Jaycee Horn working his way back

Jaycee Horn

CHARLOTTE — A year ago, these were the difficult hours to get through for Jaycee Horn, and the clock was his enemy.

There were a lot of phone calls coming in, sure. Everyone wanting to know where he'd be, and how to reach him. But the hours crawled. It didn't help that he didn't get much sleep the night before.

"The day went so slow, man," Horn said with a shake of his head Thursday morning, as he thought back to the 24 hours before the Panthers took him eighth overall.

So he tried to turn it into as normal a day as possible. Going to Za's in Columbia, getting his usual meal. "Pepperoni and sausage pizza, base of barbecue sauce, and some wings on the side," he said. "Best pizza in the world, man." Hanging out with his best friend Israel Mukuamu, swinging by the South Carolina football facility to see some old teammates. Going about a regular day, stalling a bit before driving to his family's Atlanta home, so he didn't have to pace while surrounded by a house full of people.

Because he knew later that night that his life would change. He just didn't know in which direction.

Before he became the Panthers' pick, he had to wait and wonder where he'd end up. He figured he'd probably end up being drafted somewhere between seventh and 12th, but the hours crept by.

"I wouldn't say I was nervous, more anxious because I had my projections; I knew I wasn't going that late. In my head, I was thinking 11 or 12 at the latest, so I couldn't be too nervous," he said. "I was more anxious about what city I'm going to, would I be far away from home, the defensive scheme, that kind of stuff. That's what I was thinking."

A conversation with Panthers head coach Matt Rhule the night before the draft had him thinking he might end up close to home, especially after a series of phone calls from Panthers cornerbacks coach Evan Cooper. But until he knew, he couldn't be sure.

"I remember there being a little buzz about Detroit. And Lord knows I did not want to go to Detroit," he said with a laugh of the team picking before the Panthers, more of a geographical preference than a slight to the Lions. "I was just praying I made it to eight, and then when Carolina called, I was super happy."

Go inside the Horn household to see immediate reaction when he was drafted by Carolina in Thursday's first round.

Of course, that joy only lasted until the third game of the season, when the rookie cornerback broke his foot in Houston. He's healthy and working out fully now — and he starts early in the mornings — but again, the time seems to taunt him.

"I'm ready to go," he said. "Probably more anxious today than I was on draft day. I'm ready to get back to the season. I wish I could fast-forward it and start tomorrow."

While his season ended after just three games, he jammed a lot of very good football into those three. He impressed his teammates and coaches alike with his maturity, his work ethic, and his ability to change a game-plan. "When he's out there, do you even know he's out there?" defensive coordinator Phil Snow said last fall, referring to Horn's one-on-one coverage ability, and how rare it was for a rookie to play to that level.

That's why it was so hard for Horn, because after a lifetime of growing up around the game, he realized how well things were going.

Jaycee Horn

"It was probably the most difficult thing I've been through in my life," he said of the injury. "I always had football. There have been some tough things I went through, but I could always go back to football. And that was the first time in my life it was snatched away from me for a whole year, at the time I needed it the most. Being a rookie, being a top-10 pick, there's a lot of pressure that comes with that naturally.

"And I was playing well. The Houston game, the game had slowed down. I was in a groove like, man, I could do this forever. It was kind of easy to me. I was real comfortable. Was starting to get my schedule together, coming into the building, how I attack the week, how I attack my game plan."

But then, in a moment, that momentum was lost. The second he went down on the artificial turn at Reliant Stadium it looked bad, but Horn tried to talk himself out of the news he feared.

"I was trying to psych myself out of my head," he said. "Like, 'Nah, you just twisted your ankle.' Back on the X-ray table, I was like, 'Nah, you just sprained it.' But I couldn't put any pressure on it. I knew it was bad. And when they came out and said, 'You broke your foot in three places,' I just threw my helmet against the wall. I was sick. But you know, as time went on, I had to take what comes with it. It was tough, but luckily I had close friends, my family, my girlfriend to lean on. And all I could do is sit back and watch and learn from that point of view."

Jaycee Horn

Horn's ability to compartmentalize that injury and put it in its proper context is unique. For many NFL players, that first big injury comes as a shock, not as much from the physical pain as the personal isolation. When you can't help a team on Sunday, you become invisible at times, still there, but not really there.

Fortunately, being the son of former Saints and Falcons wideout Joe Horn gave him the insight into that reality early on, so it wasn't as much of a surprise to him last fall.

"The perk of having an NFL dad, that was something I knew since middle school," Horn said. "If you get hurt, no one talks to you, but don't take it personally. A coach is going to walk right by you, because you're of no service to them. That's just how the business goes. I wasn't mad because they weren't talking to me; it's just how the business goes. Coop and coach Rhule, I kept in touch with them a lot, hearing about the game plan. Talked to Coop almost every day. It wasn't that bad.

"But sometimes it's like, 'Damn, I can't even get a what's up?' You can feel that kind of vibe. Dad taught me though, that's just part of the business. Now I'm back rolling."

That matter-of-fact nature is part of what drew the Panthers to Horn a year ago. He's not without a cornerback's confidence — he will still drop the seatbelt celebration after he locks down a receiver — but he gets it. He understands that talent is a gift, and maximizing it comes at a cost.

That means showing up early, and doing the work. Every day. The same way.

So when a rookie joins him on the Panthers' roster tonight, Horn's message to that future teammate is simple.

"My advice to him, like I've been telling everybody, is just understand it's a draft. Enjoy it, enjoy the night, enjoy the time with your family. But after the draft, it's time to get back to work. It's like you're a freshman coming into college again," Horn said. "Whatever team you get drafted by, hit the reset button, come back in, try to work hard, and earn the respect of your teammates. It's not like college where all these guys are young. You've got vets on your team, 30-year-old grown men with families. So you've got to take that mindset to it, come serious, and be ready to work."

He grins and shrugs when you mention that not every rookie has that kind of mindset, that his kind of mature approach is not necessarily the rule.

"I kind of think of it as common sense, to be honest," he said. "Like I said, these guys in the locker room have seen plenty of first round picks come on a team, some of them are buttholes, some of them don't work hard, they think they're just entitled to whatever position or to be a starter. I just know some guys automatically think like that, and I just wanted to prove to them, prove to the starters on the defense and the coaches that I'm not that guy. I'm a real deal and I'm going to come in and show you every day I'm going to work hard in every aspect. I'm just going to go harder than everybody else, is my mindset.

"Like I said, it's similar to college. You come in as a freshman, four-star, five-star, all the older guys are like, 'Who's this chump thinking he's going to walk in?' That was kind of my mindset, same as it was in college, is to prove to the team you're worthy of that pick. Show them that you're grateful for the opportunity, and punch in every day."

Punching that clock is the only way Jaycee Horn knows. Maybe that's why the clock seems angry at him sometimes, and keeps forcing him to wait, until the moment he can get back to doing what he knows best.

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.

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