Scott Fowler

Fowler: Panthers cut Elijah Hood 3 hours after he got to training camp -- and it wasn’t easy for anyone

Elijah Hood got dropped off at work just after 10 a.m. Wednesday by his fiancé and his baby son. Work was in Spartanburg, where the former Charlotte Catholic and UNC star running back would try to make the roster of the Carolina Panthers – the team he had idolized while growing up in Charlotte.

Hood kissed JuJu, his nine-month-old baby, goodbye. Then his family left, headed back toward Charlotte, 75 miles away. Hood headed into his dorm room at Wofford College, where the Panther players were checking in for training camp.

Three hours later, the Panthers fired Elijah Hood.

They did it as gently as they could – in fact, Hood said he had to help general manager Marty Hurney get the words out.

“Marty Hurney was about to say it,” Hood told me in a phone interview, “and there was just a grimace on his face. He said: ‘You know, this is hard.’ And I said, ‘You’ve got to let me go, right?’ I said it for him, because I knew he really didn’t want to say it.”

By the time I caught up with Hood on the phone at 5:40 p.m. Wednesday, he was already back in Charlotte. The Panthers had the courtesy not to make his fiancé, Ne’Shei Franklin, come back to get him. They instead had a team employee drive Hood back to Charlotte and drop him off at his house.

“I’m glad I didn’t have to call her to come back and pick me up,” Hood said of his fiancé. “But still, it was a quick little circle of a day.”

Hood, who said he had fully recovered from a severe knee injury 11 months ago and was anxious to start practicing, first realized something was wrong close to 1 p.m. Wednesday. That’s when a member of the personnel department found Hood and said that Hurney needed to see him.

The personnel guy then walked Hood over to Hurney’s office.

Wofford is not a big campus, but it still felt like a long walk.

“I knew it was pretty strange on the first day when they said I needed to go see the GM,” Hood said. “That was not good. So I already kind of knew then.”

A cold business

Hurney has known Hood for a decade. Hurney’s son was an offensive lineman who had helped open holes for Hood when they were high school teammates at Charlotte Catholic. The elder Hurney spent many Friday nights watching both of them.

But the NFL is a cold business. Friendships sometimes have to be placed on the back burner when a team needs another wide receiver for depth more than it needs an extra running back.

That’s what Hurney told Hood was the reason for his abrupt dismissal – the team suddenly needed to sign a receiver instead (Torrey Smith, one of the receivers, isn’t quite ready to practice). The new receiver turned out to be a guy named Jaydon Mickens, who played two seasons with Jacksonville and had some success as a punt returner.

Hurney felt bad about it.

“That was a hard one,” Hurney said. “I’ve watched Elijah since he was in seventh grade. But it just came down to a numbers thing.”

Before he got hurt last August, Panthers running back Elijah Hood caught this pass and scored against Buffalo in a preseason game. Jeff Siner

Players get released all the time in training camp, of course. NFL teams start camp with 90 guys on the active roster and end up with 53. By the end of August, more than 1,100 NFL players have been fired in an annual bloodletting that plays out every summer.

It’s rare, though, that a player shows up to camp and gets fired three hours later.

‘I always get to say that’

After the Oakland Raiders had released Hood following the 2017 season, Carolina had claimed him. Hood was a feel-good story in Spartanburg during much of the 2018 training camp. He scored two touchdowns during the preseason. He regaled reporters with the stories of the Panthers jerseys he had owned (Mike Minter and Cam Newton among them).

Newton bestowed a nickname on Hood, affectionately calling him “Panic Room” because Hood’s eyes once got very large, according to the quarterback, in a film session that both attended.

Elijah Hood, left, hugs his son, Elisha “JuJu” Hood, center, and says goodbye as Hood’s finance’ Ne’Shei Franklin, right, looks on at Wofford College in Spartanburg on Wednesday. Jeff Siner

Then it all changed when Hood tore his ACL in the final preseason game on the opening kickoff. That ended his 2018 season before it began, although the Panthers kept him on injured reserve and allowed him to rehab his knee at their facilities. Then they re-signed him to a one-year deal in February, which meant Hood would have a chance to compete for a backup running back spot behind Christian McCaffrey.

Hood still may get another chance to stick somewhere in the NFL. He’s young and his knee is healthy again. “I have full confidence in my abilities as a player so I’ll just be preparing for when I get that next call,” Hood said. “This is just the way it goes. This is the business.”

But his dream of playing for his hometown team in a regular-season game? That’s over. The 2018 Carolina team photo, with Hood in it, graces one of the walls at his home. But that photo, and the memories, will have to do. Three strange hours on Wednesday took care of that.

“I’m sad about it,” Hood said. “I don’t get to play for the hometown team anymore. But I did get to suit up for the Panthers -- and I always get to say that for the rest of my life. And I know that, in my heart, I once was a Panther.”

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.