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The 1997 season opened with a training camp that seemed filled with endless possibilities.
Yet, until Fan Fest at Ericsson Stadium on July 26 - a sunny, cloudless day filled with nothing but Carolina blue skies - no one thought much of an undrafted rookie running back named Fred Lane as one of those promising possibilities.
That all changed when Lane started running wild against his defensive teammates during an 11-on-11 scrimmage toward the end of the practice, which was witnessed by thousands of fans anxious to see how the Panthers might build on their success of the previous season. In 1996, Carolina won the NFC West with a 12-4 record and defeated the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys in their first playoff game before losing to Green Bay in the NFC Championship.
Lane was still playing at tiny Lane College in Tennessee at the time. No, the college wasn't named after him or a relative, but it did make the running back a little harder to forget.
Entering training camp, he was just one of many undrafted rookie free agents fighting long odds to make the team. And he knew it.
"Basically, I thought I was going to be sent home on the first cut," he told reporters later in 1997. "I thought they just had me in to be a practice body."
Lane wasn't drafted because he wasn't particularly fast for a running back, hadn't played against top competition in college and a knee injury had slowed him during his senior season. Still, the Panthers saw enough in him to offer him a $5,000 signing bonus and an invite to camp.
To put that in perspective, the starting quarterback who later would spend much of the season handing him the ball was Kerry Collins. He received a $7 million signing bonus as the fifth overall selection in the 1995 NFL Draft.
View photos from the Panthers from the 1997 season.
Lane arrived as a seemingly wide-eyed, innocent young man. He told reporters his favorite food was spinach and that he read his grandmother's old, well-worn Bible every night before going to sleep. His idol was running back Barry Sanders, who was still starring for the Detroit Lions, and Lane still had a poster of Sanders tacked to the wall above his bed at his parents' home.
But until Fan Fest, he seemed to be little more than a typical, decent training camp story - here today, gone tomorrow. Sure, head coach Dom Capers seemed to talk about him a little more than some of the others. But the general consensus among the media was that you better write the Fred Lane story fast because he was going to get cut soon.
That all changed at Fan Fest.
Lane burst through the line for several strong runs, breaking tackle after tackle, including one particularly outstanding jaunt that went for more than 50 yards and a touchdown. Every time he touched the ball, he seemed to make something positive and memorable happen. Maybe he wasn't the fastest, but he was physical and suddenly seemed as strong as a bull. It was as if Lane was Popeye and he had just consumed a huge can of spinach.
Lane also displayed a knack for finding a hole and hitting it quick, with little of the needless juking and dancing around beforehand - a habit so many young running backs struggle to overcome.
When the scrimmage was over, one Panthers defender was overheard asking another, "Who is that kid again? He was tough to bring down."
Fans began chanting Lane's name as the team started to leave the field. Like it is today, fans lingered after the annual summer event as many of Panthers players circled the field and signed autographs.
The strange part of this particular day was that the fans seemed to want Lane's autograph as much or more than the signatures of established stars such as Collins, linebacker Sam Mills and others. Lane, meanwhile, was headed to the locker room when first he was told the media wanted to talk to him - and then was headed off again when he was told fans wanted his autograph.
"They want my autograph? No one's ever really asked for my autograph before," he said.
It may have been the first time, but it wouldn't be the last.
With injuries hampering Carolina's top two projected running backs in 1997, Tshimanaga Biakabutuka (the team's first-round draft choice in 1996) and Anthony Johnson (the team's leading rusher in 1996), Lane not only made the team but ended up leading the Panthers in rushing attempts with 182, rushing yards with 809 and touchdowns with seven.
Lane's unlikely and remarkable 1997 journey began at Fan Fest.