Tom Sorensen

Kenjon Barner grateful for Panthers present, past. Bar glasses played a key role.

Carolina Panthers running back and return specialist Kenjon Barner’s mentors include Carolina running backs’ coach Jim Skipper, and the running backs he learned from – former teammates DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart.
Carolina Panthers running back and return specialist Kenjon Barner’s mentors include Carolina running backs’ coach Jim Skipper, and the running backs he learned from – former teammates DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart. AP

There are players you like. You like talking to them and you like watching them play. Kenjon Barner is one of them for me.

A Carolina Panthers running back and return specialist, he has quick twitch reactions, the instant kind, here and then gone.

“I’ve always been a fast kid,” says Barner, 29. “I spent a lot of time running from my older brothers growing up. I had five older brothers so I spent a lot of time trying to get away from them.”

Barner grew up outside Los Angeles in Riverside, Calif., and became a star at Oregon. Carolina took him in the sixth round of the 2013 draft. He played one season for the Panthers, and they traded him to the Philadelphia Eagles, then coached by Barner’s college coach, Chip Kelly. He played four seasons for the Eagles, including the 2017 Super Bowl season.

After the Super Bowl he became a free agent. Carolina running back Fozzy Whittaker tore the ACL in his right knee during a non-contact drill in May. Down to four running backs, the Panthers signed Barner the next day.

“He has dynamic ability with the ball in his hands,” says Carolina coach Ron Rivera. “He’s a very smart football player, he’s tough and he understands the game. He’s got great hands, kickoff and punt-return ability. He’s competing, and he’s right in the middle of it for us, and he will have an opportunity to show what he can do.”

Barner returned a punt 76 yards last season against the Arizona Cardinals. He juked two defenders, deked two more, found space, and see you, be sure and write. He was named the NFC’s Special Teams Player of the Week.

Now he’s back, and he has a Super Bowl ring.

How many players have asked to see it?

“There’s been a lot, man,” says Barner. “I gave my dad the ring and when he comes out (he still lives in California), they’ll see it. I show them videos.”

The player that most wants to see it is Rasheed Bailey, a receiver out of Delaware Valley who is from Philadelphia.

Barner doesn’t live in Charlotte, but he returns every offseason. He praises Carolina running backs’ coach Jim Skipper, and the running backs he learned from – former Panthers DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart.

That education wasn’t limited to the meeting room, locker room or field. Stewart one day met Barner at a South End lounge called the Stache House. Stewart asked Barner if he knew key protection. This was important because Williams was injured, and Barner might play more than he was accustomed to. No, he didn’t know key protection.

So Stewart commandeered glasses to demonstrate Barner’s role. There were glass offensive linemen and glass defensive linemen, glass linebackers, glass defensive backs, a glass tailback, a glass quarterback, a glass 3-4 defense and then a glass 4-3.

While customers undoubtedly drank out of paper cups, Barner learned key protection.

“He stops everybody and grabs every glass,” Barner says. “That’s a credit to the type of guy Stew is.”

The Carolina Panthers must replace running back Jonathan Stewart. But how? Coach Ron Rivera, at the NFL scouting combine, talks about what kind of skill set the Panthers want.

As Barner talks at training camp Monday, there are two bracelets around his left wrist. They’re Lokai. The white beads contain water from Mount Everest, the earth’s highest point; the black beads water from the Dead Sea, the earth’s lowest point. They are a reminder.

“When you’re on top, stay humble,” says Barner. “When you’re at the bottom, stay hopeful.”

He’s hopeful.

“This is the first team that gave me a chance in the NFL,” says Barner. “This is the first organization that gave me a shot. They opened the door for me.

“Knowing the organization, knowing the coaching staff, you could not have a better group of guys, a group of men, you want to be around.”

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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