CHARLOTTE – Football players are larger than life to fans, much like fathers are to their biggest fans – their children.
So of course whenever kicker Graham Gano brings his kids to the Panthers locker room and they walk past a wall that honors the franchise's Pro Bowlers, the kids ask their dad where his picture is.
"I would always tell them, 'Maybe I'll be up there one day,'" Gano said. "This is the first time I've actually been able to tell them I will be up there."
Gano, coming off a Pro Bowl season in 2017 on the heels of a challenging season professionally and personally, had more good news for his wife and three children Tuesday. His oldest of three sons was 1 year old when Gano originally signed with the Panthers in 2012, and now Gano is under contract through 2021 after signing a four-year deal with free agency looming.
"All my kids have known is being Panthers fans, so it's exciting," Gano said. "I definitely feel very blessed and fortunate to be given the opportunity."
The business aspect of life in the NFL meant Gano wasn't guaranteed another opportunity in Carolina, even after the season he just enjoyed. But the Panthers showed faith in him after a rocky 2016 season and have now done the same after a rock-solid 2017 season in which he led the NFL in field goal percentage and touchback percentage.
"It's been a roller coaster," Gano said.
In 2015, Gano ranked second in the NFL in scoring during Carolina's special season that culminated with a trip to Super Bowl 50, but 2016 began with a missed field goal in the final seconds of a much-hyped rematch against the Broncos. Gano actually had a higher field goal percentage than either of his prior two seasons heading into the final game of 2016, but he went 1-for-4 when the broken bone in his foot suffered late in the season finally caught up with him.
The Panthers responded by giving Gano a kick in the pants, using their seventh-round draft pick in 2017 NFL Draft to select kicker Harrison Butker.
"It was a great competition. They say iron sharpens iron, and he was that for me," Gano said of Butker, who landed on Carolina's practice squad early last season before being plucked by the Chiefs. "We had a lot of stuff going on both on the field and off (during the 2016 season). It was frustrating at times. To bounce back and have the year like I did this year was just really fun. I had a great time."
Gano's career stood at an even more challenging crossroads before he came to Carolina. The Lou Groza Award winner at Florida State broke in with Washington late in his rookie season of 2009 and kept the spot through 2011 – only to be cut after the subsequent preseason.
He was out of football for two-plus months.
"Ten weeks," Gano quickly said when asked to recount that point in time. "I remember sitting down with my wife and praying, saying, 'God, if football is what you want for our life, then show us a door.' The very next day, Carolina called.
"To get one of those letters that says your contract has been terminated because the team doesn't think you're good enough to play – that's definitely humbling, but at the same time it lights a fire in you. I just continue to fuel that fire from that moment. I'm never satisfied and always want to get better, and I want to help this team win Super Bowls."
View photos of Panthers kicker Graham Gano in his first six seasons in Carolina.