CHARLOTTE - Myles Hartsfield had a characteristic walk from the moment he took his first steps.
His father, Darrel Hartsfield, said the future Panthers defensive back started walking with a "bow legged" strut, where his legs curved outward at the knees. When Myles was young, Darrel took him to an orthopedic specialist, concerned about his son's development.
A doctor told Darrel the trait was just the product of an eager young boy standing and walking early. Myles would eventually grow out of it.
"He just wanted to run," Darrel said. "(He) wanted to play, wanted to be involved."
It's true that he hit milestones quickly, standing in his crib around six to eight months and walking well before he hit 18 months, Darrel estimated. Myles grew up behind an older cousin, Deion, and older sister Amari, and he was ready to run, jump and catch up with everything they were doing.
Myles' eager attitude toward his first steps carried throughout his life, when his motivation pushed him from his start as an undrafted free agent in 2020 to a nine-game starter in 2021, and a guy who took snaps at running back before settling in as a key member of the defensive secondary.
"I've seen him do it at every level, from Pop Warner all the way up to the NFL," Darrel said. "Once you give him an opportunity, he's going full speed ahead. There is no halfway. … He's going 150% in, and he's always done that."
Myles Hartsfield's early life
Myles Hartsfield was always a step ahead. His father remembered a call from a youth baseball coach who said his son was "too aggressive" for T-ball at 5 years old.
He played with intensity, especially for a baseball diamond of kindergartners drawing in the dirt and picking up grass in the outfield. He wanted to see pitches and didn't understand why his peers weren't playing as hard as he was as a young child.
"He was picking up the ball, zooming the ball across the field at people," Darrel said. "It was like 'Whoa, wait a minute, they weren't looking. They were playing with a butterfly.' "
Perhaps it was Myles' early and unrelenting passion for sports that kept him a step ahead. Darrel recalled how Myles carried a baseball or basketball everywhere with him – trying to take them everywhere from car rides to church.
It also could've been Myles' naturally competitive nature, which popped up off a field or court as well. His mother Wandra Hartsfield saw his competitive spirit show up on family game nights, when he played either spades or Monopoly.
Myles' venture in youth football was a similar story to baseball. He played up from flag football at 6 years old to the 7- to 8-year-old "Mighty Mites" division with his hometown Sayreville Leprechauns in New Jersey, once again "too aggressive," Darrel said.
Darrel recalled filming one of Myles' earliest football games in the stands right by the game's announcer when his son scored his first touchdown.
"The tape probably saw everything but him make the touchdown because I was so excited," Darrel said. "I think that gave him the confidence – 'I can play this game; I can do this.' That started it."
Myles became a student of the game. He frequently watched YouTube videos to refine his own game, playing running back and defensive back in high school.
At Sayreville High School, Myles totaled 1,844 all-purpose yards and 28 touchdowns in his junior season alone, a highlight before making his way to Ole Miss for college.
Myles honed in on the defensive side of the ball in Oxford but maintained a reputation as one of the Rebels' versatile players. He said his proudest moment was playing across multiple positions in an SEC matchup, where he said he bounced from safety to corner to outside linebacker in one game against Arkansas.
"I want to be the most versatile person in the room," Myles said of his college years.
He played four seasons at Ole Miss from 2016 to 2019, tallying 167 career tackles, 8.0 tackles for loss, three interceptions and 17 pass breakups and appearing in every game.
Darrel said Myles hardly ever got ahead of the present moment when discussing his football career. High school success set him up for college; Ole Miss was a learning experience, and he'd take that learning experience into building an NFL dream.
But Darrel and Wandra both saw it come together while Myles was with the Rebels. When they'd make it down from New Jersey to catch a game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, they watched the lightbulb flip on.
Myles had found his way, and his parents saw his confidence radiate all the way up to the stadium seats.
"It just came to him (at Ole Miss)," Wandra said. "We kind of always knew that he would probably want to continue football."
Coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 NFL Draft
Wandra Hartsfield knows her son bites his finger when he gets nervous. She said Myles was trying his best not to seem anxious during the 2020 NFL Draft, but she could tell he wasn't completely at ease.
Myles was coming out of college at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with his Pro Day canceled and new restrictions placed on everyday life. He went back home to New Jersey to train, working out at a nearby gym and filming workouts on video.
Once the draft rolled around, his family hosted close friends and some family for the occasion. Wandra said their home was decorated, with all attendees focused on keeping up a positive atmosphere amid the inevitable nerves.
"It was probably one of the most nervous times I've experienced in my life, other than when he and my daughter were born," Darrel said.
Myles took calls on his phone throughout the later rounds, pacing around the backyard before coming in with post-draft news: He was heading down to join the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent.
Family and friends were gathered around the kitchen table when Myles came in with the news, Darrel said. Sounds of celebration roared.
"It was like somebody took the cap off a champagne bottle," Darrel said.
Hard work followed the joy. Myles' first NFL meetings were held virtually due to the pandemic, and Wandra said he set a table up with a computer and notebooks in his bedroom.
The Panthers' 53-man roster came together in early September. Wandra remembered the day well, because it was one of the few days when Myles hadn't called her – yet. She said she knew Myles was anxious to learn if he'd made the cut.
When her phone rang at 2 p.m. that afternoon, Wandra said she couldn't help but to let out a jubilant yell at the news.
"We made it," Myles told her.
Myles Hartsfield's Panthers journey
After making the Panthers' active roster, Myles Hartsfield debuted in the 2020 season opener against the Raiders. He played in all 16 games of his rookie season, finishing with 13 tackles, one tackle for loss and a pass deflection while tying for the team-high with two fumble recoveries. He also rushed twice for two yards on offense.
The versatility Myles said he takes pride in was on display in 2020, when he became the first player in franchise history to tally offensive and defensive snaps with at least one tackle and rush yard in the same season.
"Being undrafted, you've always got the chip on your shoulder," Myles said. "(It's) not that nobody believed in me, but the fact I'm still here, still doing what I'm doing at a high level."
Myles earned his first start in 2021 and upped his production, finishing the year with 43 tackles, four pass deflections and one sack.
When asked about what his pivotal moment in the NFL has been through two seasons, Myles reflected on the journey he'd taken.
"One day, I was just a special teams guy (or) on scout team; then one day, I was starting nickel versus the Green Bay Packers," Myles said. "Taking advantage of any opportunity that was given was huge."
But Darrel could pinpoint the moment he saw his son felt comfortable as a professional.
Darrel had a seat in Bank of America Stadium for Carolina's Week 10 matchup against Tampa Bay in 2020. In the third quarter, he watched as Myles swatted a 49-yard punt from Joseph Charlton as the ball nearly rolled into the end zone, pinning the Buccaneers' offense inside their own 5-yard line.
"It's not only in the play," Darrel said. "I also look at his body language, look at the way he walked, the way he acts, the way he does things. There's this step – that walk he has. I always say he has a special walk when he's in the groove."
The young child who started off walking bow-legged now struts with a "pep in his step" after big plays – a move that's noticeable to his closest family, Darrel said.
It's how he knows Myles is in the zone and comfortable, and it's something he's sure to look out for when he watches his son play.
"Nobody else may see it – I see it," Darrel said. "When I see that walk, even on a play where he tackled somebody and he might feel like he's hurt, when I see him get up and I see that walk, 'OK, there we go.' I don't need him to say anything to me. I just need to see the walk."
Hartsfield has played for Carolina in 2020 and 2021, totaling 59 tackles and two takeaways.