CHARLOTTE — Some of DJ Chark's best games came against the Panthers, but he's not spending much time flashing back to them.
It could be because of the way last season unraveled without him realizing how bad his situation actually was, that he's taking every opportunity he can to stay in the present.
The laughs come easily for Chark here as he gets to know new teammates (he's a sucker for a good dad joke) or walks the halls with his two children as they get a new start in a new place.
"I'm glad that I'm able to come in year one of this coaching change, this staff, being here so I can help build," Chark said during a recent trip to his new office. "But also feel like I'm on the same page with the guys, you know? Everybody is experiencing this new right now, even the guys that were currently here. So if you know you're going to be experiencing something new, I'd rather be experiencing it new with my teammates as opposed to coming into something later. So I think that's kind of what I imagined, what I envisioned when I think about Carolina right now."
The Panthers have seen firsthand what Chark is capable of. Last year with the Lions, he caught four passes for 108 yards (27.0 yards per catch). Coupled with a 2019 game with the Jaguars when he caught eight passes for 164 yards (20.5 per) and two touchdowns here, he's shown local fans how he can stretch the field.
But thinking back to last season, it's a wonder he was able to play at all. When you say a player is coming off recent ankle surgery, it can sound like the kind of routine maintenance a football player gets after a long season.
But Chark pushed through a situation last season that was worse than he knew.
In 2021, he suffered a broken ankle in Week 4 for the Jaguars, knocking him out for the rest of that year. On the other hand, it was early enough in the season that it seemed normal for him to be ready the following year. But when doctors perform surgery, they never know exactly how things are going to unfold.
Part of the hardware used in that 2021 surgery didn't mesh well with Chark's anatomy the way it was intended. That sometimes happens when you put foreign bodies in a human body. So instead of the procedure strengthening his ankle as designed, it gradually weakened the area, leading to an in-and-out season for the wide receiver after he moved on to Detroit.
"When I had the surgery, the surgical repair materials used in the surgery caused an effect on the bone, which I didn't understand at the time. We didn't know," Chark said. "So the whole training camp (in 2022 with the Lions), I'm dealing with it, it feels good, but it feels a little sore. And then after Week 3 against Minnesota, before halftime, I got tackled, and it feels like I kind of twisted my ankle a little bit. I came back the next week to practice for the upcoming week and just couldn't really run on it — I was in pain.
"So initially, we kind of thought it was like a sprain."
Instead of getting better with a normal course of treatment for a sprain, Chark would miss the next six games, and he still didn't realize the extent of the problem, but he knew he wanted to get back on the field.
"The material caused it to weaken over time, and my body didn't react to something, but I didn't know then," he said. "So I end up missing a total of six games. And I was just at the point, mentally, that I wanted to play.
"I knew I had just missed the whole season (in 2021). And I was like, no matter what, I'm going to go out there and play through the pain and tape it up. Practice every day, didn't miss a practice the remaining eight games."
Included in that stretch was his big game against the Panthers here in December on a record-cold day at Bank of America Stadium. Two weeks later, the Lions finished their season at Green Bay, but that was just Chark's first trip to the frozen tundra in January. He returned to Green Bay days later to see noted foot and ankle specialist Dr. Robert Anderson, who repaired the issue from the previous surgery and set him back on course to be ready for the year.
Panthers coach Frank Reich said that the most recent procedure should get Chark back to his pre-injury form, which the Panthers would love to see. With a new quarterback rolling in soon, having a deep-play threat (Chark has averaged 14.4 yards per reception in his five seasons) would be an excellent complement to veteran wideout Adam Thielen, tight end Hayden Hurst, and a quality pass-catching running back in Miles Sanders.
"We're very optimistic that the procedure that he had done is going to end up to be a good story that is going to clean up the issue that he's been fighting for a couple of years and really give him the best chance to stay on the field," Reich said in March.
Chark said after consulting with Anderson, he decided to go ahead with this latest procedure, which could slow his acclimation to a new team a bit (though he's walking without a boot or any support and is looking forward to getting on the field soon). But the hope is it pays long-term dividends. While he may not be 100 percent by the start of OTAs, the expectation is that he could be doing things this offseason and be ready by training camp.
"I didn't necessarily have to have the (most recent) surgery," Chark said. "But if I want to get back to the best version of myself, and as far as health-wise, it was best to go ahead and do it.
"Now I'm in the process of recovery. Feel pretty good. I'm still working towards where I want to be, but I feel really confident in it."
Chark also feels more at home in the new offense than a new guy ought to be. He said since new Panthers offensive coordinator Thomas Brown (formerly of the Rams) designed the playbook, and last year's Lions quarterback Jared Goff came from that same Rams system, a lot of what he's already heard in his short time with the Panthers sounds familiar.
So once he's running full speed, he's planning on hitting the ground running.
"I feel like this is something I do pretty well; I enjoy doing that," he said of the prospect of being a deep threat in a place he's already been one. "That's something that I've done pretty much my whole life. So it's good to be able to come in and obviously challenge other players to do the same.
"That's what I do. That's what brings me joy."
And now that he's on his way back to full health, he's hoping to spread that joy here, again, to a different set of fans.
DJ Chark began his career in Jacksonville where he played from 2018-21 before going to Detroit in 2022.