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Keeping a long-made promise, Devin Funchess becomes first NFL player to sign a professional basketball contract

Devin Funchess during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, September 23, 2018.
Devin Funchess during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, September 23, 2018.

CHARLOTTE— When Devin Funchess was young, he made his grandfather three promises.

He promised he'd win a Super Bowl, play professional basketball, then become a farmer. With those in mind, he set out a plan for his life.

As a rookie in the NFL, the former Michigan tight end-turned-receiver came close to his first promise. As the Panthers went all the way to the final game, Funchess was on the precipice of reaching a goal that had only been a dream.

"Rookie year I was on cloud nine," Funchess recalled. "I'm like, bro, this is crazy. Like I'm about to win to the Super Bowl."

The Panthers did not in fact win that Super Bowl, and he wouldn't return to the championship game during his NFL career. But reaching the pinnacle of what is arguably one of the hardest to achieve in professional sports, shaped an athlete that is still working to keep his promises.

"Going through that process, (to the Super Bowl), it molded my work ethic, my discipline, my understanding of what a brick wall is, how much fatigue is and just how, the routine and regimen, that you got to keep up," he said.

Funchess shares all of this from a sunlit room in Villavicencio, Colombia, a mid-size city in the foothills of the Andes, and the home of the Caribbean Storm Llaneros. The team is part of the Professional Colombia Basketball league (Baloncesto Profesional Colombiano) and signed Funchess to a deal for their 28-game season. It meant hopping on plane after three weeks in Australia, flying halfway around the world to continue to chase a dream and keep a promise.

He is the first former NFL player to then go on and sign a professional basketball contract.

"I told my grandfather, I said, man, I'm going to go win the Super Bowl and then I'm going straight to basketball," Funchess said.

Funchess played in the NFL until 2022, his longest tenure remaining with the Panthers. But during the COVID-19-impacted 2020 season, he was reminded of what he'd told his grandfather, James Hester, years ago.

Hester would always live with Funchess during the season, so while the 79-year-old was dealing with health issues, Funchess had to grapple with the decision to play and keep his career moving, or opt-out for the season, and do what he thought would be best for his grandfather.

It was July 11, 2020 and Funchess still had not decided what he was going to do. He and family were at his home in Florida, and his cousin—Charlotte-native and McDonald's All-American, Aden Holloway—was dribbling the basketball in the driveway. Funchess had not picked up a basketball in years, not wanting to risk any sort of injury while still playing football. But Holloway kept enticing Funchess to join him. Playing around seemed harmless enough, so he finally took the ball.

"I just started dribbling and once you start dribbling, you just get addicted to it," Funchess admitted. "That's what all the greats in that sport say, like you got to do it every day, you got to do it every day and make sure you fall in love with that.

"So, I was just doing that to kind of cope with something that I never had to deal with—being away with football…then it was just like, this was an outlet for me to think of all the different possibilities."

Funchess returned for two more years after the COVID-19 opt-out season, but he'd put the basketball back in his hand; the dream was back, the love was back, and so was the promise. In November 2023, he made his professional basketball debut with the Statham Academy of the AsiaBasket league. And in May of 2024, he made his debut with the Storm.

Holloway is now with the Alabama Crimson Tide basketball team, and holds the distinction as being the catalyst for Funchess chasing this goal.

"He's my biggest, I tell him, you're my biggest motivator," Funchess shared. "He got me to fall back in love with a sport that I thought was all the way retired from."

Eventually, Funchess wants to return to the states to play, but is trying to enjoy this time traversing the world playing basketball, using it as time to research his third promise to his grandfather; to one day become a farmer. For Funchess, it means the opportunity to not only feed the world but help introduce one culture to another by starting an international etiquette course. The program would teach proper dinner etiquette, sport etiquette and how to adapt to different cultures.

"I've been able to engulf myself in a couple of different countries, a couple of different cultures and trying to establish some of that right now," he explained. "I want to utilize the aspect of seasonal sports and me doing football, flag football and then the basketball journey.

