Carolina Panthers

Duke’s Braxton Deaver is in the NFL. The challenge is to stay.

Tight end Braxton Deaver catches a pass during the Carolina Panthers’ rookie minicamp, where he performed well enough to earn a spot on the team’s 90-man summer roster.
Tight end Braxton Deaver catches a pass during the Carolina Panthers’ rookie minicamp, where he performed well enough to earn a spot on the team’s 90-man summer roster. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Kaitlin Deaver peeked through the cracks in the chain-link fence, which was neatly draped in black cloth to make it hard to see through.

It was the last day of Carolina Panthers rookie minicamp, and she was looking for one player – her older brother, tight end Braxton Deaver.

But he was still practicing, so she left.

At lunchtime, Kaitlin was driving by again, and she stopped when she noticed the players – a mix of draft picks, undrafted free agents and tryout players – pouring off the field.

Her brother was the last one out. After going undrafted out of Duke in April, Deaver had been invited to the camp, making him one of the five tight ends there trying to earn a spot on the 90-man roster.

Deaver hugged his sister, pulled her close and whispered in her ear.

I made it.

Deaver asked her not to tell anyone until he signed his paperwork. At least that was the plan.

“We didn’t hear from him until 4 o’clock,” Kaitlin said, “so by then I had definitely told everyone.”

By the time Deaver left the Panthers facility, he had hundreds of congratulatory text messages, many of them from people he hadn’t seen in years.

Welcome to the NFL.

Outside looking in

Deaver grew up in Charlotte, but for a time he was not a Carolina Panthers fan.

One cold Sunday when he was 8, Deaver was watching a Panthers game with his dad, Jay. A former offensive lineman at Wake Forest, Jay loved football. More specifically, he loved the Panthers.

His son didn’t.

“I would live and die by (the Panthers) losing or winning,” Jay said, “and he was pulling for the other team.”

Jay didn’t understand why, so he gave his son an ultimatum.

“Either you pull for the Panthers, or stand out in the deck in your underwear in about 25 degree weather,” Jay told Deaver.

“And he went outside. When he was ready to pull for the Panthers, he came inside.”

It was only a few minutes, but it changed Deaver’s mind for good.

“He became a Panthers fan,” Jay said, “because we all were.”

Maybe not the right path

Deaver started playing football soon after, and by high school was a star.

During his last three years at Providence, he had 35 touchdowns and more than 2,500 receiving yards. He earned a scholarship to Duke.

After redshirting as a freshman and scarcely playing the next season, Deaver was ready to contribute in 2012 as a sophomore.

I had to reassess what I was doing with my life. You think, ‘Is this really for me? Is this really something I want to be doing?’ And after that subsides, you realize football has given you so much. And I knew I could come back.

Braxton Deaver, after tearing his ACL while at Duke

Then he tore his left ACL and missed the season.

“When it happens,” Deaver said, “you’re like, maybe this isn’t my path.

“But I realized quickly it still was.”

As a junior, he put up the best numbers of his career – 43 catches, 600 yards and four touchdowns. He earned third-team All-ACC honors.

But before his senior season, he tore his other ACL.

This time, doubts crept in.

“I had to reassess what I was doing with my life,” Deaver said. “You think, ‘Is this really for me? Is this really something I want to be doing?’ And after that subsides, you realize football has given you so much.

“And I knew I could come back.”

‘It’s not gonna happen’

On the third day of the 2016 NFL Draft, Deaver was playing cornhole in Durham. He’d decided to have a draft party, knowing full well he may not be selected.

He had gotten a sixth year of eligibility at Duke but only caught 21 balls for 183 yards. His dad had advised him against the draft celebration.

“We’ve all seen on TV, the guys who think they’re going,” Jay told his son, “and it’s just so painfully awkward.

“And he said, ‘Yeah, I understand that.’”

Leading up to the draft, Deaver had aced his pro day at Duke. Then, at a workout for the Panthers, Deaver excelled again.

At 6-5 and 245 pounds, he ran a 4.76-second 40-yard dash and put up 26 bench press repetitions of 225 pounds.

When the Panthers were on the clock with the second-to-last pick in the seventh round, Deaver thought he had a chance. Phone in hand, he watched the television timer tick away.

“And as time got down to the very end,” Jay said, “he was like, ‘It’s not gonna happen.’”

Deaver wasn’t picked. Maybe, he thought, this isn’t for me.

“It just came down to people needing to see that I was healthy,” Deaver said. “And as much as I tried to prove that, it just wasn’t resonating as fully as it could have with teams.”

Thank you, Lord

A few teams reached out after the draft, with two organizations emerging – the Baltimore Ravens and the Panthers.

The Ravens had rookie camp a week earlier, meaning if Deaver was cut in Baltimore, he’d still have a chance to try out with Carolina. Instead, Deaver called his dad.

He wasn’t going to Baltimore.

“He goes, ‘I’m gonna put all my eggs in one basket,’ ” Jay said, “and if I don’t make it in Charlotte, maybe this is not meant to be.’”

At the Panthers rookie camp, Deaver shone. He caught the ball well and ran solid routes. He heard rumblings from coaches he may make the cut.

“I don’t think I could have done anything to better my chances,” Deaver said. “Obviously there’s always something you can do better, but I definitely thought my chances were good.”

On the final day, he was in a team meeting room with about 50 other guys, awaiting his fate. Coaches said they would call out a few names, and Deaver knew those called had made it.

His heart was racing.

“I was the third name called,” Deaver said.

“Thank you, Lord.”

Still a long shot

At a Panthers practice in May, Jay was out at the practice field to watch his son compete. On one play, Deaver snagged a pass from backup quarterback Derek Anderson and wiggled down the sideline.

Jay pumped his fist.

“He’s still got a long way to go to be making a living in the NFL,” Jay said. “There doesn’t seem to ever be a safe day.”

Deaver has worked primarily with the second- and third-team offenses so far, but he got a few first-team reps.

His days were filled with workouts and meetings, and his nights with studying in his room at the team hotel. He studied protections with rookie offensive lineman Jordan Rigsbee. Other nights he went over routes with rookie tight end Beau Sandland – the player the Panthers selected with that pick in the seventh round.

“We understand there’s only 53 spots on the roster,” Sandland said. “It’s not like there’s any ill feelings or we’re trying to sabotage each other.”

After two ACL injuries, Deaver doesn’t want to let any opportunity get away.

With All-Pro Greg Olsen, veterans Ed Dickson and Marcus Lucas and Sandland all on the roster, challenges remain.

“It’s a tough world; there’s only so many guys that can make it,” tight ends coach Pete Hoener said. “He’s gonna have to work really hard, and I know he will.”

The true test comes in training camp, which opens in late July. The Panthers must trim their 90-man summer roster to 53 for the regular season.

Three tight ends are likely to make the cut. Another could land on Carolina’s practice squad.

Deaver can’t worry about that now. More workouts, and more studying, are ahead.

And his family?

“For now, for this summer of 2016,” his father says, “we are just gonna wallow in how cool this all is.”

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5338, @brendanrmarks

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