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Local pro day a chance for Charlotte NFL prospects to reconnect

Malik Mustapha

CHARLOTTE— Will Shipley smiled over his shoulder, looked at the group seated behind him, and gave a resigned shrug.

"Malik's always been that way."

Shipley, the Clemson Tigers running back, was on hand Tuesday as the Carolina Panthers hosted a Pro Day for local prospects. It meant the gallery at Bank of America Stadium was overrun with laughter and teasing from guys who have known each other for most of their lives. And Malik Mustapha was at the center of it all, introducing those who were strangers, directing multiple conversations at once, and defending himself against harmless disputes six years in the making.

"I've always been the group leader," Mustapha said with a smirk, throwing his arm around Shipley's shoulders in what can only be described as a brotherly headlock while the assembled group of prospects let out a collective laugh and groan that said they'd heard that sentiment all too many times before.

Putting aside the debate on who amongst them holds the title of supreme leader and, therefore, controller of the aux cord, the argument exemplified an unsung and somewhat rare but vital part of the draft process: a community to share it with.

"Just dating back to the, even Pop Warner Days," Mustapha said. "I known these guys in the high school days and we all grinded to get to the D-1 level and now all that is and off, you know, preparing us for the next level.

"Guys like my teammate (at Wake Forest) Jacob (Roberts), you know, past teammates like Will Shipley, (North Carolina linebacker) Cedric Gray, seeing (North Carolina quarterback) Drake (Maye) at the Combine for the first time in a little while and even guys like (North Carolina receiver) Tez Walker. My boy Tyrek Funderburk (Appalachian State corner).

"It's a privilege to see a bunch of Charlotte guys just being at the next level, and it's not going to stop from here; the pipeline is there."

The Carolinas, and by proxy, Charlotte, might not produce the talent quantities of Texas, California, or Florida. But the ability to produce a quality outcrop relative to a city that only just cracks the top-15 biggest in the nation is paying dividends for those currently trying to achieve their NFL dream. Of the 19 prospects who attended on Tuesday, nine were from Charlotte.

"I know Charlotte and North Carolina in general is kind of slept on, when you think about where the top athletes comes from," Roberts posited. "And I feel like it's growing. Each and every year, you see more productive guys come out. In the near future, it'll be talked about a lot."

When local high school coaches visited Bank of America Stadium in February to announce the Keep Pounding High School Classic, Independence High coach DJ McFadden noted, "I thought high school football in Charlotte was always good, but now you see the talent…the big-time players we got coming out of there. It says a lot about our city, but it also says a lot about our state, too, and how we compare to other states."

There were three prospects alone at Tuesday's Pro Day who played together at Weddington High School. One of them, Alec Mock, played his college ball at Air Force. As such, his future looks a lot different than that of those who didn't play at a service school. He still wanted to come home, though, at least for a while, and spend part of this process with those he played with originally.

"I mean, seeing like, Will Shipley and I played AAU basketball together, we were 10 years old," Mock shared. "So, like, just stuff like that, being able to see us all kind of grow up and go through this together, it's fun."

Another who went far to play college football was Syracuse quarterback Garrett Schrader. He credits so much of his success to not only his high school, Charlotte Christian, but also coaches like Chad Grier at Providence Day.

The Miamis, Southern Californias, and Dallas-Fort Worths of the world are pumping hordes of prospects into football each year. The Charlotte group is smaller, but all with a legitimate chance to make it to the league, intricately intertwined through decades of Pop Warner teams, AAU teams, carpools to school, and afternoons playing sandlot ball in city parks.

The path to the draft includes NFL Combines, Pro Days, and months of training. While teammates from the same college can often lean on each other, there's something infinitely more comfortable about walking into a room or getting on the phone with someone you've known for nearly two decades.

That's what the Queen City prospects are taking advantage of through this draft process.

Will Shipley

Shipley, who first took a moment to point out where his lifelong Panthers season tickets were, added, "We (all) go way back; there's no doubt about it. Me and Malik played Pop Warner football together. Me and Alec played basketball together when we were young.

"Cedric Gray, who's also, whenever teams are asking, 'Who's one of the best players you played against?' He, for sure."

Gray is quick to give that praise back to those he's played alongside all his life.

"I'm very proud to come from Charlotte," Gray said during his Pro Day. "We have a lot of talented guys that come out of Charlotte. It's definitely the best football that's being played in North Carolina at the high school. So, just glad to be a part of that group, glad to represent my city and be able to be the next Charlotte guy to come out and put on.

"It's just been a great process to see some of the guys, like I said, that I'm familiar with, guys I grew up with. And just to see all of us grow into what we've become today and now we're all preparing for the NFL. It's truly amazing."

No matter the game or league, the guys always left each other to go home, back to college, or now, back to NFL training, with the same message.

"You're a kid, and you've got big dreams, and along the way, you have setbacks, and people tell you, you may not be able to do it this and that," Shipley shared. "But I think, every time we've reconnected or been able to talk to one another, we've always said, see you at the next level."

The draft is quickly approaching, just a little over two weeks away now. With each day it draws closer, those from the Queen City lean more on each other, as they've always done, with the promise to not only see each other at the next level but help each other get there.

View photos from the weight room and the practice field as the Panthers' players went through their second day of voluntary offseason workouts on April 9, 2024.

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