CHARLOTTE – Jaycee Horn recalled watching confetti rain from the ceiling in the Target Center after South Carolina women's basketball won the NCAA Division I women's basketball championship in April.
Horn, a former South Carolina football player, looked around at proud faces. The Panthers' cornerback watched his girlfriend, USC starting guard Brea Beal, coaches, parents, and fans beam with joy as the Gamecocks cut the net and hoisted a championship trophy.
The atmosphere in Minneapolis gave him chills, he said. But South Carolina's championship run also gave him an extra push heading into his second year in the NFL.
"It was extremely motivating, because I've never won a championship on the college level, or even in high school," Horn said. "It's an experience I want to experience. I want to win a Super Bowl."
Placed on injured reserve after a foot fracture at Houston in Week 3 of his rookie season, Horn found himself with extra time to make the 90-minute drive down I-77 from Charlotte to Columbia. While recovering, he followed the South Carolina Gamecocks women's basketball team throughout much of its national championship run last season.
Through his connection to South Carolina, Horn has also had interactions with the Gamecocks' head coach Dawn Staley.
Staley, a Hall of Fame basketball player and coach, is a two-time NCAA national champion coach who also won three Olympic gold medals with Team USA as a player and one as head coach in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Horn said he chatted with Staley for the first time when she picked up Beal's phone during a meeting last year. He said Staley teased that she'd be at Bank of America Stadium to see her hometown Philadelphia Eagles play the Panthers.
"She's a cool coach, a cool person," Horn said. "She demands for them to play at a high level. Just hearing (about) the conversations Brea has with Dawn Staley, she demands a lot. She's a great coach."
Horn said he didn't miss many South Carolina home games. He and his cousin had seats right where the Gamecocks, undefeated at home last year, ran out for pregame introductions at Colonial Life Arena.
"I've got good seats," Horn said. "The atmosphere is crazy. They didn't do a lot of losing – it was fun (to) go home with a win every game."
Beal said she believed the games were good for Horn, whose competitive nature would often come out as he gave her postgame pointers. Horn, who played basketball in high school, said keeping up with South Carolina last year helped him get through his season-ending injury.
"I think it was kind of like a little teaser for him, because he couldn't really go on a field and take his emotions out," Beal said. "Watching us really motivated him to keep pushing, keep fighting through – build the positive mental habits to prepare himself for the upcoming season."
Horn and Beal, who is going into her senior year with South Carolina women's basketball, often share workout tips, talk about practice and discuss their mentality.
But off the football field and basketball court, Horn said the two are best of friends, playing Fortnite and spending time together whenever they can.
"It's truly special," Horn said. "It's time management. … She knows the responsibilities that come with being a professional athlete and a top-notch college athlete. We both understand that, and we're able to just bounce ideas off of each other."
The Gamecocks' championship win seemed to linger in Horn's mind long after the tournament. Beal said weeks after returning from Minneapolis, Horn would turn to her at random moments with a reminder: "You're a national champion. Like, what?"
"I could see how it motivated him," Beal said. "He wants to be in a Super Bowl atmosphere. He wants to get there, and that's a great feeling to be able to come out in the end."
Horn is healthy, in great spirits, and eager to make it back on the field. The Panthers' sixth overall pick of the 2021 draft said he wanted to hit fast-forward through the offseason, hoping to sprint to Week 1 against Cleveland.
"I'm grateful for OTAs," Horn said. "Being back around my teammates, the locker room conversations, all of that stuff I cherish even more now. I feel like that was a good thing that came out of being hurt.
"I feel like it deepened my love for the game, deepened my love for being in the weight room when I don't feel like lifting, being in the training room. Being able to just run around and talk to my teammates and compete. All of that is just back. My competitive juice is back flowing. I'm in a good space of life right now."
Horn didn't win a championship in high school or college, but he's laser-focused on tasting victory in the pros – just like he watched the South Carolina women's basketball team accomplish in the spring.
"This is kind of like the last chance I've got at winning a championship," Horn said of the NFL. "I definitely want to get it done."
View the best photos from Jaycee Horn's rookie season with Carolina in 2021 where he got off to a hot start before an injury in Week 3 at Houston.