CHARLOTTE – Before and after every game, not to mention multiple times during the week, Kelvin Benjamin would talk to his mom.
This year on game days, during a season he's dedicating to her memory, Benjamin is doing much the same thing.
"Once we get out there, right before the national anthem," Benjamin said, "I take a moment to take it all in, just take the atmosphere in and just talk to my mom."
Benjamin will continue the ritual Sunday in his home state, 200 miles northwest of his hometown of Belle Glade, Fla., and 200-plus miles southeast of his college football home in Tallahassee. Just across the field from him, one of Benjamin's best friends will line up for the anthem as quarterback Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prepare to take on Benjamin and the Panthers.
"That's definitely one of his prime areas of motivation this year, to get his mind right and dedicate his season to her," Winston said. Benjamin's mother, Catherine, died in July.
"It was very unfortunate, but I know KB is using that as inspiration and is going to take advantage of every opportunity he has."
Winston counts himself among Benjamin's biggest fans – aside from this Sunday, of course. In 2013, the two joined forces to lead Florida State to the national title.
"Well Kelvin Benjamin, you know that's my guy," Winston said. "He's a national championship receiver. He's unstoppable when he's out there at times – just a huge, athletic specimen out there catching the ball, running after the catch.
"He's always finding ways to get open. Cam (Newton) is definitely blessed to have him as a target."
While Winston and Benjamin played together just one season – the Panthers selected Benjamin with the 28th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft – Benjamin and Newton are in their fourth season together. Benjamin missed the 2015 season with a knee injury, but even so he needs just 163 receiving yards to move into fifth place on the Panthers' all-time receiving yards list.
Bothered by the knee recently but playing through it, Benjamin is pacing the Panthers with 436 receiving yards so far this season – on pace for 997 yards. But neither his knee nor his statistics are driving Benjamin this year.
It's all about the memory of his mom.
"I'm not really worrying about the business side of things, not really worrying about my stats," Benjamin said. "I'm just going hard, just having fun playing ball and leaving it all on the field."
View photos of the week of practice leading up to the Panthers' game against the Buccaneers.