Carolina Panthers

Zeek Bigger has emotional motivation to make Panthers, but hasn’t even told teammates

Carolina Panthers linebacker Zeek Bigger, left, walks to practice with head coach Ron Rivera, right, on Tuesday, August 1, 2017 at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.
Carolina Panthers linebacker Zeek Bigger, left, walks to practice with head coach Ron Rivera, right, on Tuesday, August 1, 2017 at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.

It was a Friday in June, and the drowsy Southern sun was beginning to dip lazily in the sky. Zeek Bigger was on the phone, laughing.

He was speaking with his best friend, former East Carolina football teammate and housemate Domonique Lennon, on one of their daily FaceTime calls.

The two were joyful, exuberant favorites in the locker room at ECU, and Lennon was excited for Bigger, who in May had signed a free agent contract with the Carolina Panthers, just 20 minutes from his hometown in Gastonia.

“We were laughing and playin’,” Bigger said. “He was telling me how blessed he felt I was for getting this opportunity.”

The conversation reverted, as it always did, from supportive to playful.

“He was in his car, he was (down to) his underwear,” Bigger said. “I said, ‘Boy! What’re you doing in your underwear?’ And he said, ‘It’s hot!’ I said, ‘You got the air conditioning on?’ He said ‘It’s still hot!’”

Hours later, Lennon was dead.

The 911 call from the Raleigh shooting on June 23 that took Lennon’s life is heartbreaking.

The female caller said she thought someone had gotten shot as she was walking by Raleigh restaurant Bahama Breeze. She started to cry, because she said a man she was with saw blood and thought someone was dead. She said it looked like the person had holes in his arm.

“I don’t know where he’s hit. ... He’s not moving at all,” she said, according to the recording of the call released by police.

“Oh, poor baby.”

The case is still under investigation, though police have said Lennon became the clear target of 10 or more gunshots. No one else was injured, police said.

Lennon was pronounced dead at the scene. He is survived by his young son, Landon.

When Bigger recounts the calls he got from two friends telling him Lennon had been killed, his earnest, crinkle-lined eyes go hollow.

“I was supposed to give him a call that evening,” he said, like it was still on his schedule. “I was supposed to give him a call. ... But I got two calls telling me what happened.

“There wasn’t anything I could do, but cry.”

A little over a month later, Bigger is almost through his first training camp, with a practice interception for a touchdown and a preseason sack under his belt as he fights to make the roster.

He’s a longshot in a linebackers room that contains stars Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the talented Shaq Thompson and three serviceable backups.

Plus, Bigger is coming back from a year away from football after going undrafted and without a tryout opportunity last year.

His teammates don’t know about his loss, and Bigger won’t tell them. Instead, he wants to be a sponge in the film room, and a worker on the field.

“So many young people leave us these days, you just don’t know,” he said. “I just want to work, have fun and get my joy out there on the field.”

Bigger doesn’t even have a seat in the team meeting room yet. Instead, he sits on the floor.

No matter. There’s something bigger at play.

“God put me here for a reason,” he said, shrugging and offering his signature easy smile. “(Domonique) is here with me. He’s pushing me through. He’s making me stronger each and every day.

“I won’t get to talk to him as much now, but I know he’s watching.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue

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