Travelle Wharton was always overshadowed.
For most of his 10-year NFL career, he played one of the most anonymous positions on the field – offensive line.
Even among those linemen, Wharton was the quiet one. The steady one. The microphones and the Pro Bowl honors never headed his way like they did for Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil. For many years, Wharton was the Panthers’ most anonymous starter at the most anonymous position.
But Tuesday, Wharton got his due and his day. At age 33, he officially retired in front of a packed room of Panthers players and officials. He gave a 12-minute retirement speech that was simple, eloquent, and the most I’ve ever heard Wharton talk in one stretch by about 111/2 minutes.
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Wharton, a standout at South Carolina in college, was the rarest of NFL players – he played high school, college and professional football in the Carolinas. His tiny hometown of Fountain Inn, S.C., is 100 miles from Bank of America Stadium. Every home game he played in his 25 years of football, starting at age 8, he suited up within two hours of where he grew up.
“It doesn’t seem that long ago being in Fountain Inn, S.C., and hearing we got a professional football team (the Panthers, who joined the NFL in 1995) and the whole town going crazy,” Wharton said. “And then, 10 years later, I was a part of that.”
Drafted in the third round in 2004, Wharton was ultimately a starter for Panthers playoff teams in 2005, 2008 and 2013.
The Panthers released him in 2012 in a salary-cap move and he spent a year in Cincinnati, never actually playing in a game because he tore up a knee almost as soon as he got there. He returned to the Panthers for his final season in 2013, starting 12 games after Amini Silatolu suffered a knee injury.
In his last practice, Wharton and Jordan Gross raced in a 40-yard dash in front of a bunch of catcalling teammates.
“Everybody was looking at us like we were crazy,” said Wharton, who won.
Wharton mostly played in Gross’ large shadow, at left guard beside the verbose, versatile Gross at left tackle. They carpooled to practice every day – a 23-minute drive – and would do “rock, paper, scissors” to decide who had to drive to the airport on game days. They had a rule that no one could ever sleep in the car.
Gross retired a few months ago and asked Wharton to do a dual retirement news conference with him, but Wharton wasn’t quite ready to make that decision yet. Now 33, he still felt healthy enough to play one more year.
But Wharton and his wife (they met in college) have three daughters – ages 8, 5 and 3. Wharton thought he should walk away while he still could. He hopes to do some coaching and TV broadcasting.
“I was very fortunate to get 10 years,” Wharton said. “The run was great. It’s like a good roller coaster. You go on it and you think it was scary and so then you want to get back on it. But for me, it was time.”
About five years ago, Wharton was the victim of a crime. A man somewhat close to his size – Wharton is 6-foot-4, 320 pounds – was impersonating him and, police said, scamming people out of money. A handful of people lost a total of $25,000.
The Panthers went public to try and catch the alleged perpetrator (who would eventually turn himself in to police).
I felt sorry for all the victims in this incident, but I also understood the idea as to why a potential criminal would impersonate Wharton. His anonymity was the perfect cover.
Who knew what Travelle Wharton looked like under that helmet? Who knew much of anything about No. 70?
Well, everyone in the Panthers locker room knew – even though it wasn’t publicized enough. Wharton was shy, classy, graceful, trustworthy and completely committed.
“A pro in every sense of the word,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
That was Wharton. He finally stepped out of the shadows Tuesday – saying goodbye and reminding us all of what quiet dignity looks like.