With 28 rushing touchdowns and 30 overall scores between them, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart had plenty to celebrate in 2008. (PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
CHARLOTTE -- DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart had only begun getting acquainted last summer. But the repartee and needling between the two was more like siblings on a bunk bed than two men from far-flung corners of the country who were thrown together by fate and the whims of the sometimes-capricious selection process known as the NFL Draft.
The two running backs headed to Time Warner Cable Arena, set to take in a wrestling match. Stewart, from the Puget Sound region of Washington, hadn't watched professional wrestling since he was young. Williams, from Memphis, arguably the wrestling capital of the continent, was a regular visitor.
The two chatted and laughed throughout the night, but Williams couldn't resist getting a dig in on his new teammate.
"I gave him hell about wearing V-neck t-shirts," Williams said.
But often when siblings insult each other, there's an ironic twist to the exchange.
"A week later, I had a V-neck on," Williams said. "I kind of liked them but didn't want to tell him, so he gave me hell about it. That's just how we are."
Williams and Stewart are more than just a running-back tandem, a catchy nickname and juxtaposed stalls in the Panthers' locker room. They are friends, Xbox competitors, and -- as their chosen moniker of "Double Trouble" implies -- equals.
"'Double Trouble' focuses more around unity than anything," Stewart said. "It focuses on whether DeAngelo or me are in, the defense has trouble on its hands. That's what we focus on."
And the genesis of the nickname, the national attention, the 2,351 yards and 28 rushing touchdowns between them was in a simple act of teasing that foretold a profound friendship to come.
"We sat through the wrestling thing and we talked and we had our opportunities to get to know each other in a friendly setting," Williams said. "Just having an opportunity to sit down and not just talk about football, but each other and where he came from and how he felt about being here. And I told him what I thought about him, and he told me what he thought about me.
"We just get it out there in the open. It was a blast. From that point on, we became really good friends."
And they interact with each other at least as much away from the stadium as they do inside of it.
"We mostly play video games against each other, because it's closer playing on-line than me driving out to his house or him driving out to mine," Williams said, "but occasionally we'll go out, or he'll come over to my house or I'll go over to his house.
"Every time I go to his house I try to junk up the place, and he does the same when he comes over to mine, raiding the refrigerator or something. It's really cool, though, having the relationship that we have."
That was not what Stewart expected when he was drafted by the Panthers, knowing little of Williams' personality and only hearing tales of a league where competition could be so cutthroat that it precluded friendship.
"I heard stories," Stewart said, "but the only thing you can do is hope for the best and take what you get. I'm fortunate enough that I've got a lot of good guys around me. There are a lot of good character guys on this team."
Starting with Williams, whose diligence to his job, team and guidance of Stewart is as wide and sincere as his smile.
"We're just now looking back and saying, 'Well, this is what we can do if we work hard,'" wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. "I think that's a credit to what these guys have done during the offseason workout programs and even daily after practice, when you see these guys out there, working hard.
"They're two of the hardest-working guys in the business."
Through redoubled efforts and the massive on-field success that followed, Williams' head hasn't swelled.
"Personality-wise, he's no different," offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. "I just think he's gotten a lot better at doing his job and hitting the holes and taking what's there. I think before he might have had that Memphis mentality where he thought he could take every play to the house, and he's done that quite a bit, but sometimes you're only going to get two or three yards. He's really fit into his niche as the starting guy real well and has done a good job."
But Williams also fit into the niche as mentor. That goes along with being the starting half of the running-back tandem, but in reality it's become so much more.
"I feel like (Stewart) is a little brother," Williams said. "And every time he does something, he'll call me or I'll call him. I check on him. It goes beyond football."
Far beyond, to aspects of life that should be cherished like a trophy -- to friendship, to togetherness, to brotherhood.