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Carolina Panthers

For Austin Corbett, after 294 days, "it all poured out in that moment"

Katy Rogers, Austin Corbett

CHARLOTTE — For some, the things they felt might have been as simple as relief. For most, it at least bordered on joy.

But for Panthers right guard Austin Corbett, the emotions of Sunday afternoon became overwhelming, and the only thing he could do was let them out.

It was hard for Corbett to say the words at times, but the message was clear. Since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in the 2022 regular-season finale at New Orleans, everything has built to this day, this moment. And even if the Panthers lost, Sunday would have been a big day for Corbett. But not only did they not lose, they did it with a drama that matched the moment.

So when that moment included a walk-off field goal to trigger the first celebration of the year for a team that really needed it, all Corbett could do was wince and cry and hug and thank people who helped get him to this place.

"Yeah, it's been a while. What was that? Like, 294 days or something? I don't know," Corbett began.

(He's lying; he knows that number precisely because he's counted them.)

"Really, getting home yesterday early after the walk-through, my wife and I tried not to think about what it would be," he continued, barely prompted but opening the floodgates. "If you go in there with any expectations, you get let down some way or the other. And so we really just tried to come in today, . . . We knew this was the gold date (for his return), and yeah, we don't want to get our own hopes up, though, just in case. And so I had to be able to look at it and just count down those days and it all, . . . it all just poured out there as that ball went through the uprights.

"It's really hard to put into words."

If words don't suffice, pictures and video can certainly help. That photo at the top of this article is Corbett, kneeling on the sidelines watching the final sequence after Bryce Young drove them into position, and then Panthers kicker Eddy Piñeiro had to hit the game-winner three times. It was emotionally draining for all of them. But you can see it on his face.

And over his left shoulder, with the red ponytail, that's assistant athletic trainer Katy Rogers, standing over him like a guardian angel. Which is exactly what she has been for Corbett for the last nine months and change. She was alongside him from the moment he fell to the turf in New Orleans, and 284 days ago, she boarded a plane to Los Angeles with him to help him through reconstructive surgery, which was the beginning of a long process for both of them. So, of course she was nearby.

Center Bradley Bozeman was right by his side, too, as he was for all 67 offensive snaps Sunday. The two of them, together again as they were for the last 11 games of last season when the offensive line became the Panthers' identity.

When the final kick went through, Bozeman put a hand on Corbett's shoulder and patted him a few times. While everyone else was celebrating like crazy (with Johnny Hekker giving Piñeiro a piggyback ride across the field), Corbett tucked his face into his jersey for a moment and then rose to receive the first of many hugs.

"So glad to have you back. I love you," Bozeman said to him. "I love you. You're a f---ing warrior. I love you, dog."

The next person to cross his field of vision, of course, was Rogers. The massive offensive lineman reached over to hug her, and all he could get out was a barely audible 'Thank you' as they both began to well up.

"Then I gave Katy, one of our athletic trainers I was working with the entire time, a big hug and said thank you," Corbett continued in his postgame locker room interview. "She, she's meant everything to us as a family this entire time."

He's meant a lot to her, too. The athletic training staff for a football team has a large group of people to help heal and treat, and in a year like this one, there are a lot more people to heal and treat. But when you walk every step of a journey with a guy who couldn't even walk for a lot of those steps, there are a lot of conversations beyond range of motion and the structural stability of a ligament.

Rogers has had a lot of those with Corbett, which is why she gets emotional, too. Because she's gotten to know Corbett so well in the last 294 days, and even before it, her goal was to match his steadiness and resolve until she couldn't.

"I'm doing a good job of holding it together, better than he did," Rogers said with a bit of a laugh, because sometimes when you're describing something so meaningful, you laugh to buy yourself a second so you don't do something else like cry. "Actually, I don't even think I even said anything to him. I was like, I can't even speak because I know I would . . .

"I'm just really proud, right? It's a neat day. It was good to see him out there."

Rogers, as a person whose job is built on the small increments of progress, the daily improvements that are essential to build to larger goals, has the gift of understatement. It was a neat day — for her and many people, including a football team that could really use him. But more on that later. This was about a moment 294 days in the making, and the people who supported him. The staffers who worked with Corbett rave about his meticulous work these last 294, now 295 days. Because he sleeps the right way, he eats the right way, and he works out the right way. So when he came in Sunday for the biggest of those 294 days, Rogers tried to keep it as normal as she knew he would.

