though. These things make you grow,” he said. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at if I didn’t have those injuries.”