CHARLOTTE – When Greg Van Roten arrived at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday, he didn't know if he'd be eating lunch in the players' cafeteria or picking up something on his way home.
"I walked in yesterday morning, and they didn't tell me to go upstairs," Van Roten said of his first few moments at the stadium for roster cutdown day. "I went and ate breakfast and started to think, ‘OK, maybe I can trust this.'
"Then I was in the first team meeting and thought, ‘I'm still here.' But I still waited for that four o'clock deadline to hit before I exhaled."
Van Roten, a center in name on a team loaded with talent at center but a player who can play up and down the offensive line, was perhaps the most surprising player to make the Panthers' initial 53-man roster.
He was surprised. The Panthers were surprised.
"He's a guy we basically brought in with three other guys the first day of camp to work out because we needed numbers," interim general manager Marty Hurney said. "It's just one of those stories that's kind of neat: An underdog comes in and does it by hard work and really good practices and games."
Throughout his career, Van Roten has been a "don't call us, we'll call you" kind of guy. But he always seems to answer the call.
"I'm used to surprising people at this point," he said. "Everyone is always kind of like, ‘Well, we'll see.' I don't think Carolina planned on signing me, honestly, but I had a really good workout and impressed them. Then I had a good training camp and they kept me around.
"It was right place, right time, but I had a lot of preparation leading up to it."
Van Roten is always prepared. A two-time All-Ivy League selection at Penn, where he attended the prestigious Wharton School of Business, Van Roten (pronounced row-ten) used his economics degree with a concentration in marketing to sell himself when NFL teams showed no interest before and after the 2012 NFL Draft.
He created a website, gregvanroten.com, to share with potential pro suitors. When that didn't work well enough, he emailed every scouting department he could.
"It was kind of grassroots because I didn't have an agent," Van Roten said. "I tried to pave my own way."
His efforts led to invitations to rookie minicamps with the Chargers and Jets, but nothing came of them. His next chance came with the Packers – the day before their training camp convened five years ago.
"They liked me but told me they didn't have enough room on their 90-man, that they'd see what happened with physicals the next day," Van Roten said. "Two guys failed their physicals, so there was room for me."
He started out on the practice squad his rookie year, then got elevated to the 53-man roster in Week 6 as a "tight end/fullback/special teams" contributor. "I was the Jumbo guy," he said.
After appearing in seven games in 2012, he made the 53-man roster right off the bat in 2013 as a backup center but went to injured reserve after three games. When the Packers waived him after the season, the real struggle began.
The Seahawks gave him a look the next offseason but cut him after the third preseason game. Out of football in 2014, he played and played well for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League in 2015 and 2016, becoming a finalist for league's most outstanding lineman each year – once at center, once at guard.
"I wanted to play football, but I kept hearing I needed more film, so I went and played somewhere else," Van Roten said. "I played all the way from left tackle to right tackle and everything in between.
"I was able to go up there, get a lot of experience and get my confidence back because when you get cut from a couple of teams, you start thinking, 'Can I do this? Am I wasting my time?'"
He didn't get a resounding answer after the Jaguars signed him at the end of February, only to release him on the first day of May. But then the Panthers became the latest team to give him a look, and he made his mark while playing two-plus games at left guard and a few plays at center.
But in a league where the bottom of the roster gets churned all the time, is it enough? Will he continue to break bread in the team lunchroom, or will he add some highlights from his preseason work to his website for another team to perhaps check out?
"I like to prove people wrong," Van Roten said. "My mom says I'm tenacious, almost like a dog that latches on and doesn't let go."
View photos from the Panthers' week of practice leading up to their game at San Francisco.