Panthers' Gross retires, leaves void on and off field
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If you're building a Mount Rushmore of Panthers, there's no question the 6-foot-6 specimen sitting at the podium Wednesday belongs.
Left tackles don't always get the accolades or attention, but no one besides Steve Smith has meant as much to this franchise -- both on the field and in the locker room -- as Jordan Gross.
All you had to do was take a look around the press conference area to see. Standing on the sides were numerous former teammates and around half of the current roster. Geoff Hangartner flew all the way in from Texas just to be there to hear his best friend officially retire from the NFL.
The room was packed like no Panthers press conference I've ever been apart of, and it didn't take long to see why. Gross was emotional. He was self deprecating. He was reflective, but mostly he was hilarious. It only took about two sentences to exit his mouth before the emotions started, forcing him to take a 15 second halt to compose himself.
"God, this is brutal. I said they always feel like a funeral, and I'm not helping things out," Gross said. "This was my choice, I wlll say that. It was my choice. The team wanted me back, but they were so great when I said I was done. And that meant a lot."
The emotions continued to return off and on throughout his speech as he thanked everyone that's meant something to him in his career -- from the mayor for participating in his charity kickball game to the fire department. Throughout, though, he did what Gross has done for his teammates for years -- he entertained. He played a slideshow that he had created of pictures throughout his career. There was the rookie picture where he said he looked like a "chubby Dracula". And there was the picture of Julius Peppers for which he said he found the only picture in seven years where he actually looked like he was winning the battle in practice.
Then there were the stories like the one he told of his car pool buddy for the last five years -- Travelle Wharton. Gross said he once got knocked out on the field and his teammates thought he might be paralyzed or seriously injured, but as he gathered himself and got up and came to the sidelines, he found Wharton crying.
"Don't worry, I'm alright, Travelle," he said. Wharton responded, "I don't care; I'm just mad I got to play left tackle."
The room cackled, as they did for much of the 30-minute press conference. That's why it was only fitting the way the press conference ended. When the media relations director asked if anyone had a question, a "media member" stood up to ask Gross a question before pulling out a harmonica. Two more people stood up and started to sing "Happy Trails" with him. Then, center Ryan Kalil stood up to finish off the quarter, singing a rewritten version that Kalil had wrote for Gross that ended with "Try not to get fat in retirement. We'll sure miss you on third and 10."
"I know Jordan wasn't overly excited to do this press conference because ones he been to in the past they seemed so much like a funeral," Kalil said, who hired his fellow quartet mates. "So I thought by doing that we could make it a little more upbeat and It's kind of my way of saying thanks and telling him I loved him."
Kalil wasn't the only one. His teammate Steve Smith, typically stone faced with little emotion, was at a loss for words in thinking about playing without the teammate he's had for the last 13 years through college and the NFL.
"Just a great teammate," Smith said with his voice breaking up. "I'm good, I gotta keep it together, so ... "
And like that, Smith ended his media session the same way Gross ended his career -- on his own terms. And that's just the way Gross wanted it.
"It's perfectly fitting that the owners throwing jabs at me and Kalil's singing to me at the end. That means I've done things the right way," Gross said. "Today was great. I was pretty much planning on it since last offseason. I knew I wanted to go all in to this season, and play with all my heart and it really went according to plan but better. I'm not hurt, no offseason surgeries, and so blessed to be able to finish this way."
Finish as an NFC South champ. Finish with a feeling that the franchise that gave him everything, he leaves having given everything he had.
"I've always said I didn't want to leave until I felt like things were in good order and they are," he said. "This team's going to be good for a long time. That's going to be the case regardless of if I was on the field or not, and that's a beautiful thing."
What awaits he's not quite sure, but he knows he wants to be in the building. And he knows he'd like a microphone in his hand. He's already gotten what he's wanted for a while -- to be able to eat "without gorging" himself -- and he's already dropped 25 pounds as a result. And he won't miss the defenders hands to the face or the times he had to be carted off the field with an injury.
Like all decisions, this one comes with tradeoffs. There's the moments he'll never be able to recreate -- the moments in the locker room with his teammates, all friends working towards a common bond. Or leading his teammates out of the Bank of America Stadium tunnel with the captain C on his chest. His buddy Kalil even joked that he needed him to get a job in the building so he could just "pretend he was on IR" and still get to hang out.
"I mean you lose a tremendous player and incredible leader -- guy that commands so much respect in the locker room," Kalil said. "It's hard to replace a guy like that. It's going to be tough, going to be hard to get that kind of leadership back."
Owner Jerry Richardson talked about how when you draft a player, you're looking for someone who will start, have a long career, and contribute in the community. In Gross, Richardson got more than he thought. Gross did, too.
"Tears of joy. It's been everything I thought it would be and more," he said.
Now, the Panthers will look to figure out a way to replace the mainstay on the left side for 11 years -- whether that's in the draft or free agency. And Kalil's just not ready to turn to his left and not see his buddy.
"I am kind of putting it off and not really thinking about it because it is going to be tough," he said. "Fortunately for me I don't have to find his replacement because I don't envy the guys that have to."
Regardless of how the 2014 season goes without Gross, one thing's for certain: These Panthers will miss Gross a lot more than just on third and 10.