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Tom Talks: Carolina Panthers release feisty Captain Munnerlyn, who could always take a joke

Panthers rookie Rashaan Gaulden wants a starting job

Carolina Panthers rookie safety Rashaan Gaulden has been getting some snaps with the first-team defense early in camp. Veteran Mike Adams is a sure starter at one safety postion but Gaulden would love to win the second job.
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Carolina Panthers rookie safety Rashaan Gaulden has been getting some snaps with the first-team defense early in camp. Veteran Mike Adams is a sure starter at one safety postion but Gaulden would love to win the second job.

If you follow the Carolina Panthers, you have players you favor. If you write about a team, you also do. The players won’t always be stars. In my case, they often are gone before the team breaks training camp. But they were people before they were football players and there’s a quality or qualities that distinguish them.

One of my favorite players is cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. Yes, he’s the only player who ever bought me a drink. But I can’t be bought, at least not for one drink. I liked Munnerlyn before that. And I didn’t solicit the drink. I sat at a small table, and there it was.

The Panthers released Munnerlyn on Monday, and by doing so freed about $2 million under the salary cap. Carolina’s goal is to get younger and faster, rather than to get older and slower. Julius Peppers retired. Thomas Davis, Mike Adams and now Munnerlyn were released.

Munnerlyn, who turns 31 in April, is the youngest of the group. Peppers is 39, Adams 37 and Davis 35.

Munnerlyn came to the Panthers a long shot. Listed at 5-foot-9, he was selected seventh out of South Carolina in the 2009 draft. Carolina drafted two cornerbacks in 2010, one in ’11 and one in ’12. Munnerlyn kept track. Players usually do.

Because of his size, Munnerlyn was easy to overlook. But he could hit. When a Carolina teammate was involved in an altercation, Munnerlyn was there to help. It could have been a game, it could have been an exhibition, it could have been a joint practice with another team. It could have been in New Hampshire. Munnerlyn would be on the next flight up. He was going to be there.

He’s played 10 seasons, three of them for Minnesota after signing a lucrative free-agent deal, and returned to Carolina to play 2017 and ’18.

“We never should have let him go,” Panthers’ coach Ron Rivera told me before the start of last season.

Rivera talked about Munnerlyn’s influence on younger players.

“Captain understands how to get these guys to do things the right way,” Rivera said.

You know the Panthers didn’t want to cut Munnerlyn or Davis. But they were slow last season. One of the reasons rookie cornerback Donte Jackson looked so fast is because he had little competition on the defensive side.

Munnerlyn will play for another team, and that team will be happy to have him. I’ll pull for him no matter where he goes, even if it’s in the NFC South, same as I will for Davis.

The drink Munnerlyn bought me is part of a larger story, and I’ve written about it. But I think the story is worth repeating because it attests to who Munnerlyn is. In fact, after the story ran, then team owner Jerry Richardson told me the story tells who Munnerlyn is and who I am.

I’d walked into Ruth’s Chris in SouthPark (hey, I worked full-time then) for takeout. I was drinking a glass of wine when another appeared on my table. The waitress pointed to Munnerlyn, who was seated across the room. I walked over to thank him, and we talked.

As we did, a man who stood behind the table tried to get my attention. He tried very hard, leaping repeatedly and talking under his breath as if he got paid by the word.

I don’t like that stuff. I don’t go to tables and interrupt people when they eat or when they’re in the midst of a conversation. Couldn’t the guy wait until Munnerlyn and I stopped talking?

When our conversation ended, I left the table and walked to the guy who had been jumping, and we huddled in a hallway. He wanted to know if the man to whom I talked was a Panther.

Yes he is.

“Ohh, ohh, ohh, who is he, who is he?”

“Steve Smith,” I said.

As I waited for the food and finished the second drink, I heard five beautiful words from across the room, each spoken with passion.

“I am not Steve Smith!”

I ran into Munnerlyn at a practice before the season and he said, “You owe me a drink.”

He’s right.

Triumph for ‘Popeye’

At CenterStage@NoDa Saturday night, people made a discovery. They discovered local boxing. The crowd was the biggest in the two years Christy Martin has promoted Charlotte boxing. The crowd was standing room only, a term typically reserved for boxing cards in Las Vegas and at other casinos.

There were 12 fights, and some featured regulars. A boxer I respect is Kyle Harrell, a super welterweight from Charlotte. He’s a craftsman, nice power, and good technique.

Harrell lost his first professional fight, drew in his second and has won his last five, including Saturday by TKO. He twice fought Derek Hyatt of Gastonia. They went after each other as if they’d pledged a sacred vow to win. One fight was declared a draw, a result that crushed Hyatt, who goes by H Bomb. Anything but a draw – Hyatt was willing to go until one of them was declared the winner. The other fight Harrell won by split decision. Both fighters were applauded as if they won.

Another fighter we’ve seen before is Kelvin King, a super welterweight from Wilson. The man can hit. He’s 5-0-1, and on Saturday won a unanimous decision.

Two impressive fighters we hadn’t seen: 5-0 Roney Hines, a heavyweight from Cleveland, and welterweight Alberto Palmetta of Argentina, who is 11-1.

