Scott Fowler

Fowler: Why the Panthers’ Gerald McCoy is on the wrong side of the fence – in a good way

NFL veterans like their perks, which is why they often enlist a rookie to carry their helmets off the field for them at the end of a hot practice.

They also like to keep a bit of literal distance between themselves and fans. That’s understandable and also is the reason for the white fence that surrounds the Carolina Panthers’ practice fields at training camp.

But Panthers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy breaks these unwritten rules constantly. And in the process, the 11-year veteran has already made himself a fan favorite without ever taking a real snap for his new team.

McCoy navigates around the white fence at Wofford College most every day, wading into herds of Panthers fans to sign autographs. Some fans seem shell-shocked each time this happens — it’s a bit like someone climbing out of their TV and into their living room.

And when McCoy finishes signing, he not only carries his own helmet to the locker room, but also lugs the helmets for at least four other teammates.

“When I was a rookie,” McCoy said, “I had to carry pads and helmets and stuff. Then I started thinking that my parents raised me to be a leader. But they also raised me with the mindset of ‘You’ve got to serve before you can lead.’ So how do you know what type of leader you need to be if you’ve never served before?”

Gerald McCoy carries helmets
Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy carries several teammates’ helmets back to the locker room following practice on Friday at Wofford College in Spartanburg. McCoy is an 11-year veteran and said he often carried helmets for teammates while playing in Tama Bay, too -- a job usually assigned to NFL rookies. Jeff Siner

I have never seen a veteran player try harder to make a good first impression. It should be noted that McCoy also hired a shaved ice truck to serve his new teammates after his first practice with Carolina in June. Indeed, ask Panthers players about McCoy these days and two things often pop into their heads: he’s an athletic “freak,” they say, and “he bought us ice cream.”

Still, these daily interactions with new teammates and fans will only form one part of McCoy’s first impression. McCoy has posted at least six sacks in each of the past six seasons — all with Tampa Bay — but he will need to be productive once again in 2019 if Panthers fans are truly going to embrace him for the long haul.

It really is something to watch McCoy after each practice. He doesn’t even know the names of some of his new teammates, particularly on offense, so this also turns out to be a good way for McCoy to work his way around to meeting everybody.

And once he is on the fans’ side of the white fence, McCoy seems unfazed by the inevitable jostling that occurs when he is surrounded by Panthers supporters on all sides.

“This game we play is so short-lived, man,” McCoy said. “So put your stamp on the game and try to be a light. That’s all I want to be … I’m not trying to do anything special or like show off or anything. Anybody who knows me or who has followed me my whole career, you know I do this all the time.”

The defensive Cam Newton?

Selected No. 3 overall out of Oklahoma in the 2010 draft, McCoy was a thorn in Cam Newton’s side for years at Tampa Bay. He was such a disruptive inside force for the Bucs that the Panthers often double-teamed him. Panthers guard Trai Turner, often matched up against McCoy, once called McCoy a “real-life savage.”

But the Bucs released McCoy in May, believing that at age 31 he was not worth the $13 million they were scheduled to pay him.

Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has played against the team for the past nine years as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In Tampa, McCoy made the Pro Bowl six times. Jeff Siner

McCoy visited Cleveland, Baltimore and the Panthers before deciding on Carolina. He signed a one-year contract that is heavy with incentives and reportedly could be worth as much as $10.25 million if he reaches them all.

With a big personality and an eye for fashion, McCoy has previously labeled himself the Cam Newton of defense. Why?

“Love to have a good time,” McCoy said. “Love to play around. Dance… Do all those crazy things. Just the clothes I wear, everything.”

‘He’s been outstanding’

McCoy also is serious about trying to establish himself quickly as a leader. In Tampa Bay, he mandated that rookie defensive linemen walk with him either to or from each practice to allow him a few more chances to teach.

With the Panthers, McCoy has made it optional. “Since this is my first year here, I can’t really make demands yet,” he said. Several young players have already taken him up on the offer, though.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said McCoy has been everything he expected.

“He’s been outstanding,” Rivera said. “Gerald’s really fit in very nicely. He’s always been one of those guys that I, personally as a coach, always watched and always wondered what it’d be like to have him on the team.”

Now the Panthers have McCoy — at least temporarily.

Gerald McCoy with Panther fans
Panthers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has made it a habit during his first Carolina Panthers training camp to wade into the crowd and sign autographs. Scott Fowler

“I don’t know how long I’ll be in Carolina,” said McCoy, who will be a free agent once again in March unless he and Carolina sign a new deal before then. “But I’m here for now, and I want to make sure that I’m just me ... Everything we do, everything we’ve been blessed with is not for us, it’s for the impact of people around us. So I just try to keep that in my mind and live that way.”

McCoy understands that the defense already has leaders like Luke Kuechly and said that “hopefully I can get my name in the mix.”

“But it takes a second,” McCoy said. “To gain respect, you’ve got to earn it.”

And that’s a slow process — one McCoy has begun in the July heat. One helmet, one autograph and one tackle at a time.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.