When Taylor Moton comes to Charlotte next week for the Carolina Panthers’ rookie minicamp, he’ll be returning to his late grandfather’s old stomping grounds – and he’ll be driving a 2001 Ford F-150.
The truck is a nod to Carolina offensive tackle Michael Oher, the subject of the 2009 movie, “The Blind Side,” and – the Panthers hope – Moton’s competition at right tackle.
Moton, a second-round pick from Western Michigan, gives the Panthers depth at tackle and serves as an insurance policy in case Oher doesn’t return from a stint in the concussion protocol that has reached seven months.
Moton said the Panthers didn’t say anything to him about Oher, whose rags-to-riches story was turned into a best-selling book and a successful movie, which made an impact on Moton and his parents.
“My mom loved it and she wanted to get me that same truck that Michael Oher had in that movie,” Moton said. “I still have it to this day.”
Moton got the truck when he was in high school in Okemos, Mich., where he lived 10 minutes from Michigan State’s Spartan Stadium. His grandfather, Thomas Gunnings, was a psychology professor at Michigan State who began his career as a teacher and counselor in Charlotte.
Moton’s great uncle, Clarence Fisher, lives in Gastonia and has had Panthers’ season tickets since their inaugural 1995 season.
Like his grandfather, who died in 2010, Moton is an academic. He graduated last spring and spent the fall juggling football with the MBA program at Western Michigan.
Moton’s smarts – combined with his 6-5, 319-pound frame, prompted Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman to describe him as a “big ol’ tough hog molly who’s smarter than this entire room.”
Moton isn’t sure about all that. But unlike first-round pick Christian McCaffrey, who admitted he’s not much of a reader, Moton does dive into the occasional book.
“I didn’t think I was that smart,” Moton said. “But other people tell me I am.”
He’s certainly been called big a time or two, also.
After competing in football, basketball and track and field in high school, Moton drew football scholarships from Indiana and a number of Mid-American Conference schools. But the hometown Spartans showed little interest.
“I was kind of like upset about it when I was younger, when I first realized Michigan State didn’t think I was good enough to play there,” Moton said Saturday during an introductory press conference at Bank of America Stadium.
“But I guess as I got older I started to realize what a blessing it was that I (went) to Western and how much I loved the school,” he added. “I realized there was no other place I’d rather have played college football.”
Moton started a school-record 52 games at Western Michigan and played a big part in the program’s ascendance. The Broncos won their first bowl game while Moton was there, and went undefeated last season before losing to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.
Moton played well against the Badgers’ T.J. Watt, the younger brother of J.J. Watt and the Steelers’ first-round pick Thursday night.
But Moton’s best bowl memories are from the Bahamas, where he and his teammates swam with dolphins, went to a water park and celebrated their school’s first bowl victory on a fleet of tiny buses.
“Imagine like 13 300-pound men on this small bus. We were just shaking it, going crazy after the game,” Moton said. “It’s definitely an experience I’ll never forget.”
Moton has surprising quickness for someone his size, testing well in the agility drills at the combine. He gave up only two sacks over his final three seasons, and held his own against better competition such as Watt and Illinois defensive end Dawuane Smoot, Jacksonville’s third-round pick.
“He’s a big, powerful kid. He’s very smart. He’s tough,” Gettleman said. “It really was fun to watch him as you went through his season. He’s just getting better and better and better.”
Moton will either compete with Oher, or be among those vying to become his successor. Oher, who missed the final 13 games last season after experiencing post-concussion symptoms, has not been participating in the Panthers’ offseason workouts.
But Panthers coach Ron Rivera is hoping Oher will be a part of the plans.
“That’s between him and the doctors as we’re going forward,” Rivera said. “We’re in the voluntary phase of our program.”
Moton is looking forward to meeting Oher. He’s seen “The Blind Side” twice, but had to tamp down his parents’ enthusiasm for the movie.
“My parents probably saw it a lot more than I have. They loved it. They wanted to get ‘Blind Side’ on my license plate,” Moton said. “I think that’s when I had to put a hold on it. The truck was enough. I didn’t need to put the license plate on there.”
As for the truck, it now has 115,000 miles on it and might be on its last legs.
“It’s been having some problems these last few months. Engine stuff,” Moton said. “It’s just a couple miles away from blowing up, I think.”
But with his combination of brains and brawn, Moton is ready for his pro career to start truckin’.