Richard “Popeye the Sailor Man” Rivera might have led the 12 winners in punches thrown and punches landed, and he unquestionably led in pictures posed for and autographs signed.

Instead of walking to the ring to hip hop, rock, salsa or a thudding bass, he entered to “Popeye the Sailor Man.” You want to intimidate an opponent, you scare him with lyrics such as: “I’m strong to the finich, ’cause I eat my spinach.”

The music fits. Rodriguez enters the ring wearing a Popeye sailor’s hat and, in his mouth, a corncob Popeye pipe. Then he removes the hat, pulls out the pipe and starts flinging. He’s fast, purposeful and undefeated, 10-0 with nine knockouts after his TKO Saturday.

On the back of his trunks is a large pink breast cancer awareness ribbon. Some of Popeye’s fans posed with him because of it.

The fight for which fans cheered before it began matched Logan Holler, who is from Columbia, but fights out of Charlotte, and Bertha Aricil, the Cuban Princess, of Yonkers, N.Y.

Both came in undefeated. Holler’s fans stood as she walked to the ring and continued standing. Aricil was the better boxer, and Holler the better puncher. The box was scored a majority draw.

I score the evening a success. Boxing is fading; mixed martial arts have supplanted it with many young fans. But to say that boxing is dying, or dead, is untrue. On Saturday, boxing cards also were held in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Denmark and the Dominican Republic.

And I’m only on the Ds.

Tim Tebow’s baseball quest

There’s leftfielder Tim Tebow of the New York Mets diving for a foul ball in a spring training game against the Houston Astros, and making the catch, a very nice catch, as he lays out face first and hits the dirt. Ah, the ball pops out. Somebody calls it a fumble.

I always watch Tebow highlights or lowlights. For years, he was a regular on every sports show. And I still pulled for him.

Most days you still can turn on a sports station or go to a sports website and find a reference to Tebow. He’s not on the Mets’ 40-man roster, but New York invited him to camp anyway. Tebow plays for New York’s Class AA team, the Binghamton Rumble Ponies. Aren’t you happy Charlotte’s Class AAA team is called the Knights?

Tebow hit .273 last season with six home runs, 14 doubles and 36 RBIs in 84 games and 271 at bats. But there’s more to his story. He hit .301 in June and was hitting .340 in July. He was selected to play in the Eastern League’s all-star game. But 11 days after the July game, he broke a bone in his right hand.

Tebow’s most telling statistic, however, might be his age -- he’s 31.

Only two players on the Binghamton roster were born in the 1980s, and Tebow is the older of them. So, he’s not a young man attempting to work his way onto a major league roster. By Class AA standards, he is an old man trying to work his way onto major league roster.

Steve Spurrier, the former South Carolina and Florida coach who now coaches the Alliance of American Football’s Orlando Apollos, called Tebow and asked if he wanted to be a quarterback again. Tebow said no, he wants to play baseball.

Tebow was a heck of an interesting football player, a runner who could throw. He won the Heisman at Florida, where for two seasons Cam Newton, now of the Carolina Panthers, backed him up. Tebow went on to play for the Denver Broncos and New York Jets, and briefly was a member of the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, although never played for either.

I don’t know if Tebow will ever play Major League Baseball. But I hope he does. I always pull for the older guys who put life on hold and make a run at their career of choice. If you give up, and find a career in a field that doesn’t move you, won’t you always wonder if you should have given your sport one more year?

I met Tebow at Daytona International Speedway the week of the Daytona 500. Charlotte businessman Felix Sabates introduced us.

Tebow was bigger than I expected -- -- 6-3 and a solid 245. He was humble. Nothing about him suggested: “I, Tim Tebow, am a Heisman Trophy winning star, and a future first-round draft choice of the Denver Broncos, and you are something less.”

Also, he had a non-stop smile. He seemed happy to be at the race track, and to be alive. Look at him now when you see him with teammates or doing an interview. The smile is still going.

Tebow is overtly religious. I’m not. But he didn’t hammer me with scripture and verse. Religious fervor often is a philosophy and a lifestyle, and I appreciate those who talk without attempting to convert. In related news, I didn’t try to de-convert Tebow.

Tebow’s travels through the NFL and baseball’s minor leagues turned off a lot of people. See the Tim Tebow Show nightly, and daily, too, even if the highlights often are low. But he didn’t choose it.

He didn’t tell West Virginia to call HB 3127, which is about to be passed, the Tim Tebow bill. The bill makes sense; it will enable home-schooled students to participate in public school sports. Tebow went from home school to the Heisman.

I hope Tebow is able to parlay his drive and the talent he showed last June and July into a shot with the Mets. I also wish he had hung onto that baseball, and made the diving catch.

Playoffs a worthy goal for Hornets

Look at the NBA’s Eastern Conference standings. Brooklyn is sixth going into Wednesday night with a record of 32-30, Detroit seventh at 29-30, Charlotte eighth at 28-32, Orlando ninth at 28-33 and Miami 10th at 26-33.

The Hornets trail the Pistons by 1½ games for seventh place and lead the Magic by a half game for the eighth and final playoff position.

