CHARLOTTE – If anyone is equipped to grin and bear the season that the Carolina Panthers are enduring, it's Captain Munnerlyn.
The cornerback isn't all smiles, but he certainly flashes his pearly whites more than most.
And given the flashes of brilliance he's shown on the field the last two Sundays, he's giving others reason to smile as well.
"I've always been a positive person," Munnerlyn said. "I think I get that from my mom -- she's a preacher – and my high school coach always tells me, 'When things go wrong, just keep on smiling.'
"It has paid off. When I'm out on the football field and I give up a play, I might get angry, but I've got to play the next play. Who plays good when they're mad? Nobody plays that good when they're mad."
Munnerlyn, a second-year pro out of the University of South Carolina, has started the last two games at cornerback, and he came up with an interception in each game.
In his first start at Cleveland on Nov. 28, Munnerlyn picked off former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme and returned it 37 yards for Carolina's first defensive touchdown of the season. Then last week at Seattle, Munnerlyn came up with another interception off a deflected pass.
Munnerlyn, who also ranks 12th in the NFL with a 10.2-yard punt return average, could get a third straight start at corner on Sunday when the Atlanta Falcons visit Bank of America Stadium. He made his first start because of cornerback Chris Gamble's recent struggles, then Gamble missed the Seattle game with a hamstring injury and is listed as doubtful for this Sunday's game after not practicing all week.
"He's played big for us, played at a high level," fellow cornerback Richard Marshall said. "We haven't missed a beat with him out on the field. That's good that we've got three corners that can get out there and play."
Given Munnerlyn's sunny disposition, it isn't surprising that he's never really doubted his ability to compete on the ultimate level.
Others, however, have had their doubts.
Munnerlyn, who stands at 5-8 and 186 pounds, was thought by some to be too small to play big-time college football, but landed at South Carolina and performed well enough that he decided to turn pro after his junior year.
That's when his enduring smile really got put to the test.
Munnerlyn thought he'd be picked in the first three rounds of the draft, but he wasn't. Not in the fourth, either. Or the fifth.
Finally, with the seventh pick in the seventh and final round – the 216th selection overall – the Panthers picked Munnerlyn.
"That's always in the back of my mind, like, 'Man, I went in the seventh round,' " Munnerlyn said. "But it was all in God's plan. It made me work harder and go after everything harder.
"I always have a chip on my shoulder because guys have told me that I was too small to do this, too little to do that, too slow. Going in the seventh round has helped keep my drive going."
The Panthers were happy to see Munnerlyn still sitting there in the seventh round. He contributed as a rookie, officially starting four games when the Panthers came out with five defensive backs, but he's now getting his first starts as one of the top two corners.
"We think highly of him," head coach John Fox said. "Sometimes people get caught up on size and height and those types of things. But he's very competitive and has got good quickness, good awareness. We think he's a good, young player."
Panthers rookie Eric Norwood, who played with Munnerlyn at South Carolina, said Munnerlyn always played like he had something to prove in college as well, quickly earning an opportunity and running with it.
"He's a guy with a lot of pride, a lot of passion," Norwood said. "And for somebody to doubt him, that's the one thing he doesn't like. He's just one of those guys who always overcame the odds."
The odds aren't running in favor of the Panthers this season, and losing is one thing that can mellow Munnerlyn's mood.
Still, the team's ultimate optimist remains confident that he'll soon be able to flash a winning smile.
"I'm not always happy. When things start going bad, I'll get a little frustrated," Munnerlyn said. "But we're not giving up. We're not giving up on our coaches. We're not giving up on our fans. We still feel like we can win some games."