SAN JOSE, Calif. – For a while, cornerback Bene Benwikere kept the emotional pain of his season-ending injury beneath the surface.
But when the Panthers began making arrangements to conduct Super Bowl practices at his alma mater, San Jose State University, an emotional response was inevitable.
"At first, I faced it and understood I wasn't going to be playing. It didn't really affect me," said Benwikere, who broke his leg versus the Atlanta Falcons in Week 14. "It wasn't until last Thursday when coach (Rivera) let me fly home to LA for my son's birthday, and I was on the flight just realizing, 'I'm going back to my school and I'm really, really not going to be able to play.'
"That got me emotional a little bit – just being on the flight with all that time to think. When we checked in at the team hotel it hit me again. Being around the guys has helped. I know I am a part of this and I helped them get here."
A visit to San Jose State for the Panthers' first Super Bowl practice on Monday was both difficult and heart-warming for Benwikere.
While Benwikere did some work in the weight room, his teammates were preparing for football's grandest game on the same field he used to practice on.
"It's obviously bittersweet for him," general manager Dave Gettleman said.
But an opportunity to see old friends lifted Benwikere's spirit. Anh-Dao, a San Jose State football administrative assistant who the Spartan players call "football mom," was wearing a Benwikere jersey when the Panthers arrived.
"It was so awesome to see that," Benwikere said.
San Jose State head athletic trainer Sash Imura and Benwikere shared a big hug. Those two became very close during Benwikere's college career. Benwikere even volunteered at Imura's wife's childcare center.
"We all are Panthers fans because of him," Imura said. "He's representing us, and there's definitely pride in that."
Yes, the San Jose State football family takes great pride in Benwikere's NFL accomplishments. A fifth-round draft choice by Carolina in 2014, Benwikere beat the odds and made a name for himself at the highest level.
But it's Benwikere's personality and character that created such strong connections with the people who supported him in college.
"He always had that smile. You guys have seen that smile. Everyone had a great relationship with him," Imura said. "My mom still really closely follows him, and she's not even really a football fan. That charm that he has really affected my family."
Benwikere has built similarly strong relationships with his football family in Carolina. He describes himself as a quiet person, but Benwikere is observant. He listens. He takes time to understand people on a personal level.
Following the Panthers' only loss of the season – a Week 16 defeat at Atlanta – Benwikere made comments during a radio interview that had a profound impact on the team and head coach Ron Rivera.
After watching the game on television, Benwikere said the Panthers weren't themselves. They weren't playing with the same attitude they typically do. A player known for his great instincts knew something wasn't right.
"I pay attention and I know when something is going on. I know when coach is walking in the room and he doesn't feel well. That's just me. I'm very aware of what is going on around me," Benwikere said. "When I was watching that game I saw what was going on, and it was just like, 'That's not my guys.'"
After hearing about Benwikere's comments, Rivera shared the cornerback's observations with the team.
"I had no clue. Trai (Turner) and Josh (Norman) and Cam (Newton) texted me, and they said coach told them about what I said in the team meeting," Benwikere said. "They were like, 'You were right.'"
From that moment on, Rivera has continually emphasized the need for players to embrace their personality. When Benwikere spoke up, they listened, and the staff at San Jose State sure isn't surprised.
"To know that Coach Rivera and the organization think highly of me makes me feel great," Benwikere said.
View photos from the Panthers' first practice at San Jose State.