A quartet of offensive stars make up the Class of 2019 for the Carolina Panthers’ Hall of Honor, as wide receiver Steve Smith, quarterback Jake Delhomme, tight end Wesley Walls and offensive tackle Jordan Gross officially earned spots as team legends on Monday.
That raises some questions, of course – what about Julius Peppers? Or Ryan Kalil? Or another half-dozen men you could name?
Peppers and Kalil weren’t eligible for the Hall of Honor this year by the criteria the team recently established. Discussions over who to add into the Hall of Honor began in the fall of 2018, and no player who was still playing during that season was eligible.
“For the first class, the only criteria was you couldn’t be an active player in 2018, when we started having earnest discussions,” said David Monroe, the Panthers’ historical and alumni affairs manager and the man who led the five-person committee that made the final decision about this class.
“Moving forward we are working on some guidelines that will be used to help with the process,” Monroe continued. “These aren’t final, but we are leaning toward guidelines that say a player must have played for Panthers for at least three seasons and will also need to be retired from the NFL for at least two years. We also will consider in future years including coaches, front office personnel and staff for the hall of honor.”
Monroe said Delhomme, Smith, Walls and Gross will be officially honored either at the Oct. 6 or Nov. 3 Panthers home games in Charlotte this season. They received news of the honor about a month ago, Delhomme said in an interview, with the news being broken via FaceTime calls from Panthers owner David Tepper.
“I was blown away,” Delhomme said of that conversation. “I got chills all over my body. It came straight out of left field.”
Busts, not statues
There also will not be statues for the Hall of Honor any longer.
Instead, busts are being made of the four men. Those will be displayed on the 100-level concourse inside Bank of America Stadium in the Hall of Honor’s new home, which will be accessible to all fans during Panthers home games or at other stadium events. The new Hall of Honor members will also receive a Panther blue sports jacket when they are inducted, and their names will be added to the upper bowl inside the stadium.
The Hall of Honor more than doubles its membership with this announcement. Its previous three members were linebacker Sam Mills, former executive Mike McCormack and the team’s PSL holders, who were inducted as a group.
Delhomme said he, Walls and Gross met in Charlotte about three weeks ago to get measured for their busts and to also share a steak dinner with Tepper and other Panthers officials.
“We were kind of in our element at that dinner,” Delhomme laughed, “and let’s just say there was a lot of teasing about the busts. Will they really get my big nose in there correctly? Are they going to get Jordan’s big ears correct? They need to, because that is his staple.”
On a side note, Delhomme is close to being named the Panthers’ primary radio analyst for 2019, according to a team source. Delhomme, who lives in Louisiana and who might do most but not all of Carolina’s 16 games, would replace Eugene Robinson. Delhomme would not confirm any of that in our interview, however, saying only: “Let’s just say we’re having some good discussions.”
First inductees since 1998
This is a historically significant day for the Panthers. No individual has been inducted into the hall of fame since 1998, an inexplicable 21-year absence of new members for a franchise that certainly could have used the good news and friendly debate such an announcement generates every year.
Mills was inducted in 1998, the year after he retired and long before his iconic “Keep Pounding” speech and his courageous bout with the cancer that ultimately killed him.
Many years later, Panthers officials quietly let it be known that players under consideration for the hall must first undergo a five-year waiting period after their retirement. This rule was never written down. After all, the Hall of Honor back then was only decided by former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who publicly remained silent on nearly everything.
But new owner David Tepper has been willing to listen to a number of recommendations from people who have been around the Panthers a lot longer than he has. Then Tepper has acted, and generally made the right calls. So now we have the Panthers logo at the 50, and the stadium being used for more events, and finally an expanded Hall of Honor that will coincide with the team’s 25th anniversary this season.
“This is long overdue,” Tepper said in a statement released by the Panthers. “We have a great class for this year’s Hall of Honor induction, and I couldn’t be more excited about these four players. The thing I love most about this class is each one of them made a tremendous impact on the field, but they’ve also done incredible work off the field. They are extremely deserving of this honor.”
‘Some tough decisions’
Were Delhomme, Smith, Walls and Gross truly the best four choices for this first class?
All of them should be in, there’s no doubt about that. I might quibble with Walls and Gross over, say, Peppers and Muhsin Muhammad. But they all deserve a spot, and I understand the part about Peppers technically not being eligible this year because he wasn’t retired yet when the class was first being discussed.
“There were some tough decisions,” Monroe said. “We ended up with eight guys that we really liked. We trimmed that list down to six, and then we ultimately got it down to four.”
Monroe said he didn’t want to reveal the names of the other four people on the committee that selected the Class of 2019, nor of the other finalists who didn’t make the cut. Men like Muhammad, kicker John Kasay, five-time Pro Bowl special-teamer Michael Bates, Peppers, Kalil and a number of other retired players should get strong consideration in future years. And active players like Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis would appear to be shoo-ins down the road.
Monroe said there won’t necessarily be a new class for the Hall of Honor every year, and when there is one it could contain as little as one new member. “It is safe to say we won’t be waiting 21 years before doing it again, though,” he said.
As for the new members:
▪ Smith is arguably the best player in Panthers history. He began his NFL career in 2001 by taking a kickoff back for a touchdown the first time he touched the ball and is a legitimate candidate for the NFL’s hall of fame as well. Smith told the team website of the honor: “This hit me in the heart. It hit me between the eyes a little bit. It was something I really wasn’t anticipating.” Smith ranks first in team history in a variety of categories, including touchdowns (67) and 100-yard receiving games (43).
“Let’s be honest,” Delhomme said of Smith. “Smitty is a first-ballot, hall-of-famer, there can’t even be any debate about that, and I mostly rode his coattails.”
▪ Delhomme led the Panthers to their first-ever Super Bowl, in 2003, and with Smith formed one of the best quarterback-receiver combinations in the NFL for much of the 2000s. Delhomme won five playoff games as a Panthers quarterback, which still stands as the team record. In the magical 2003 season, Delhomme engineered seven drives during the regular season where Carolina scored the game-winning points in the final two minutes of regulation or overtime, leading to the team’s nickname of “Cardiac Cats.”
▪ Gross, playing mostly at left tackle, protected Delhomme’s blindside for the majority of the quarterback’s career and did the same thing for other Panthers QBs ranging from Cam Newton to Vinny Testaverde while starting a franchise-record 167 games (and missing only nine in an 11-year career, all with Carolina). He was a three-time Pro Bowler for the Panthers and, along with Kalil, is considered one of the two best offensive linemen to ever play for the team.
▪ Walls was a five-time Pro Bowler as a tight end for the Panthers and had some of the best hands in the NFL. He was the first tight end in NFL history to score a dozen touchdowns in a season and held most of the team records for tight ends until Greg Olsen showed up.