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Gaffney HS football has "dreams" realized in unified practice

Panthers Gaffney

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – For Grayson Loftis, a hot Friday morning football practice in Spartanburg was like realizing a dream.

Gaffney High School's quarterback stood in front of NFL reporters on the practice fields at Wofford, smiling and fielding questions about his day.

Even the smallest details of the rising high school senior's day, like standing at the front of a press conference, felt significant.

"It's kind of a realization moment – kind of shocking," Loftis said. "I'm a guy who grew up watching NFL Network all the time, so to be up here actually in the sport of the interview is pretty cool."

The Panthers hosted Gaffney at their training camp site in Spartanburg for a unified practice, where the two teams went through stretches and warm-ups together before separating for independent practices, later sharing messages with each other on the field.

"This is the dream of a young kid – the position that those guys have," Gaffney head coach Dan Jones said. "Just for our kids to be able to step on the field – even me, I've not been on the field with a pro football team. This is something they can remember for the rest of their life."

At one point, head coach Matt Rhule and the Panthers took a brief break during their regular schedule at training camp to watch Loftis and the defending South Carolina High School League 5A state champions on another field adjacent to the NFL team.

Loftis said he felt the energy jolt from his teammates when the Panthers walked over to watch Gaffney practice. He said his team felt extra motivation when they looked up and saw 90 professional athletes standing around them.

Jones had to agree. He said he and Gaffney's assistant coaches felt the "extra juice" too.

"I'm 61, but I could've gotten in the end zone down here – wouldn't have been hard," Jones laughed. "It definitely makes a difference. That was special for Coach Rhule to take time out of his practice to come down and do that."

It was just as special for the Panthers, too.

"I believe if your kids want to play football, nothing teaches you more," Rhule said. "Anything we can do to support it, we're going to do, and I think it's good for our guys."

Running back Christian McCaffrey, who said he remembers "everything" about high school football, started feeling sentimental after watching Gaffney's practice.

"Football is such a special game," McCaffrey said. "I don't think there's another game like it where there's that many moving parts to try to accomplish one goal. I think high school is football in its purest form. So it's really fun to just take a break, watch that and reminisce a little bit."

Defensive end Brian Burns shared similar sentiments.

"When I was in high school, I would've loved to come out here and practice with an NFL team," Burns said. "Just giving them energy, giving them encouragement, because you never know who will be at this stage later on in life. I feel like this experience is really going to have a big impact on some of those kids."

Loftis said he spoke with Baker Mayfield about the transition from high school to college and felt more motivated by spending time around the Panthers' quarterbacks.

The experiences made Loftis want to push for his professional dream even harder.

"I think when you play football, that's always the goal and the dream – to play in the NFL," Loftis said. "Being out here with these guys, and guys like Baker and Sam (Darnold), seeing it firsthand, definitely kind of realizes the dream a little bit.

"You see how hard these guys work and how much work they put in to get to that moment. It definitely motivates that dream and that goal a little more."

View the best photos from today's special unified practice as Gaffney High School joined the Panthers on the Wofford practice fields.

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