After the Carolina Panthers beat the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday the locker room was full of sound.
There were hugs and exclamations, several Rick Flair “Whoooos!” and the swish of a rolled up ball of tape passing neatly into the small opening of a wooden bin. Defensive end Kony Ealy hit the turnaround with the tape.
There also was talk of cowboys, horses and the lariat, the move with which defensive end Jared Allen celebrates a sack.
Hip-hop music pumped out of the locker of cornerback Josh Norman. But the more you talked to him, the more you expected to walk into the lot where players keep their cars and see not horsepower but horses.
Norman says he got to know Allen on a walk to the practice field.
“He came in here like a cowboy,” says Norman who, like Allen, grew up with horses. “I said, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s my guy.’”
The Carolina Panthers traded for Norman’s guy three games into the season after star defensive end Charles Johnson went to IR with a hamstring injury. Allen came to the Panthers with 134 sacks. He was famous, among the premier pass rushers of our time.
But Allen, 33, didn’t walk into the new locker room and ask a rookie to fetch his tack. He entered quietly, worked to pick up the rhythms of his fourth team and tried to be a Panther. Teammates say he worked hard and answered their questions. Allen says the Panthers accepted him with “open arms.”
He wanted to use those arms to bring down another quarterback. Until Sunday the Panthers’ signature victory of the season was last week on the road against the Seattle Seahawks. Allen didn’t even make the trip. He’d sustained a pinched nerve in his lower back.
Against the Philadelphia Eagles at Bank of America Stadium Sunday, Allen said he felt great. The Eagles had the ball first and 10 on their 15 with three minutes to play. They trailed 24-16, a touchdown and a two-point conversion from a tie.
Allen swooped in from the right side and sacked Philadelphia quarterback Sam Bradford for a loss of 6 yards. The Eagles couldn’t dig out of the 16-yard hole and three plays later gave up the ball on downs.
Did that sack mean more because he missed the Seattle game?
“Yeah, absolutely,” Allen says. “I was happy for them. But you want to be part of it. You want to do what you can do to help the team win.”
If you follow football, you know what Allen did after his sack. True to his cowboy roots, he dropped to a knee and did the lariat, sending an imaginary rope through the air.
“He did that cowboy rope ‘em up, huh,” Norman says.
Norman has celebrated the two interceptions he returned for touchdowns by riding an imaginary horse, properly dismounting and being fined. If Allen were fined for every lariat, he couldn’t afford to play football.
Fullback Mike Tolbert might be more familiar with the lariat than any other Panther. Tolbert began his career with San Diego, Allen with Kansas City.
“I saw the lariat on the wrong side of the ball,” says Tolbert. “To see it on my side ... ”
Tolbert stops talking and smiles.
Allen “has kind of had to fit in,” Tolbert says. “I don’t think he even knows our names yet. But he’s a pro. We’ve built a mutual respect.”
Allen knows Tolbert’s name. He didn’t when Tolbert signed with San Diego out of Coastal Carolina. But after Tolbert popped him a few times, says Allen, the name came to him easily.
A good locker room is made up of neighborhoods. Ric Flair’s “Whoooos are down there and also over there. Ealy’s jump shot is there. Linebacker Thomas Davis, a team captain whom Norman calls the cap-eee, is in the corner. Norman, the hip-hop cowboy, is on one side of the locker room and across from him on the other side is Allen, the famous veteran who in some ways introduced himself to the Panthers Sunday night.
A good group, a winning group, can bring all the neighborhoods together until, on the field, there is only one.
“This team is good in all the right ways,” says Allen. “It’s the work ethic. It’s the culture that coach (Ron) Rivera provides. No one gets ahead of themselves. Throughout the whole game everybody is competing. Everybody’s holding everybody accountable.”
Norman says on their walk to the practice field Allen told him about some things he’s doing with his land. Norman wants to see them.
“He’s my hookup this offseason,” says Norman.
You could see Norman and Allen walking to the parking lot, settling their hats on their heads, putting their left feet in the stirrup, swinging their right legs over and riding undefeated into the night.