CHARLOTTE – When Ron Rivera rolled up to the restaurant in his Hyundai Equus for dinner seven years ago, he and draft prospect Bruce Irvin were on their way to becoming fast friends.
Such pre-draft relationships can be fleeting, though.
"He was a guy we really did like, someone who must certainly was high up on our board," Rivera recalled. "For us, it worked out that Luke was our guy."
Irvin and the Panthers hit it off leading up to the 2012 NFL Draft, but Carolina used the No. 9 overall pick on Luke Kuechly, and the rest is history.
But Tuesday, hours after Rivera rolled up in his Mercedes for breakfast with the No. 15 pick in the 2012 draft, the relationship was renewed. The Panthers will have both Kuechly and Irvin in uniform in 2019.
"It's nice to have him on our side now," Rivera said.
Irvin, seven seasons into a successful NFL career, signed a one-year contract with Carolina on Tuesday. The versatile pass rusher arrived in Charlotte with vivid memories of Rivera's car the first time they met but more importantly a lasting impression of Rivera's character.
That stuck with Irvin all these years, and it's part of the reason he left town with a copy of his signed contract in hand.
"He upgraded. It was a black Hyunda Equus (in 2012), but today it was a Mercedes-Benz. An S-550, I think," Irvin said. "I had breakfast with him this morning, and I actually asked him about that car.
"It felt genuine, and that's hard to find in this league because the business part plays so much into it. When you find a genuine coach, you want to play for him."
At the initial meeting seven years ago - shortly before the Seahawks drafted Irvin - he said he was struck by the honest, straightforward vibe he got from Rivera and Eric Washington, then the Panthers' defensive line coach and now their defensive coordinator.
Irvin had some red flags – the phrase he chose to use Tuesday – going into the draft due to a rocky childhood in Atlanta. But he was well on his way to straightening his life out, a personal crusade capped by him putting on a cap and gown and receiving his sociology degree from West Virginia last May.
"Coming out of the draft, I had so many red flags from my past as a kid coming up, being locked up and all that stuff," said Irvin, who once spent three weeks in juvenile jail. "They (Rivera and Washington) were really positive and kept me motivated, and I'm just happy it came full circle and that I'll have a chance to play for them."
The feeling is mutual, for reasons on and off the football field.
"When you get to know him, you quickly recognize that this is a young man that has matured very, very nicely during his time as a player," Rivera said. "He understands. He gets it."
And, of course, Rivera is excited about what the Panthers are getting from Irvin the football player.
"He's a guy who has a tremendous skill set, a guy who has played outside linebacker, drop end, rush end. He's a guy who can do a combination of things for us," Rivera said. "He's most certainly a guy who can attack for us.
"He's going to be a good fit for us and a good presence on the defensive side."
Irvin endured some football-related drama this past season, when his role with the Raiders and first-year head coach Jon Gruden shrunk before he was released midseason. But as a result, Irvin got to spend the second half of the season in his hometown with the Falcons before finding a new home Tuesday.
"I've got a great deal of respect for Jon Gruden because knowing he had to pay me, he could have kept me there. He did right by me, and we both agreed to part ways," Irvin said. "I think we were on two different pages, but it worked out for the best. I got to come home to Atlanta, and now I'm here with you guys.
"It worked out how it was supposed to."
View photos from Bruce Irvin's visit to Bank of America Stadium as he signs a one-year contract with the Panthers.