Brenton Bersin was 5 when he went to his first Carolina Panthers game.
“Yup,” he says. “Went to the first game in Clemson, and all that stuff.”
This was 1995, the opponent was St. Louis, the Panthers played all their home games at Clemson, and the team had a fan for life.
Bersin, who grew up in Charlotte, would add others. He became a star receiver for Charlotte Latin and, down I-85, for the Wofford Terriers. Presumably there were fans of both schools, as well as family members and friends, at Bank of America Stadium Saturday when Carolina beat Arizona 27-16 to advance to the divisional round in Seattle.
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The game was the biggest of Bersin’s life. So was his mistake.
Arizona punter Drew Butler shanked his first two punts and he was about to shank his third.
Carolina’s kickers would explain to Bersin, a rookie punt returner, how Butler’s style didn’t lend itself to Saturday’s rain.
“I don’t know exactly what they were saying,” said Bersin, 24. “You know how specialists are.”
Butler’s third punt went 33 yards and Bersin ran up to make a fair catch and prevent the ball from rolling deeper into Carolina territory. But with a player between him and the ball, Bersin backed off.
“It didn’t take a good bounce and at that point I couldn’t get out of the way,” Bersin says.
He muffed the catch, the Cardinals grabbed the ball and six plays later their comatose offense scored.
The reaction was predictable. Less than 10 seconds after the muff a text message arrived on my phone: “They should cut Bersin now.”
The sentiment on Twitter was similar, although the spelling was more erratic. Somebody called the press box’s super-secret phone, identified himself as an Observer editor and told the Panthers he needed to talk to me. Not sure why he or she didn’t call my cell, but when the playoffs begin perhaps new editors get involved.
CALLER: “You should write about Bersin.”
ME: Who’s this?
I hung up. And you thought trolls were limited to the Internet.
Meanwhile, down on the field, the response was not as nasty.
“You have a couple people in the heat of the moment pretty (ticked) off,” says Bersin. “But for the most part people were coming over and having confidence in me and saying, ‘Forget about it.’ ”
Adds Bersin: “If it had happened to someone else my initial reaction would be, like, ‘What are you doing?’ You just can’t make that mistake.”
The punts kept coming for the Cardinals, and Bersin kept attempting to catch them. He appeared terrified. Instead of confidently plucking the ball from the air he’d protect it with his body and drop to one knee.
It was as if he walked into church, genuflected and prayed not to drop the ball.
Bersin laughs and says: “I am Catholic.”
But he wasn’t praying.
“Obviously I’m still thinking about it,” he says about the drop. “You can’t. But it’s hard to forget about something like that.”
If you’re a position player, you can try to prove your worth on the next play. A receiver, Bersin did get 19 offensive snaps. He was thrown to once and caught a 6-yard pass. But the play everybody wanted to see, or didn’t, was a punt return. For this, he had to sit on the bench and wait.
“It’s a little bit like golf,” says long snapper J.J. Jansen. “There’s a few seconds of play and then a lot of time to sit around waiting.”
Veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery says the team never lost faith.
“We watch (Bersin) on a day-to-day basis and how he works and how he operates, and he doesn’t drop anything in practice,” says Cotchery.
Says Jansen: “We think the world of him as a player and a returner.”
Yet you will drop passes if you play long enough, says Cotchery.
Like Bersin, he didn’t have to play long. In his second season, as a New York Jet, Cotchery fumbled one punt during a return and muffed the next.
When a player makes such a mistake all a teammate can do, says Cotchery, is offer encouragement and make sure the player doesn’t dwell on his error.
Bersin says he was most moved by encouragement from captain Ryan Kalil.
Kalil is great with words. You know you’ll be able to put his message on a T-shirt.
“I don’t remember what I said,” says Kalil.
He laughs and adds, “I’m sorry.”
“I play a position where I make a lot of mistakes,” says Kalil, a center. “I muff a lot of blocks if you will.”
Linemen are taught one snap and clear, which means forget about the last play and prepare for the next.
“That’s one of the hardest things to do in pro football – to move on from a good play or a bad mistake,” Kalil says.
He went the wrong way attempting to protect Matt Moore, who played quarterback for Carolina from 2007-10. “I got him injured,” says Kalil.
Moore told him not to worry about it. But “that’s still a play I think about,” Kalil says.
Mistakes aren’t peculiar to centers and punters. How do you recover from yours? When I write a bad column I want to work the next day, even if I’m off, to purge the self-loathing from my system. So, yeah, some weeks I work a lot of hours.
“The biggest thing is you get another opportunity to redeem yourself,” says Kalil. “That’s why people love sports. Regardless of how bad you play or how bad the season goes, sometimes you get to say, ‘We get that next play, or ‘We get that next game.’ And that’s how you move on.”
Redemption comes slowly. In the locker room after the Arizona victory, Bersin was thrilled for his team but furious at himself. He tried to look happy. He doesn’t think he succeeded. Later he would struggle to sleep.
He read a few tweets, saw what was waiting and decided to avoid it. “But I read a couple that had confidence in me so that made me feel good,” Bersin says. “There’s some positive fans out there, too.”
“I’m starting to forget about it,” Bersin says about the muff.
“That’s OK,” he says. “I’m antsy to get out there (Saturday against Seattle). It’s going to be awesome. I can’t wait to start playing in a new game.”
Is that what it will take?
“Yeah,” says Bersin. “I think that’s what it will take.”