"Just setting up the dinner table the right way, knowing where the forks and the knives and the bowl and the plates and the glasses and all the wine glasses go. And then just food everywhere worldwide is the way to somebody's heart basically. And if you can cook a great meal, then you can be able to adapt and, and get in with the culture."

But merging his future farm with his burgeoning etiquette program is still a ways away though. Because this basketball dream is far from over. Funchess has two September dates circled on his calendar; one for open tryouts with the LA Clippers G league team, the Ontario Clippers, the other for open tryouts with the Charlotte Hornets G league team, the Greensboro Swarm. Hester hasn't seen his grandson play professionally yet, since every game has been overseas, and it's something Funchess wants to rectify for the now 83-year-old, soon.

"I've been trying to work so hard to get back state side and get (my grandfather) into one of those cities locally so he can get out and come see me play."

Last summer, Funchess met with the general manager of the Ontario Clippers, who advised the converted football player to use this time to accumulate as much tape as possible. So that's what he's been doing, in countries all over the globe. And while getting back to the states is the goal, the chance to play sports in North Carolina again brought a dreamy smile to Funchess' face.

"I really want to play with the Swarm just because it's like so much, it was so much love," he said. "When I look at my life and I go back to my life, yeah, Detroit (his hometown and the last NFL team to sign him) gave me a lot of love, a ton of love. But Charlotte opened so many doors for me,

"My whole family is from North Carolina anyway. So, it'd just be dope just to get my fam to the games."

The process is not as simple as walking through the door though. Over 100 players sign-up for the open tryouts each summer. The group is put through a gauntlet of quick-hit practice drills, as the general manager watches from a perch above. Prospects range in age from college graduates to some in their early-to-mid 30's (Funchess will be 30 by the time tryouts roll around).

The tryout trial is a strenuous tiered process, stretching over several days and unfolding into training camp, often resulting in upwards of three players making the final roster. In other words, it can be a longshot. But it's a longshot worth pursuing.

As GM of the Swarm, Cole Teal sees hundreds of hopefuls each year, beyond even the open tryout. But the novelty of a converted NFL player can't help but stand out a bit.

"With Devin, I think, it is super tough to make that transition," Teal admitted, "but credit to him for pursuing his passion and really giving it a go…I think him playing in the professional league in Columbia is a good starting point. It's really kind of like the real world in that, you have to build up a resume and have an organization feel comfortable in taking a risk."

All Austin Rivers-inspired debates aside, transitioning from the NFL to basketball isn't as simple as just deciding to do so. Teal watches prospects endlessly and some of the most important skills are not necessarily transferrable.

"On a football field as a wide receiver, you're not dribbling a basketball, you're not shooting a basketball," Teal explained. But the foundation for any athlete, that's what can be applied across both sports, and that's what Teal sees in athletes like Funchess, making the switch.

"The thing about it is like, you got to have the physical aspect, you got to be able to have size and length and you got to have athleticism to be able to defend," he continued. "So, like slide your feet laterally and have the strength to kind of hold your own on switches defensively. And so, there is a lot of value from that standpoint."

WR Devin Funchess

The long, grueling journey isn't daunting for Funchess though; he's used to it, making it to the NFL and beyond. And it's all part of keeping his promise to his grandfather, meaning every transatlantic flight, every game in a small gym, every opportunity big or small, is a step back towards his family and his pact.

"I'm just trying to be the entertainer for the family still allow them to get different experiences, go different places, see different things. So that's my job in the family is to live all my dreams so they can enjoy my dreams."

And if that dream brings him back to North Carolina, whether through the Storm or some other avenue, he'll promise his grandfather one more thing.

"Got to keep stepping my way on up, get granddad there, man and he needs it. We got to go fishing."

View photos of the Panthers' fourth week of voluntary offseason workouts on Tuesday.

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