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DJ Wonnum returns home, to the place he's always shined

DJ Wonnum

CHARLOTTE— D.J. Wonnum has played in his fair share of stadiums. From SEC powerhouses to iconic NFL pantheons, he's lined up in them all over the past eight years in his college and pro career. But there is one place that is easily his favorite.

Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers.

"Every time I'm here, something amazing happens," he said.

Sitting near the edge of the field last week, in the building as a free agent signing last week for the Panthers, Wonnum glanced towards the grass as he filtered through the memories.

The first time Wonnum played in Bank of America Stadium, his first start at the college level with South Carolina, the rest of his career unfolded in front of him. Wonnum finished with eight tackles, three for loss, and one sack.

"I missed the game winning sack at the end, which I still think about this to this day," Wonnum added.

The sack would've ended the game right there, but a tip in the end zone still did the trick, giving South Carolina a win. Most importantly, for Wonnum, he walked away with the knowledge that he could do this.

"It kind of like woke up the dog inside of me," Wonnum explained. "Kind of realized what I can do or the type of player I was."

That season, Wonnum finished with 57 tackles, 13 for loss, a number which led the Gamecocks. He also had a team-leading six sacks. And that dog that was woken up went on to finish his college career with 137 tackles (he missed eight games with an ankle injury), 29.5 for loss and 14 sacks. He went on to become a fourth-round pick for the Minnesota Vikings in the 2020 draft, playing in the NFC North the past four years.

And during that time, once again, he had a game to remember in Bank of America Stadium.

DJ Wonnum

"It was my first score, first scoop and score and it was quite the distance, 51 yards," Wonnum said of his fumble recovery touchdown off Bryce Young last October, before joking, "that's a long way to run. And I felt it as I was coming to the sideline, I think I went straight to the oxygen tank."

Wonnum and Young are now teammates, so the actual play won't be something he brings up too often, but the moment further reinforced what the city and place meant to Wonnum.

"It was an amazing feeling, just doing that here."

He had family in the crowd, a whole slew of supporters who made the short trip up from Stone Mountain, Ga., where Wonnum is from, and family still resides. When it came time this offseason to land on a new home, there were several things that went into Wonnum's decision to sign with the Panthers, and Carolina's desire to have him. And while his history in the stadium and proximity to home wasn't the deciding factor, it was a huge point in the pro column.

"Mom, pops, cousins, brothers, sisters, everyone was here (in October)," Wonnum shared. "We didn't get that too much often in Minnesota, but now the tables have turned, they can come to every game if they want to.

"Just being closer to home makes it easier on them. And then to be able to, obviously they're a big support system for me. So, them being able to come to every game now is a great, it's a great feeling. Everybody that supports me that has my back throughout this entire process and being able to do that in front of them and allowing them to come out and watch me."

DJ Wonnum

Home, for so long, was Georgia. Wonnum grew up a Michael Vick fan, wanting to play quarterback like his idol as so many did during that period of Falcons history. There was just one problem; "I wanted to be a quarterback in a D-line's body."

Instead, he settled for sacking the quarterback. Although his friends from home made it clear they wouldn't cheer for him twice a year now, he's still looking forward to what the opportunity will bring.

"But hey, we in now so I get to sack—Kirk Cousins."

The edge rusher suffered a season-ending torn quadricep in Week 16 last season and is still on a fluid timeline for his offseason recovery, saying he's "still in the lab."

The only date he really has circled is the first home game, whenever that may be. His phone has already been blowing up with ticket requests, as the Wonnum camp makes the drive from North Georgia to welcome their boy back to the southeast. As long as his parents, siblings, grandparents and girlfriend are in the crowd though, he'll know he's truly returned; to home, to those who support him the most, and to the place where he's always played his best, a trend he hopes continues game after game.

"This is," Wonnum started, cutting his eyes to the field again, "maybe it could be that home."

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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