By the time the Carolina Panthers faced the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50, Kelvin Benjamin had been running on his surgically repaired ACL for more than a month.
The rehab was going well, and though the 2015 season for him was lost, he’d be ready to go by training camp.
But standing on the sideline at Levi’s Stadium, Benjamin did not want to wait until Spartanburg.
“The whole time I was thinking like dang I wish I could run one route or go catch one pass,” Benjamin said Friday. “But that wasn’t reality.”
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This week Benjamin is showing what could have been – and what could be – at training camp, where he’s already reclaimed a No. 1 receiver role that was never in doubt.
And he’s back catching passes from his buddy and quarterback Cam Newton.
“I was like a kid in the candy store,” Benjamin said of his first night of practice.
Benjamin is back at Wofford College, where his 2015 season came to an end. On the next-to-last day of camp in Spartanburg, Benjamin tore the ACL in his left knee and was done for the season.
The potential injury that kept general manager Dave Gettleman up at night had been realized. And after Gettleman decided not to sign veteran receivers who were either near the end of their career or halfway to the Hall of Fame, the Panthers figured it out with what they had left and became the No. 1 scoring offense in the league.
A bad place
Benjamin cheered the team from the sideline and put on a happy face, but he admitted Friday that he was in a bad place for the first month of the season.
“I had to get away,” he said. “I couldn’t really see football at the time because I would just get down.”
Then the wins began to pile up, and Benjamin absorbed the energy of the team. At some point, Gettleman approached Benjamin and told him to shake it off.
“He said it’s time to wipe the tears off to get to work,” Benjamin recalled. “Just by him coming to tell me that, it helped me forget about it and move on.
“It felt like that year flew by so fast.”
Benjamin had plenty of time to reflect in that year. He thought about how poorly he ate during his rookie season, one that saw him set franchise rookie records with 73 catches and 1,008 receiving yards.
He remembered the dropped passes (all 11 of them) and the missed assignments (too many to count) and vowed that he’ll be better at all of that in 2016.
Rehab with a focus
It started with the rehab. Benjamin worked alongside receiver Stephen Hill, who earlier in last year’s camp tore his ACL, and together they trained during the 15-1 season.
In recent months Benjamin has focused on strengthening his thighs and glutes so that his left knee will be strong enough to endure four exhibitions, 16 regular-season contests and whatever postseason the Panthers may see.
He was winded after his first practice Thursday, participating in team drills for the first time in nearly a year. The Panthers will add more repetitions each day to build toward the season.
Benjamin admitted to nerves on his first catch – one that he bobbled – but he settled in afterward. Benjamin received applause and cheers from the crowd of more than 22,000 fans after each catch.
“Last year I didn’t really get a lot of roars,” Benjamin said. “It was cool.”
His quarterback thought so, too.
“I know he’s excited, emotional, a lot of things going through his head right now,” Newton said, “but just to see him get the confidence and him to get back in the groove of things.”
Benjamin promises he’s eliminated the thought of injury from his mind. You have to block it out in order to build confidence, he said.
The other thing: he won’t wear a knee brace this season. The doctors recommended it months ago, but Benjamin believes that if he can see the brace, he’ll think about the injury.
But what the injury has done is made him realize that he appreciates football more. He can’t coast on his God-given talents like he did at Florida State. He can’t be an unhealthy eater.
And he can’t think that tomorrow’s practice is a given.
“I think you take it for granted,” Benjamin said. “Once you’re having a little success and something happens to you, it sits you down and lets you see that something can go wrong just like that.”