CHARLOTTE - In Week 16 of the 2017 season, a Carolina returner took three steps deep into the endzone, caught the kickoff and took off into the history books.
He went 103 yards for a touchdown, setting a new franchise record for longest kickoff return and helping secure a Wild Card playoff spot.
The Panthers haven't won a December home game since. And they haven't been able to establish a consistent return game since then either.
The player with that franchise-record return was Damiere Byrd, a lightning-quick product of the University of South Carolina, who struggled to stay off the injury report. The new Panther who could potentially fix those return woes is free agent signee Pharoh Cooper, Byrd's teammate at South Carolina and last season with the Cardinals.
"Damiere Byrd is my guy," Cooper said. "We sat literally right beside each other last year. Our lockers were right beside each other. We already had that bond from playing in college together and I love him to death."
Aside from the comparisons and connection to Carolina's former returner, Cooper's signing is intriguing in a number of ways for the Panthers. He earned Pro Bowl honors as a returner for the Rams in 2017 when he averaged 27.4 yards per kickoff return, fourth-highest in the NFL for eligible returners, and 12.5 yards per punt return, second-highest.
Over the last two seasons, Carolina averaged just 22.1 yards per kickoff return and 6.9 yards per punt return.
Cooper is also making a homecoming after the Havelock, N.C. native spent his first three NFL seasons in the NFC West with the Rams and Cardinals.
"It means a lot to come back to Carolina," Cooper said. "Back in the state I was born and raised in. I made a lot of memories here and obviously right across on the border in South Carolina. Just growing up and having dreams of playing in the NFL, then have actually having that dream play out in the state that you grew up in is a major blessing to be a part of."
Cooper now gets to make more frequent visits to his alma mater down the road in Columbia, something he didn't get to do as often when playing on the West Coast. He represents a Gamecock program that boasted 24 players in the NFL at the end of the 2019 season.
"It means a lot for us to be having this success in the NFL," Cooper said. "Just the hard work that you put in from high school and then to being a freshman in college. And the older guys there are paving the way.
"Now you can say that you were one of the ones paving the way for the younger guys. That helps get that program up and running. It feels great to be a part of that group and still playing in the NFL. We've got a lot of talent in the league right now."
With four Gamecocks: Cooper, offensive lineman Dennis Daley, running back Mike Davis and kicker Elliott Fry, the Panthers have one of the bigger collections of South Carolina players in the league. But the final roster is clearly far from set.
Every spring brings question marks during a normal offseason, but throw in a new coaching staff plus the physical challenges and unknowns from COVID-19, and all anyone can do is speculate who will be lining up where.
Cooper is hoping to change some of that speculation, too. After all, there is still a WR next to his name on the roster.
"When I signed, everyone wrote, 'Former return man signs with the Carolina Panthers.' That's fine and all. I've made a name for myself at that position with the accomplishments that I have. But that's not necessarily how I want to keep building my name," Cooper said. "I'm a receiver, and I want to prove that I can do that successfully in this league. I want to build off what I did last year with the Cardinals, where I had my best receiving season."
Cooper had 25 receptions on 33 targets for 243 yards and a receiving touchdown last year, and his 75.8 reception percentage led all Arizona wideouts.
But Cooper will have a crowded receiver room when he eventually enters the facility in Charlotte. DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel return as starters from the last two years, and the Panthers have added a handful of new wideouts in free agency.
So while Cooper wants to expand his receiving résumé, he also understands where he can help immediately.
"I'm a receiver first and foremost, but being a returner is an extra skillset that I can bring to the table," Cooper said. "If you're good at it, teams are going to keep putting you there and letting you do it. That stuff puts your team in a good position on the field and helps you score touchdowns and make big plays."
Pharoh Cooper previously played for Rams (2016-18), Bengals (2018) and Cardinals (2018-19).