Mike Fox was a defensive lineman who spent five years with the New York Giants before the Panthers made him the first free agent the franchise ever signed prior to its inaugural season in 1995.
Fox recently talked about his four seasons as a run-stopping, quarterback-chasing defensive tackle in the 3-4 scheme favored by head coach Dom Capers, and what he's doing now.
Capers said years later that if he had it to do all over again, you'd still be the first free agent the Panthers ever signed. How does that make you feel?
"It makes you feel good. Back in 1995, I became a free agent with the New York Giants, which was a pretty exciting organization as well. But when I got the opportunity to come to the Panthers, the Charlotte area and everything was all up-and-coming at the time. I thought I would be able to have some other ventures after the football in the area.
"I remember him saying that stuff. But they always say that stuff. And then there will always be people saying you got paid too much (as a free agent). But if you get the money in the NFL, you deserve the money."
Because of the physical demands and wear and tear on your body?
"It's just a long and grueling process. I was fortunate. I had a nine-year career as a defensive lineman. Sometimes you can go out there and get hurt the very first year, or even the very first play. You've got to try to make the money last as long as you can."
Well, when you're in the trenches like you were, you certainly are earning it …
"The game was a little different back then, too. There was a lot of smashmouth, in-the-trench warfare. There were a lot of major one-on-one, two-on-one or even three-on-one battles. It was a different game.
"Now we have the concussion situation, and I'm glad they're trying to figure that out to make it as safe as it can be."
What are some of your favorite memories of your playing days with the Panthers?
"The '96 season was real special. We obviously broke a lot of records as a second-year team, made it to the NFC championship game. That was a real good run for us, probably one of the better runs of any expansion team in NFL history.
"We had a lot of veteran guys who knew how to play some football. It was a really together type of team and we went as far as we could go that year. Unfortunately it ended in Green Bay, but it was fun getting there."
And what was that first year in 1995 like?
"Expansion was tough. I was looking at the track record of expansion teams in 1995 – and obviously some of the expansion teams that had come in before us had some really bad seasons for a long time.
"I don't know. I just felt like there was something good in the air as soon as I got there. They had good leadership. They had guys like Mike McCormack, Bill Polian, Jerry Richardson – real football people – and I just felt like it was going to be a little different for us."
Did you still feel that way when you started 0-5 that season?
"That first win is always the hardest, you know. … Obviously the success that we ended up having in 1996 was a direct reflection of the momentum that we were able to start building at the end of '95."
Do you remember that first win?
"It was against the Jets down there in Clemson. And my God, back then that field was pitched and it was hot. It was always hot in Clemson. … We beat the Jets and then we won four or five in a row. So that was cool.
"It was the beginning of a wonderful franchise in a great area with some awesome fans. And not just the local people. The Carolinas have become a melting pot for people from all over the country, so there were people from all over who became Panthers fans because they moved into the area. They may still have allegiances to the teams they grew up with, but a lot of them become Panther fans, too."
You're from Akron, Ohio, right? Are you still a fan of the pro sports teams up there?
"That's right. They love their sports teams in northeast Ohio, even when they're not doing too well.
"Cleveland has now brought us a championship (in the NBA), and the baseball team is doing well. I guess we're still waiting for the football team to kick in up there. The Browns have a long history of not doing too well."
So you are a Cleveland sports fan?
"I'm a fan of the teams, first and foremost, where I played – but also of the teams from where I'm from. I pull for the New York Giants because they gave me my first job, and I pull for the Carolina Panthers. I've been a fan – and I've been a PSL owner for all these years, since the beginning – so I support the team and all they do and wish them the best of luck every year."
As a defensive lineman, what are your impressions of Kawann Short, who just signed a five-year contract extension with the Panthers?
"They understand what they're doing on defense, which is a great thing. Any time you can keep a key player, a quality player like Short, that's big. You've got to win the game in the trenches – not only on defense, but on both sides of the ball."
What have you been doing lately?
"I have a granite countertop company up in Mooresville. I've been doing that since 2000, and I've also been doing some land development stuff probably since maybe '96. …
"Of course we all went a tough time there with the recession or depression or whatever you want to call it, but old defensive linemen are tough and built for abuse. We have that long-term, hang-in-there, never-give-up and never-surrender attitude."
That really is the mentality of most NFL defensive linemen, isn't it?
"Yeah, and it's kind of cool to see it transition out into the real world sometimes. Nothing's easy anyway, but when there are more obstacles than maybe you can imagine it really tests your mettle, so to speak."