Kelvin Benjamin’s season-ending ACL tear in August was the kind of blow that gave the Carolina Panthers-doubters some fuel. After all, the wide receiver was a favorite target of quarterback Cam Newton, racking up 1,008 receiving yards in his rookie season last year.
For Benjamin, watching the Panthers’ near-perfect season and Super Bowl run-up from the sideline has been frustrating, but also a lesson in patience.
“When you get hurt … the media walks right past you. You just feel like you’re not apart of things,” Benjamin says. “I’m used to always making the plays and always being on top.”
Benjamin is accustomed to being center stage. The Florida State hoodie he’s wearing for our interview is a reminder of that: It’s there he had the game-winning touchdown against Auburn for the national championship in 2014, for example.
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This is the first time an injury has sidelined Benjamin for a whole season. Veteran linebacker Thomas Davis has come back from three ACL tears, though, and has been advising him on the recovery, like strengthening his quad and hamstring muscles.
But perhaps the biggest lesson from Davis is not letting the fear of re-injury cripple him once he comes back, Benjamin says.
“He tells me once I come back, don’t worry about the knee,” he says. “Don’t be worried about cutting on it.”
Coming back, Benjamin says he also looks forward to continuing to build his relationship with Newton on and off the field – the quarterback is one of his closest friends on the team (“We hang out a lot,” Benjamin says.)
Throughout Benjamin’s recovery, Newton has stressed the importance of being present with the rest of the team, and Benjamin’s tried to do that as much as he can when he’s not rehabbing in the training room. The Panthers’ locker room chemistry is one of the elements that some say make the team jibe so well on the field.
Seasoned players like Davis and Joe Webb, a quarterback/wide receiver/special teamer Benjamin describes as his mentor, are another element of the team Benjamin has come to appreciate more while he’s off the field.
“You’ve got a great group of veterans that are willing to teach the young guys the ropes – Jerricho Cotchery, Thomas Davis, Peanut Tillman,” Benjamin said. “I feel like that’s what’s crucial to the team.”
Benjamin himself is one of the “young guys” – he turns 25 on Friday. He’s also the youngest of four from Belle Glade, Fla., and the first of the kids to attend college.
Like many other Panthers, Benjamin maintains close ties with Belle Glade, a small town of less than 20,000 that’s about 45 minutes from Miami. The town and its surrounding area is nicknamed “Muck City” because of the drained swamplands used to grow sugarcane.
Last year, he started a family-fun day called Muck Madness, complete with ponies, face paint, a bounce house and basketball tournaments.
“Not a lot of good is coming out of there right now,” Benjamin says of his hometown.
And about his new town so far, Benjamin says he’s loved Charlotte.
“I never thought I would be that guy to leave Florida and like living somewhere other than Florida,” Benjamin says.
“After my first year, I did a good job and I feel like the city really fell in love with me. Everywhere I go, I can tell the fans are genuine.”
Benjamin says even though he can’t play in the Super Bowl, he’s looking forward to watching two great quarterbacks – Newton and the Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning – and two great defenses face off Sunday.
“I’m gonna be the biggest cheerleader on the sidelines for the guys. Hope we can pull it off so we can get those rings,” he says.
Benjamin is back to running now, and says he is feeling good.
He doesn’t plan to let another 12 years go by before another Super Bowl appearance for the Panthers.
“Once we take care of business this year, we have to come back next year and try to do it all over again.”