CHARLOTTE – As an All-American at Ohio State two years ago, Curtis Samuel made it look easy.
As a second-year pro, Samuel understands that it’s not.
“The NFL is a difficult game,” Samuel said. “But I knew the time would come; I just had to be patient for it.”
Samuel’s patience has been tested over the past 11 months, but in his first game since Week 10 of his rookie year, the second-year pro – and the Panthers – were rewarded.
“It feels great to finally get out there and just be able to play, to not have to worry about injuries,” Samuel said after scoring his first NFL touchdown and making a pivotal play on special teams in the Panthers’ pulsating 33-31 victory over the Giants. “Just going out there and enjoying myself, enjoying the game - it felt great.”
Samuel’s numbers Sunday were modest compared to the ones he piled up for the Buckeyes in 2016 – when he was the only college player to top both 700 receiving and 700 rushing yards – but his contributions were not.
He accounted for just 37 yards in the gamebook, but 25 of them came on an early touchdown that sparked the offense. He also was one of several keys to Carolina’s second touchdown, forcing a fumble on a punt near the end zone to set up teammate Colin Jones for a recovery in the end zone.
“Recovery” is a word Samuel has heard used way too often in a context that football players dread. Seemingly immune to injury despite his physical style as an H-back in college, he was hampered by hamstring issues out of the gate as a rookie before a serious foot injury ended his season in Week 10 just when he seemed to be rounding into form.
He made it through that grueling recovery and was among Carolina’s shining stars in the preseason, but then a “health scare” as head coach Ron Rivera called it cropped up days before the season opener and sidelined him until Sunday.
“With what his last month has been like, it’s just great to see him out here doing what he did – playing powerful, playing for his team,” rookie cornerback Donte Jackson said. “That’s all you can ask from a guy who’s been through what he’s been through.
“Curtis brought a huge spark.”
Upon returning to practice just six days before the Giants game, the second-fastest player at the 2017 NFL Combine said he felt faster than ever. Maybe it was the weight lifted from what he’s had to battle back from, but whatever it was, his speed and also his physicality were on full display on his touchdown.
Late in the first quarter, Samuel caught a quick pass from quarterback Cam Newton near the line of scrimmage out to the left, sped (and skipped) his way inside the 10 among a bevy of blocks, then powered through three would-be tacklers near the 5 before spinning to fight his way into the end zone for a 25-yard score.
“They turn into running backs, maybe fullbacks. It’s physical,” Newton said of Samuel and rookie DJ Moore, who had a physical run on a reverse earlier in the drive. “They have the mentality to get up field and make as much as possible.
“(Samuel) may not understand his threshold of greatness; today you saw it. A guy who is very slippery when he gets the ball and resilient when he’s running. He showed the capabilities that he has, and after the game I told him, ‘You’ve just got to build on it.’
“He’s such a young, fun exuberant player. We have to get the ball in his hands as much as possible.”
Samuel got his hands on the ball in a decidedly different way early in the second quarter, when he knocked the ball loose from Giants cornerback Janoris Jenkins near the goal line on a Panthers punt that turned into a Panthers touchdown.
Samuel credited Moore for getting the play started, just as he credited his blockers on the touchdown catch. That isn’t to say he isn’t aware of his own ability.
“I’ve got a little juice in there,” Samuel said when a reporter mentioned his running back background in reference to his touchdown. “I mean, when you get the ball that far into the red zone, you’ve got to make something happen. I’m trying to score. I hadn’t scored in the NFL yet. It was amazing.”
Made even more amazing for Samuel – if that’s even possible – by who the opponent happened to be.
“All of my family is here for this game, going against the Giants. I’m from Brooklyn, so this was special for me,” Samuel said. “Everybody from back home watched this game.”
And Samuel came away with a souvenir to take home after understandably passing on the “Sunday giveaway” synonymous with Panthers touchdowns. Samuel secured the football that he willed into the end zone. It was in his locker at game’s end.
“It ain’t going nowhere,” he said.