Have you ever watched a free safety play? The way he roams the field is rhythmic, almost hypnotic.
He must be at once patient and coiled to strike. He must scan the entire field, while not losing track of his target. He must be explosive, but always be in control.
Football is chaos. He must be balanced.
Carolina Panthers safety Rashaan Gaulden knows this, as he works to fill the team’s vacancy at free safety in his second NFL season. But coming to this realization meant first accepting what he didn’t know.
“This offseason, I took some time to myself, just to really reflect,” he said. “Also to look at the aspects at which I got better on and off the field ...The constant coaching I got from (veteran players), I was able to just really see, really reflect on what those guys were talking about, (and) how to really carry myself as a pro.
“Now, the time is here. So I’ve really wanted to grow.”
Last year, finding balance was a struggle for Gaulden. He played just 14 percent of the Panthers’ defensive snaps as he relearned the free safety position. It was a huge change from his standout career at Tennessee, where he played just about every position in the secondary with near-autonomy.
But instead of becoming nationally known for his capable play there, Gaulden went viral for in 2017 for flipping off a group of Alabama fans. Instead of his impressive film clips circulating widely on social media the night he was drafted by the Panthers in the third round, a photo of that moment was all people talked about.
When he came to Carolina, Gaulden once again found himself on the wrong end of a viral moment. During a training camp scrimmage, Gaulden accidentally laid a massive hit on receiver Jarius Wright that made Wright momentarily go limp.
Gaulden, clearly horrified by the hit immediately afterward, was chastised publicly and angrily by a few teammates. The video was shared by a blog, and then began to circulate widely across the country.
“I just hated that it had to be Jarius,” said Gaulden. “He’s one of the coolest dudes on our team.”
Gaulden retreated a little into himself in the months that followed, not really because of the hit — though to this day he grimaces when he discusses it — but because similar lessons in humility kept coming throughout the 2018 season.
He was a clear second-string player behind veteran Mike Adams, in a corner locker near the laundry bin next to fellow rookie Donte Jackson. As Jackson exploded into the defensive Rookie of the Year conversation after a few games, media often swarmed his locker just as Gaulden, though proud of his friend, would quietly change and slip away.
This summer, Gaulden decided to reshape the narrative — and to reset his approach to being in the NFL, with the opportunity for a more featured role in his sights.
The first step was to change the perception of that notorious photograph from the Alabama game from negative to positive. Gaulden auctioned it off to raise $2,600 for the Knoxville Change Center, which provides a safe place for recreation and leadership development for young adults.
“I wanted to get the bad image out of there,” he said. “I wanted to turn it into a way to give back ... I jumped out of the box for this stuff because I hadn’t really done it before.”
He also saw the work that teammate Eric Reid does with Amnesty International and the Know Your Rights campaign alongside Colin Kaepernick, and the way Reid balances international attention and his desire to do good with his football life.
“(Eric) is just a really good guy to look up to,” said Gaulden. He said that the way Reid arrived so game-ready “off the couch” to Carolina in Week 4 was a huge lesson in understanding how he needed to study his craft, and prepare his body.
So Gaulden went home to Spring Hill, Tenn., less frequently this spring, instead sticking around the team facilities to develop relationships with the Panthers’ training staff.
“I just wanted to be around the facility more to show them that I’m a guy they can count on,” he said. “Really, I’m just trying to make myself more available. Because I know the kind of guy I am and who I can be for this team, the leader and infectious player I am on the field.”
Even in his hobbies, there are things Gaulden can learn.
He watches a lot of soccer — Gaulden is a huge Liverpool fan. He even did some voice-overs for the CONCACAF Gold Cup broadcast ahead of the match that will be hosted by the Carolina Panthers and Bank of America Stadium this summer.
Watching soccer, a game of control and rhythm, can remind Gaulden about how he will need to see the field as a free safety, how the small pieces fit together into a bigger picture, and how he will carry that off the field with him, too.
It reminds him to find balance.