Austin Corbett, Jeremy Scott, Katy Rogers

"I think it helps to know who he is as a person," Rogers said. "After all of last year, it was a normal game day. Just running back the same routine. It felt like nothing was different. I think everyone else was making it more of a big deal than he was. And I wanted to make sure from our perspective that we were making it as normal as possible because I think at times, that can be a little bit of a stressor on some people. So make it as normal as possible, make it the same routine.

"But deep down, you're not nervous; you're prepared. He's been 290 plus days of this, and he's been consistent throughout. So he's going to be consistent today. There's still work to be done. He's still got to maintain his body, and there's lots of football to be played left, but he is who he is, and he's consistent, and he's the ultimate pro. So I wasn't worried about him at all."

Corbett is aware of how fortunate he is to have this kind of care. If he was not a football player, or as good of one as he is, he might not have a cast of dozens whose job is to get him well and keep him there. So they were on his mind as he talked.

"That's exactly it for every single day to be coming into this place," Corbett continued. "Sitting down, having countless meetings with this athletic training staff, therapists, nutritionists, strength staff, sports science, we sit down with them every day. There's a set plan, and it's to see it all. You trusted it from the start, right?

"You knew it would happen and time would come, but to see it come out and for it to work out like that and just have emotions toyed with on that field goal, time and time again. It's, it's everything, it's truly special."

As he talked to a knot of reporters Sunday, there were moments when Corbett was about to break.

The same was true when Rogers spoke in a much quieter room a few minutes later. All the players had cleared out and headed into the night to celebrate with their friends and families. Rogers still had some work to do to be ready for the next day. She knows, as everyone on her staff knows that a rehab like Corbett's doesn't end when he steps back on the field; there's still recovery and maintenance and further strengthening that has to happen to keep him out there on the field. The job never stops.

But sometimes, when a special case crosses her desk, it's OK to pause for a second when you understand what it took to get to a moment like this one and to appreciate it.

Like Corbett, Rogers is quick to include all her fellow staffers who worked on this big grinning 305-pound project and for Corbett's wife and kids, who for large parts of the last nine months didn't have full access to their husband and father because of all the hours he had to spend at the stadium.

There are so many names that worked alongside Corbett it's impossible to list them all without leaving some out. But head athletic trainer Kevin King, head strength and conditioning coach Jeremy Scott, director of performance nutrition Kate Callaway, director of human performance Andrew Althoff, sports science coordinator Ryan Bellerose (the first human being Corbett actually blocked as he recovered), they were all there every day. Basically, the entire athletic training and human performance staff and many more people had hands on him at some point in this process, so the celebration was a shared one.

"In the day-to-day it seems long, but looking back, it's been so fast-forward," Rogers said. "So, I mean, it's easy when you have a person that knows the end in mind, that is so easy to set goals with, and he's been able to achieve them ahead of schedule and just been so good about holding himself accountable. But I mean, to see the leadership that he also brings and the comfort that he also brings in his room to Bryce and to the entire team. Like, he's the first person to run off to the line of scrimmage. And so he's, he's just who you want in your locker room through and through. So he makes it easy, makes my job easy. But it's honestly kind of hard because you have to keep him stimulated and, like, keep him entertained because he's always pushing. So, he's been, he's been good. And I'm glad for Madison and Ford and Landry, too. . . .

"I mean, it genuinely takes a village, and at times that I couldn't be there, the rest of my staff was there to help like Kevin, like Jeremy worked so hard with his strength conditioning. Like, we needed that. Jeremy was awesome to work with. And so it genuinely takes a village, everything from nutrition to strength to performance, everything that Althoff and Ryan did. Like, it genuinely takes a village."

Corbett talked to reporters for a good 10 minutes after the game, much of it about mundane football stuff, and by the end, it was hard for him to express everything he wanted to say. But you could see it in his eyes, red from all the months of work and all the people who helped him, and all the effort that came pouring out of them in that moment when a ball game worked out the right way. But because he's been so steady through this entire process, it took some time for this to all come out.

"It's just good to see him be the same person through and through," Rogers said. "Like, no change. I feel like if anything, he's the one that holds it together the most, and so he's, he's just been everything you want in a player, in a teammate. So he makes my job easy."

Stoic is a pretty good word to describe Corbett most days. But not Sunday. Sunday, all that stuff that had built up for 294 days came out.

"I don't even know. It just, it all poured out of me then," Corbett said when asked about the celebration around him. "As my wife will tell you, I'm not an emotional person. It just, it all poured out of me.

"There's this entire process, everything, my love for this team. My love for this staff, trainers, sports science, everybody. I love the Panthers, everybody that's in here and, . . . and it all poured out in that moment."

Austin Corbett

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