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For Frank Reich and Dom Capers, camp is back to the future

Frank Reich

CHARLOTTE — I mean, it was 28 years ago, so it's reasonable for Panthers head coach Frank Reich not to have granular memories of his first training camp with his once-again team, from when he was the quarterback in 1995.

But there was one thing about that Spartanburg summer that was burned deeply into his mind.

"I know everybody says it's hot and humid down there, but I promise you 1995 camp had to be the most hot and the most humid one of all time," Reich said with a laugh.

Of course, every Panthers team that has gone to Spartanburg for camp — all of them except the 2020 team, which had to stay home because of COVID restrictions — has had to deal with the sweltering weather. Some summers have been cooler than others; sometimes, it rains. But that's a constant.

What was unique about that first one, however, was the everyday epiphanies, the energy that came from being a brand new team and being embraced by a region that had no idea what a training camp was supposed to look or feel like other than hot.

"I just remember there being a lot of excitement every day," Reich said. "It was a new team, you know? First year, first training camp in the organization's history.

"So I think there was a lot of excitement, right?"

Dom Capers

That's consistent with what the Panthers are about to embark on next week in Reich's first season as head coach. There's a lot of talk about new beginnings after they traded for the first pick in the draft, used it on quarterback Bryce Young, and revamped the rest of the roster around him. There's going to be a lot of new when rookies report on Saturday and even when the veterans join them on Tuesday.

"I was telling people, I mean, obviously this isn't an expansion team," senior defensive assistant Dom Capers said, reflecting on his early years as head coach. "There's so much new happening here. New staff, new quarterback, the whole nine yards, it feels a little like '95. I mean, having gone through all the spring and minicamps and stuff like that, there were moments during that first camp where it's like, every bit of this is brand new.

"There was just kind of an awareness, I guess, of how clean that slate actually was."

Dom Capers

There were other memories that stuck out to Capers, which were particular to that time and place.

"I can remember staying in a dorm, and at that time, I'd always get up about 5 and go for my jog in the morning," he recalled. "The thing that stands out in my mind is when I walked out of the dorm, there was a Krispy Kreme doughnut place across the street, and you could smell all the doughnuts."

Of course, that neon-light landmark has since yielded to a new two-story model across Church Street, but the smell still fills the air.

Not every scent that summer was as pleasant, as the realities of uplifting a college campus with a I-AA football program for the two-a-day practices of the NFL meant improvising and creating an olfactory obstacle.

"The funny thing was was, they had no lights there in 1995," Capers recalled. "So they had to bring in portable lights. And you know, I remember that they had to run them off generators, and the fumes became overwhelming down in that valley.

"So the biggest change from Year 1 to Year 2 was that we got permanent lights where we can have night practices. We were able to use their stadium a little bit, and we have plenty of practice space, I thought, but it got upgraded during the time that I was here; that was a good thing."

1995 Panthers

Likewise, there will be a familiar sense memory about this one when they hit the practice field for the first time next Wednesday.

It can't match the building job Capers had to oversee in 1995 since the entire operation was new, and there was no year before to refer to.

"You know, we obviously had a lot of work to do," Capers said. "Because anytime you're starting from scratch, there's a lot of unknowns."

At least the 1995 Panthers had the benefit of even more training camp, a longer chance to bask in the tropical conditions. Since they played in the Hall of Fame game to start their inaugural preseason with an extra game against expansion cousins Jacksonville, the Panthers got to check in early. That meant reporting on July 15, creating more of a camp experience than a lot of people were expecting. With so much preseason, they mixed in a preseason trip to practice against the Browns, and with five games to prepare and sift through a constantly changing roster, they were learning about themselves.

Though the 0-5 start to the first season might not have indicated it, there was a maturity about that team, which closed the year by winning seven of their final 11 games, setting the stage for the run to a division title and the NFC Championship Game the following year.

"We started like your typical expansion team," Capers said. "So everything was tough, you know. But the thing that I do remember is I really liked our guys on the team. I thought we had a lot of the right kind of guys, and we had a lot of guys that were getting second chances. And you know, you didn't hear a lot of complaining about how hard you worked.

"But the thing that came out of it is, because of the kind of guys that we had, it enabled us to overcome that 0-5 start. And so it was a great finish because we picked up momentum, and we won a number of games that people didn't give us much of a chance of winning.

"We really came back and became a very competitive team. And you don't do that unless you get a lot of the right people, right?"

Mills_Sam_Training Camp

Much of that was by design.

General manager Bill Polian was given a clear set of instructions heading into that first season. Since the viability of the expansion franchise was tied to a privately financed stadium in downtown Charlotte, Polian knew they needed to win early to keep the sales of PSLs rolling in.

So they invested heavily in veterans on defense, beginning with elders like Sam Mills and Brett Maxie, signing free agents like Mike Fox and Lamar Lathon to create a signature defense. And since they went into the year knowing they would likely draft a rookie quarterback (they picked first but ended up trading down and still getting Kerry Collins), they knew they needed a solid veteran quarterback who could start. That led Polian directly to Reich, who relished the chance to start after spending his career as Jim Kelly's backup in Buffalo. He was one of many former Bills on that roster, as Polian offered plenty of jobs to players he picked in his previous role.

"There was a comfort level because of the players that Bill was familiar with, and I had been with and was familiar with," Capers said. "So I think that year, one of your biggest challenges is building up that trust factor. And, guys you know have a real sense of belief in what you're doing that it's going to work. Having players that you've been around, like Sam Mills, guys like Brett Maxie, and Dwight Stone, and Gerald Williams, then we brought Kevin Greene in the second year.

"Those guys were all great ambassadors in the locker room, and they really believed in what we were doing, right? Because they'd seen it work before. And so, you know, I felt at the time that, and I still do you feel that way, that it's far more effective if players are getting the message out. What they're saying to the guy who's sitting next to him in the locker room is more important than what you say to him standing in front of the team meeting room."

Dom Capers

History suggests that the first camp was as productive as it was long. And the one Reich's about to embark on will be equally important as they try to establish a new identity.

So the chance to immerse themselves in football all day is something they look forward to, even if sleeping in a dorm isn't necessarily their preference. Reich remembers the feeling of that first one, and he's hoping to create it again.

"You're hanging out with the guys, you know, building team chemistry and bonding," he said. "I think, in 1995, we all knew we were part of something special because it was the first one for an expansion team. So I think we knew we were part of something special. And I think we all embraced the challenge.

"I just remember a general excitement. Certainly by the fans, but really, by us as players."

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Training Camp Open Practices

The Panthers will host Training Camp at the Carolina Panthers Practice Fields in Charlotte (705 W. 4th Street, Charlotte, NC 28202) starting Wednesday, July 24.

Featuring 14 free practices open to the public, each practice will include interactive fan activities, concessions, and the opportunity for player autographs after practice.

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