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Carolina Panthers

Charlotte duo takes a step towards their goal at Wake Forest Pro Day

Jacob Roberts

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.—In the shadow of Bank of America Stadium, nestled in between the buildings of downtown Charlotte, sits Romare Bearden Park. The oasis in the center of the Queen City is where Jacob Roberts and Trenton Simpson would find themselves a lot over the last several years.

They'd play football with others from the Charlotte area, work out in preparation for college, and forge a bond that's still going strong. As Roberts wrapped up his Pro Day on Wednesday at Wake Forest University, with Simpson (a third-round pick of the Ravens last year out of Clemson) watching from the sidelines, those days at the park seemed far off, but worth it to get here.

"It's been a tough football journey, being cut in middle school, being cut in high school but to be standing here today, I feel great," Roberts said. "(Trent's) my best friend. I've been knowing him about seven or eight years now. Been solid since day one, I push him, he pushes me and we're together every step of the way.

"He told me it's just football, you know, we've been doing this a long time. Me and him used to go downtown to the park, train each other, go back to Mallard Creek High School and train…at the end of the day he told me it's just football, stay focused, he know that I'm a good ball player."

Roberts took the long route to this point. After helping lead Charlotte powerhouse Mallard Creek to a state title as a junior and being named first-team all-conference as a senior, Roberts found himself with but two college offers.

He played three seasons at North Carolina A&T, graduated in three-and-a-half years, and decided to enter the portal for his final year of eligibility. When Wake Forest rang, Roberts knew the decision was made.

"Growing up in Charlotte, there aren't any Power 5s in the area. So, this is the closest one to growing up. You always see Wake, you see (NC) State, (North) Carolina and Duke. So, growing up, you're going to like one of those teams in North Carolina," Roberts joked. "Mine was Wake Forest."

In his one season with the Demon Deacons, Roberts finished with 83 tackles, six sacks and two forced fumbles.

Malik Mustapha

He was far from the only Charlotte representative in Winston-Salem on Wednesday. In addition to Simpson, former Wake Forest quarterback and Charlotte native Sam Hartman was in attendance, and Demon Deacons safety Malik Mustapha worked out for scouts.

Mustapha helped lead Weddington High to a perfect 16-0 record in 2019, winning a state title that year in a game which Mustapha blocked a kick. He was named First Team All-Conference and First Team All-State by the Associated Press. In his final year at Wake Forest, the former running back turned safety finished with 80 tackles, five for loss, one interception and three passes defended.

He pulled a hamstring during the week of Reese's Senior Bowl practices, so knew Pro Day was his chance to make an impression.

"I couldn't even sleep last night I was so anxious, a little nervous," Mustapha admitted. "But it's all I dreamed of doing. It's all the work I put in; because at this moment, my life's all about moments and just being able to create more moments down the line is the most important thing to me."

Mustapha worked on his speed training for the draft evaluations. He had not heard of his official times when he spoke to media, but only ran one 40-yard dash; "Guys know I can move, guys see me in DB drills, know I can move and put on the tape, I'm far from slow."

Much like Roberts, Mustapha wasn't sure coming out of high school if he'd make it to this point, to this day, to this opportunity. He had no Power 5 offers, and spent his first year of eligibility with Richmond. He muses it had to do with his size (he was listed as 5-10, 182 pounds as a recruit from Weddington) and others in the area getting exposure. It didn't matter though.

"It was all about me controlling what I was able to control. So can't worry about the next guy. Just focus on your own journey," Mustapha said. "You can't live anybody else's journey. So, that's what really helped me persevere to get to the point where I'm at now."

Regardless of what happens next, for either Mustapha or Roberts, they're leaning on each other and those from the Charlotte area through the process.

"We got a lot of ball players that come out of Charlotte," Roberts said. "You see it every year and, you know, Malik, I've been knowing him since I was in high school, being from the same city. So, we lived together when I moved here. So pretty cool being with him. He definitely a dog. He pushed me each and every day and we just feed off each other. But it's great for the whole city of Charlotte. A lot of athletes come out of there doing well.

Added Mustapha: "It's nice for Charlotte to be recognized, all of us being able to reach to this level, like guys like (Clemson running back) Will Shipley, guys like (North Carolina linebacker) Cedric Gray, I grew up playing with; we're all living in the moment. So, you know, definitely going to celebrate with them once I get the chance to and it's just a testament to all the hard work you put in.

"The Charlotte relationship is always going to be there. It's just nice to be able to, you know, look back on guys that are from your home area and be able to grind and be part of a brotherhood at the next level."

The Carolina Panthers were busy in free agency this week, signing multiple players on both sides of the ball. The first wave arrived on Thursday and Friday, getting a tour of Bank of America Stadium, meeting coaches, teammates and taking in their new home.

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