Austin O’Connor and his father, Kevin, made the trip to Wofford College for Carolina Panthers training camp last week, just as they have every summer since O’Connor was 13.
They drove down Interstate 26 from Asheville in the early, foggy hours of the Carolina morning.
It was cloudy, for once. Austin, now 24, couldn’t remember a gentler morning in all of his years hawking autographs along the sideline at Gibbs Stadium and the adjacent practice fields.
When quarterback Cam Newton was a rookie, Austin stayed out in the Spartanburg heat long after his father had given up and retreated to the car. His effort paid off: The two drove back, deliriously happy in the air conditioning – proud owners of both Newton and star tight end Greg Olsen’s autographs on the same hat.
Austin thought about that day as he walked quietly with Kevin down the sideline of the practice field, following the curve of the hill where thousands of fans have sat over the years to watch practice.
It was late enough for the fog to have lifted over the treeline around the field, but still early enough for there to be hardly another fan or two out roaming the facilities.
Austin stopped as he drew even with the end zone. He said a few quiet words, and wiped a few quiet tears. He removed a tiny urn from his pocket, and sprinkled Kevin’s ashes into the grass.
Then, he walked away.
Grief and celebration
Loss, and new life, have both been enormous equalizers for this Panthers team through the spring and summer.
Receiver Kelvin Benjamin’s mother passed away shortly before camp began. He has been a polite hermit about the topic, but after his beautiful leaping touchdown against Houston last week, he pointed to the sky in a dedication to her.
Defensive end Mario Addison lost several childhood friends this summer, and memorializes them on his cleats.
Linebacker Zeek Bigger’s best friend and former teammate, Domonique Lennon, was shot and killed in July, just hours after he had gotten off the phone with Bigger.
Safety Dezmen Southward’s brother was killed in a motorcycle accident the night before the team’s first padded training camp practice in July.
These young men have grieved and sought closure in the same locker room, dorm rooms and team meeting rooms as teammates who have celebrated new life.
Corner Daryl Worley’s son was born a little over a week before camp, and he delightedly brought the stuffed “Batman” pillow with him to the Wofford dormitories because it reminded him of the newborn.
Linebacker Shaq Thompson and running back Jonathan Stewart both had baby daughters, and both can be seen constantly cooing and giggling with the girls – both named Kaia – all over social media.
Safety Kurt Coleman had a son who will inherit his name. Kicker Graham Gano had a son, too.
All of the love a new parent feels and the pain of loss has melded together in the bubble of camp over the last three weeks.
“That’s what it is,” said head coach Ron Rivera on Saturday, the day before the end of Carolina’s time in Spartanburg. “These are young men. ... But there’s something more than they are.
“They’re football players, they’re regular guys. They have regular guy problems and issues. They have families.
“And you’re right, we have had a whole bunch of guys who have dealt with loss. And a lot of them have had the blessings of having children.”
‘It’s not just a game’
The Panthers didn’t really become an emotional connection for O’Connor until his parents got divorced.
His dad called him every day from Charlotte, and the two would talk Panthers football. They started going to camps, and O’Connor’s obsession grew.
“Every year after that, we were here, and he always found a way to bring me to a game or two every season even though money was tight,” he said.
They kept up the tradition after Kevin was diagnosed in 2013. He had a life-extending surgery on O’Connor’s 20th birthday that year, and the two continued to follow the team through the 2014 season.
The last game the two attended was against the Falcons in 2014, just before the team went on a hot streak.
“That was the coolest game ever, because he was feeling good at that point,” said O’Connor. “But as the year went on, it started to get worse again.”
Kevin died of pancreatic cancer in February of 2015, but O’Connor still felt him and heard him with him every time he watched a game.
He said when the Panthers went on their Super Bowl run in 2015, he would text back and forth about each victory with his aunt, half-joking with each other that Kevin was helping the team along – but half-believing it, too.
“As cliche and cheesy as it sounds, I don’t think that football is just a game,” O’Connor said. “The Panthers are always going to hold a special place in my heart. Because to me, they represent these memories and tradition, and a bond that I had with my dad.
“These memories are close to my heart, and (the Panthers) are a part of that now.”
A bubble of humanity
This camp was the third stop on O’Connor’s list of places to leave his father’s ashes. He had also taken Kevin to a Jimmy Buffett concert, and sprinkled a few into the wind in the mountains after a night of camping, too. He plans to take Kevin all over the world.
The first two destinations were cathartic in their own way, he said. But this one was different.
This one, he said, gave him chills that stayed with him the rest of the day as the memories of training camp with his father were so fresh, they became almost audible to him.
Then the Panthers’ social media team reached out to O’Connor with gear and support, and he spent the practice taking photos in homage to his father, who had been a photographer.
And when O’Connor found out last week that Benjamin had lost a parent too, he felt a surge of empathy that deepened when he learned of the losses others had suffered before camp.
He also felt a stronger connection to the team, even as an outsider looking in, because they made it so personal for him.
Meanwhile, Rivera said he has fielded from his players a strong and at-odds mixture of new-parent questions and inquiries about grief, and how to move through it.
O’Connor feels that connection to what Rivera agreed is “a bubble of humanity,” of life, loss, grief, joy and closure all crammed into three weeks and three blocks worth of living and work space.
“I hope that’s something that folks understand,” Rivera said. “It really is.”