I know fans who don’t want the Hornets to make the playoffs. If the Hornets don’t get in, they get a better draft pick. And you’re in the lottery, albeit a lottery that never has been good to Charlotte.

I like the idea of the playoffs. If the Hornets open at the Milwaukee Bucks or Toronto Raptors, the likelihood of winning a series is slim, and winning a game will be tough. But the Hornets have played well against top-seeded Milwaukee, losing the season opener at home by a point, winning 110-107 at home and losing 108-99 on the road.

The Eastern Conference’s lower-middle class, where the Hornets don’t rent, but live, is congested. The Hornets have 22 games remaining, starting with Wednesday’s home game against the Houston Rockets. Going into the Houston game, the Hornets play 10 more games at home and 12 on the road.

This is a guess, but the Hornets likely will be favored in six of those 22 games and an underdog in 16.

As unlikely as Charlotte is to, if it gets in, win a playoff series, I like the hunt. I like checking the standings to see how Brooklyn, Detroit, suddenly hot Orlando and Miami did.

Every post season series has its own personality. In 2014, the Charlotte Bobcats finished four games above .500, good for the seventh seed. In the first round they played the Miami Heat of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and even Ray Allen.

Miami won game one. In game two, which was close and tense, James went to the hoop and Charlotte’s Josh McRoberts attempted to stop him. McRoberts would later say his foul wasn’t as bad as it looked. It looked bad, especially to Miami fans at AmericanAirlines Arena.

McRoberts delivered a forearm to James’ throat. Miami won the game 101-97. A flagrant 2 foul was later assessed against McRoberts.

I don’t know how many Charlotte fans remember McRoberts, but when healthy he could play. He averaged 8.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists. You get a 6-10 forward who can and will pass, you have something.

The series ceased to be less about the amazing Heat than the evil McRoberts. Miami swept the series -- the only sweep in any playoff series that season --and signed McRoberts to a four-year contract.

In the playoffs, every foul, every great move, every shot, block, pass and forearm shiver, is magnified. In sports, there might not be a bigger gap between the regular season and playoffs than there is in the NBA.

The Hornets are too good to tank, and what are you going to do, ask Kemba Walker and Tony Parker to lie down? They’ll push to get in, and if they do, the adventure begins.

To make the playoffs, the Hornets likely will have to win several games they’re not expected to. It will be good practice.

Short takes: Antonio Brown a good gamble; welcome back, Elijah Hood

Peter King writes that the Carolina Panthers are one of the teams for which Antonio Brown could play. If King says it, I usually believe it. You imagine? If Cam Newton’s arm is back and Brown is the receiver to which we’ve become accustomed, that is a dream connection. Can the Panthers afford him? Is their locker room strong enough to accommodate a volatile player? About the latter: Yes, it is…

David Tepper, the Pittsburgh native who owns the Panthers, showed up at an NBA All-Star Game gathering. Attendees dressed and dazzled. People looked good. And there was Tepper, ball cap pulled low, voice low, too. Most of us would have dressed. But Tepper seems comfortable being Tepper. He doesn’t need to be noticed...

Panthers tight end Greg Olsen will be an immediate TV star. He’s smart, knows football, and is able to convey what he knows without making it sound like a lecture. The New York Post writes that Olsen is being courted by ESPN and FOX.

Olsen has presence in a TV studio, in the TV press box and in the Panthers’ huddle. He’s 33, and healthy except for an unfaithful right foot. He makes the Panthers better simply by being there. Good guy, excellent routes, great hands. Hope he plays one more season…

The NBA rescinded the foul on DeMarcus Cousins of the Golden State Warriors for tossing the shoe that Charlotte’s Jeremy Lamb had lost. This was Monday in the fourth quarter of the Charlotte Hornets-Golden State game. The technical never should have been called. Cousins can be volatile, but this wasn’t another episode in the long running series of Cousins against the World. He wasn’t playing Hide the Sneaker with Lamb. He just didn’t want anybody, including himself, to trip over the thing…

I know this is old now, but I didn’t see New Jersey’s Caris LeVert foul Charlotte’s Kemba Walker on Saturday. As Walker put up a last-second shot that, if good, would have won the game, LeVert sailed into him and caught the ball with his elbow. Like many of you, I’ve looked at it several times. The block looks clean. The Nets beat the Hornets 117-115.

I know there are fans of Charlotte’s major league teams who believe that officials don’t like the Hornets, or Panthers, because Charlotte is mid-sized city or the teams don’t win enough to get calls or the refs don’t like multiple roads named Queens or multiple apartment complexes that look as if they were created by the same mold.

These fans are wrong, all of them. The Hornets made an impressive comeback Saturday. But they fail to win the close ones.

Welcome back, Elijah Hood. Loved watching the man play at Charlotte Catholic, and he might have cost Larry Fedora his job as coach at North Carolina. The Tar Heels were playing South Carolina in Charlotte, and Hood had been running free, amassing 144 yards. But few came in the second half, when Fedora chose not to use him. The lesser team, South Carolina, upset the Tar Heels. That started Fedora’s long, downward spiral, and cost him supporters.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen