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Painful start, wild finish

Posted Jan 8, 2010

Fullback Brad Hoover's score against Minnesota helped punctuate a late-season revival for the team and its 10-year veteran fullback. (PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

CHARLOTTE -- With both halves of the Panthers' historic 1,100-yard duo injured last Sunday, the Panthers merely wanted to escape the season finale victorious, thus averting a losing season. It was, on multiple levels, a time to play "not to lose," and it was a time for Brad Hoover to assume a role he'd scarcely handled in the last nine years -- that of tailback.

"I was as shocked as you guys (the media) were," Hoover acknowledged.

He saw some work at tailback behind rookie fullback Tony Fiammetta against the New York Giants a week before, but against the Saints, the 10-year veteran's role expanded to receiving a snap in a Wildcat formation. It was a sight as jarring as the chilly conditions in which the game was played.

"I think it was out of necessity," Hoover said. "It's not what I was striving for, but I'll take a few carries here and there."

The 16 carries and 47 yards he earned in the season's final two weeks surpassed his full-season totals for three of the previous four seasons. They evoked memories of his rookie-season work at tailback, yet didn't necessarily represent a full turn back of the clock.

"It was nice to actually get some carries, but I don't know if I was re-energized," Hoover said. "But it was nice to finally get back out there. I felt a little bit more healthy, and just to do some good things on the field."

Health was the primary concern for Hoover last year; he missed five games -- two more than he did in the first nine seasons of his career. Back spasms bothered him the season's first two months, sidelining him twice; when rest and therapy healed that pain, he sprained his ankle, forcing him out for three consecutive games.

Even though he returned and played in the final six games, he acknowledged that the r-word -- "retirement," of course -- did enter his thoughts.

"I think it always crosses your mind with stuff like that," Hoover said. "You keep fighting, you get a little healthier, you get out there and play. You never become healthy, but for the most part, I was able to get out here and play the second half of the season.

"Granted, (the ankle) still hurt. I still felt it every week. But for me it was functional enough to where I got out here and tried."

And, frankly, he succeeded, earning a distinction never before accomplished by a fullback -- blocking for two 1,100-yard rushers in a single season.

In one respect, Hoover could be perceived as approaching the prime of his career; numerous Pro Bowl fullbacks of the past decade had double-digit years of experience, including Lorenzo Neal, Tony Richardson and Mack Strong. But the accumulated toll of hits has begun stalking Hoover, who has one year remaining on his contract and plans on fulfilling it.

"I'd like to honor that," Hoover said. "We'll just have to see how they evaluate me, whether they want me here. I'd like to continue playing, whether here in Carolina or somewhere else. Hopefully it works out here.

"It depends on how they evaluate me, but I would like to be back and finish up the rest of my career as a Panther."