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Dayton Fliers: Friends and fans

Posted Jun 7, 2010

The respect athletes at the top of their sport have for great competitors in other sports is intriguing to watch. A reminder of this occurred last week when professional tennis player John Isner came by a Panthers summer school session as a guest of Steve Smith.

Smith needs no introduction. He is one of the premier, if not the best, wide receiver in the NFL. The challenge of putting his highlight plays on single disk would be deciding what to leave out.

Because tennis does not have the wide based following of football, Isner is not a household name unless you are a fan of the sport. However, like Smith, he is among the best in his field - currently the 19th-ranked singles player in the world.

On the surface, there is little to link the two. Isner grew up in Greensboro and played tennis collegiately at Georgia. Smith was raised in inner Los Angeles before going to Utah. Isner is a flag pole-like 6-foot-9. Smith is 5-foot-9 and looks like he could rip a fire hydrant out of the ground and throw it across the street.

Yet, there is a common ground athletes share in competing against the best. Smith has recently taken up tennis and has an appreciation for the skill and conditioning required even though he has yet to try to return one of Isner's 135 mile-per-hour serves.

As Isner stood on the sideline watching the Panthers spar in shorts and helmets, he commented on how impressive it was to see the players up close. When asked what position he would line up at if he played football, he said "maybe tight end with the addition of 30 or 40 pounds."

When it comes to other sports, athletes often become fans of their peers in other realms of competition. Smith became acquainted with Isner when he met his agent on a flight to Australia to watch the Australian Open in January.

The two stayed in touch through texts and e-mails after Smith returned to Charlotte while Isner played the tennis circuit around the world. That communication led to Isner's appearance at practice, where he met head coach John Fox and saw former Georgia Bulldogs Charles Johnson, Thomas Davis, Corvey Irvin, and John Kasay.

At the end of the day, Isner got to spend some time around the team he watched growing up in North Carolina. He will return the favor next month when Smith goes to England for Wimbledon.

Even though they play different games with different equipment on different size fields, the two can relate to how it feels to compete against the best in the world.

Now they are friends - friends who become fans when watching the other perform.

Charlie has been director of communications for the Panthers since 1994 and has been in the NFL since 1976.