No one gave Carolina much of a chance to win the 2001 season opener at Minnesota. After all, the Panthers were starting a rookie quarterback in Chris Weinke, and there were other inexperienced players all over the roster as head coach George Seifert opted for a youth movement following the 2000 season.
So heading into the opener against the Vikings at the Metrodome - a loud and raucous stadium where the home team was led onto the field before games by the Vikings mascot riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle - the Panthers were clear and decided underdogs. Minnesota, featuring quarterback Daunte Culpepper and the wide receiver tandem of Randy Moss and Cris Carter, had gone undefeated in the preseason and was widely viewed as a team bound for big things after going 11-5 the previous year and winning the NFC Central.
"Our goal," said tight end Wesley Walls, "is to shock the world."
The Panthers accomplished exactly that. In a game they mostly controlled from start to finish, Carolina took the lead 17 seconds into the contest on a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by rookie Steve Smith en route to a 24-13 victory over 64,108 stunned Vikings faithful.
It was a perfect homecoming for Weinke, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Florida State who grew up in St. Paul, Minn., and starred in three sports at Cretin-Derham Hall High School - where he played first base on the baseball team, started at quarterback on the football team and was captain of the hockey team. In his first NFL game, Weinke wasn't perfect but certainly was efficient enough for the Panthers to win. He completed 13-of-22 passes for 223 yards and one touchdown with one interception.
"I don't know if it gets any better than this," said Weinke, a fourth-round draft choice who didn't begin his college career until age 26 after a stint playing minor league baseball in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. He was 29 when he finally made his NFL debut.
Smith, a third-round draft pick from Utah, also was playing in his first NFL game. The brash rookie spent a few moments right before kickoff jawing with Minnesota special teamer Chris Walsh.
"He just told me this ain't college anymore and this ain't preseason," Smith said of his conversation with Walsh, who was in his ninth NFL season. "He said, ‘If you get (the kickoff) in the end zone, you better take a knee or we're going to make you pay.'"
Then Smith added, "I'm still waiting."
Smith's opening kickoff return for a touchdown took some of the pressure off of Weinke. Carolina's defense helped, too, with the defensive backs limiting Moss to one catch for 28 yards and holding Carter to four receptions for 44 yards.
View photos from the Panthers 2001 season.
After the game, the Panthers said it helped having former Viking Jimmy Hitchcock playing cornerback on their side. Hitchcock revealed some valuable advice he had shared with his Carolina teammates, knowledge gleaned from practicing against Moss and Carter every day the previous two seasons.
"The thing I emphasized throughout the week was playing the ball," said Hitchcock, who ended a Vikings second-quarter drive by intercepting a Culpepper pass in the end zone. "I told our guys, ‘Don't play the receivers, play the ball. If you play the receivers and try to be a better athlete than they are, you're not going to win. But if you play the ball, you have a chance.'"
That strategy helped the Panthers intercept Culpepper three times.
Meanwhile, Weinke was steady. He threw a 16-yard touchdown to wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad for the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter and ran for a 1-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
"I felt so well-prepared for this game," Weinke said in the locker room after the game. "The coaching staff put us in a comfortable situation. I felt more nerves before a lot of college games than I did for this one."
Walls said of Weinke: "He was calm and mature. He never seemed overwhelmed that we had a chance to beat the Vikings."
Seifert, in his 37th year of coaching, added, "That was probably as team-oriented a win as I have ever been involved with. Our special teams, the defense and the offense, they all made critical plays in the ball game. And it was against a heck of a football team.
"To come into this environment and win with our club is something we can hopefully build on. It's something we should all be proud of."
Unfortunately, though it was something to be proud of, it did not prove to be something the Panthers could build on as Carolina went winless in the final 15 games.
But for that one day in 2001, all things seemed possible for the Panthers and their 29-year-old rookie quarterback.