Carolina Panthers

Powerful pep talk: How Panthers RB Elijah Holyfield moved past ‘unacceptable’ error

Everyone can use a little pick-me-up now and again.

Maybe you forgot to send your boss an important email. Maybe you ruin a special Friday night dinner for your family. Or maybe, in your first major job audition — fighting not only for one of 53 highly coveted spots but for the long-term prospects of your career — you make a glaring error at the start.

Guess which box Elijah Holyfield fell into?

Holyfield, an undrafted rookie out of Georgia, is competing with a handful of young running backs to make the Carolina Panthers’ final roster. That meant Thursday night’s preseason opener against the Chicago Bears was his first game action to prove he belongs. Then factor in that fellow rookie Jordan Scarlett didn’t play because of a back injury, and the son of former boxing champion Evander Holyfield had a real shot to stand out.

And then, on his third carry, disaster.

Holyfield spun into the heart of the Bears’ defense in the second quarter of Carolina’s eventual 23-13 win, only for Bears linebacker Josh Woods to pop the ball loose with his shoulder. Chicago recovered ... and Holyfield could do nothing but sulk back to the sideline.

“The fumble is unacceptable,” Holyfield said. “I’ve just got to cuff the ball tighter.”

But back on the bench, there was no berating of the young player. The opposite, really. Coaches and teammates rained down messages of encouragement as the Bears marched down the field and scored.

In particular, one player made sure Holyfield didn’t dwell on his mistake:

Cameron Artis-Payne, one of his competitors at running back.

“CAP came over and told me about his first fumble his rookie year, in the (2015) playoffs versus the Seahawks,” Holyfield explained. “He was like, ‘Yeah, I almost lost the whole season, and they still stuck with me, and I bounced back.’

“Everybody gave me their stories about the time they fumbled, so that made me feel a little bit better about mine.”

For those who don’t recall, Artis-Payne’s first giveaway could have been much more costly than Holyfield’s. In the divisional round of the playoffs during the Panthers’ Super Bowl season, Jonathan Stewart took the game’s opening handoff 59 yards and into the red zone. Artis-Payne came in to spell him the next snap ... and promptly fumbled on a two-yard run.

“We had a great play — Stew ran the ball far, I’m pretty sure you remember — and I come straight in the game: fumble,” Artis-Payne told the Observer. “I told (Holyfield), under the pile I’m screaming at (Mike Tolbert), ‘Tole, you got the ball?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, I got it,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Thank God.’

“I just told (Holyfield) to relax. It’s a preseason game — I almost messed up the whole season.”

The Panthers ended up scoring two plays after Artis-Payne’s near giveaway and winning that game 31-24. Holyfield’s situation was much less serious, even if the Bears did score on the subsequent drive.

Artis-Payne reminded the rookie of that, and allowed him to get back to showcasing his value.

“He kind of uplifted me, and that was real nice of him,” Holyfield said. “It really helped. It really gave me the confidence to go back in there and do what I was supposed to do.”

During Carolina’s first possession after halftime, the rookie did just that. Backup QB Will Grier found him on a swing route out of the right side of the backfield, and Holyfield dove past a defender to hit the pylon. Holyfield said after the game that he “peeked” on the play and thought the ball might be coming his way, and then he delivered.

Then on the Panthers’ final drive, with Carolina protecting a 16-13, fourth-quarter lead, Holyfield finished the job. On first down from the Bears’ 20-yard line, he picked up nine tough yards with defenders piling all over him. The next play, he bounced a run to the left, eluded a would-be tackler in the backfield, and sprinted 11 yards for his second touchdown of the night. He finished with nine carries for 26 yards and two catches for 13.

“I thought he rebounded very strongly. It was good to see,” coach Ron Rivera said. “You know, he came in, he was real anxious, got an opportunity, and he loses the ball. But he came back, and I think handled the situation very well.”

That sort of determination, along with his shifty running style and physical frame, could endear Holyfield to coaches and fans alike.

Sometimes, all it takes is a little pep talk to get the train back on the tracks.

“Other than the fumble, I was happy with my performance,” Holyfield said. “Bad things do happen in football, so it’s the way you bounce back.”

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Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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