IN A DARK AND KIND OF HARD TO GET TO ROOM, THANKS TO KENNY CHESNEY — At 8:46 p.m. last Thursday night, there was a wave of cheering and clapping, fist-pumping and maybe a few four-letter words (the happy kind) coming from around a hundred people in a curtained-off hallway, which a small army of staffers had transformed into mission control in the weeks before.
At 10:55 p.m. the following night, there was another crescendo, this one a lot longer-building.
Usually to get that kind of noise, you have to be a few feet away in the seats of Bank of America Stadium during a game or a concert.
But last Thursday night, they weren't waiting for kickoff or for the lights to come up on a headliner, but for the left tackle they've dreamed of for a decade to fall into their laps. Friday night, it was for a lot of tension and phone calls to result in a new quarterback rolling into town.
The mood was good, not because either player is a sure thing, but because a group of people who generally think in worst-case scenario terms was witnessing perhaps the best-case scenario unfold.
For the Panthers to land Ikem Ekwonu with the sixth overall pick last week, and then swing a trade for Matt Corral in the third, it took a few strokes of good fortune (which football types seldom expect). And also a lot of legwork, months of watching film, weeks of phone conversations, and a long couple of hours of waiting patiently and letting it happen.
But the story of the draft didn't begin on the 300 level of the stadium, in the part of the building blocked off behind the stage for Saturday night's Kenny Chesney show (with security guards making sure everyone belonged there). The story of last weekend happened a moment at a time over a long time, from a hurried and sweat-drenched phone call from a Raleigh parking lot in August, to an eye-opening pregame workout in Oxford, Miss. on a cool November Saturday night.
And all the work of all those people could probably be best summed up in what seemed to be a daydream, poolside and relaxed at a perfectly sunny and luxurious Florida resort, when someone dared to imagine what it could be if they got to write the script themselves.
March 29, The Breakers resort, Palm Beach, Fla.
"Who would I draft first?" — Scott Fitterer, as he sits back in a chair and smiles in the Florida sunshine.
During a draft, you usually see general managers and head coaches on TV. They're easy to spot, and familiar faces. But drafts aren't made-for-TV game shows, they're the product of over a year of planning, and dozens of hands on the rope. Scouting takes a lot of people.
Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer is quick to thank all the coaches and scouts who helped prepare them for this year's draft, including director of college scouting Cole Spencer.
Spencer, in turn, deflects credit quickly, saying that if you want to know the true hero of the first night, you should talk to national scout Jared Kirksey.
Kirksey, in turn, deflects credit quickly, saying that if you want to get back to the start of the long path that led the Panthers to Ekwonu, you should start with pro scout Lee McNeill.
McNeill's one of the younger scouts in the department, and occupies the first room on the left as you walk down the hall of the Panthers' football offices. It's not one of the larger offices.
But as it turns out, he's probably been scouting Ekwonu longer than anyone in the building.