Carolina Panthers running back Elijah Hood ran several yards as a football sailed overhead, the brace on his left knee flashing in the sun as he made the catch.
The 23-year-old Charlotte native starred at Charlotte Catholic and North Carolina, which led the Raiders to drafting him in 2017. When Oakland waived him after one year, the Panthers picked up Hood the next day.
Ten months ago, a knee injury in Carolina’s last preseason game threatened to strip Hood of the chance to play for his hometown team, propelling him into a period of pain and doubt.
“You don’t realize what you got until it’s gone,” Hood said.
But three weeks after his surgery, his son Elisha was born. If the player needed added motivation to throw himself into his recovery, it was now sitting in his lap.
“When you have that kid, it just puts another fire underneath you,” Hood said after a recent practice. “He looks up to me every day, and he sees daddy. I gotta be strong.”
‘That’s not good’
At UNC, Hood was known for being a freak athlete because of his size and speed, former Tar Heels teammate Dante DiMaggio said.
“It made you ready for the game because you always had to match his 100 percent,” DiMaggio said.
Former UNC head coach Larry Fedora described Hood as a ‘little body that’s extremely strong.’
“You don’t find guys naturally that strong,” Fedora said.
But that was college. In August 2018, Hood lined up as a member of the Panthers’ kickoff coverage team, hoping to solidify his spot on the roster. He ran down the field on the opening play of the Panthers’ last preseason game on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As he tried to cut in front of another player, they collided. Hood’s foot was planted and the force of the impact caused his knee to hyperextend.
When Hood stood up, his leg buckled.
“I was like, ‘OK, that’s not good,’” Hood said.
Back in Charlotte, a knee scan confirmed the extent of the damage: a torn ACL, which could not be repaired until his sprained MCL healed.
The Panthers sent Hood to injured reserve when they made roster cuts two days later.
‘Little sticks of dynamite’
For the next several weeks, all Hood could do was focus on “prehab,” — doing leg exercises to keep whatever muscle he had left before surgery. Although Hood thought the initial injury was painful, he wasn’t ready for how rough post-surgery life would be.
“The pain was immeasurable the first day or two, like little sticks of dynamite exploding in your knee,” Hood said. “No matter if you were taking the pain pills or not, it was a lot of pain those first couple days.”
The recovery was as slow as it was painful, Hood said. There was an emotional struggle as well.
But the birth of Elisha Juhani Hood on Oct. 30 gave him a jolt of motivation — and hope.
Fatherhood changed his life, Hood said.
“You learn something new every day,” Hood said. “He does stuff you don’t expect him to do because you realize how freaking intelligent children are.”
Now 7 months old, Elisha is now crawling and standing — almost walking around, Hood said. He has two teeth, and has started mimicking different things his parents do.
His dad was walking again, and testing out his legs. So Elisha did, too.
Now as the 2019 season draws closer, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said it’s clear that Hood’s son has motivated his father.
“It’s the hard work of going through the rehab program,” Rivera said. “During that process, you’re isolated at times. You have to be able to motivate yourself to be able to push yourself to be here and do the extra work. He seems to be doing that right now.”
‘Act of good faith’
In February, the Panthers re-signed Hood to a one-year contract. He can now show them how he fits on the field — whether at running back, on special teams or both.
“The Panthers have seen the way I’ve been recovering, how much effort I’ve been putting in,” Hood said. “They re-signed me, and that was an act of good faith on their end.”
For now, the team is cautiously reintroducing him back into practice to prepare him for training camp.
“The hard part for Elijah is when you don’t have the pads on, his ability, his skill set, his base fundamentals of playing football really don’t show,” Rivera said. “When you judge Elijah, you have to judge him based on being in pads... That’s where his skill is really evident.”
Hood is a big guy with good hands. At least, that’s how the 5-foot-11, 230-pound player describes himself.
“Maybe not Christian McCaffrey-level hands, but good hands,” Hood said. “I’m still working on my routes. Everyone is trying to aspire to the Christian-level of route running.”
Hood knows he has an uphill battle — again. There are five other running backs on the roster and Cameron Artis-Payne, who has been with the team for five years, is the front-runner for a backup role to McCaffrey. The Panthers also drafted running back Jordan Scarlett, and signed undrafted free-agent Elijah Holyfield this spring.
Hood, Holyfield, Scarlett and Reggie Bonnafon will in theory compete for two available spots on the 53-man roster.
But Hood is back with everything he has, his son by his side.