HONOLULU, Hawaii – Military personnel are early risers, but this was early even for them. "We were told that some folks got here at 3:30 in the morning to make sure they were upfront and got a good spot to watch practice," head coach Ron Rivera said after the Pro Bowl team he's coaching completed practice Thursday afternoon on Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam. "I told the players that to make sure they thanked these folks."
And thank them they did, as Pro Bowlers on Team Rice capped their first practice by signing autographs for the gathered masses, just as Team Sanders coached by the Indianapolis Colts staff had earlier done.
When Team Sanders, which actually features four Panthers – one more than Rivera's squad – wrapped up the first practice of the day, quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly were among the featured attractions.
Fans of other NFL teams – save one kid who asked Kuechly not to sign his Philadelphia Eagles football – jockeyed for autographs from the Panthers stars. One pack of onlookers dotted by Dallas Cowboys fans chanted "Kuechly" as he approached, pronouncing it correctly but apparently unaware of the signature "Luuuuke" chant.
Newton took care of that, leading a group of fans in a "Luuuuke" chant while signing away.
"It's amazing how people come out like this just to watch us do a little walkthrough practice," Kuechly said. "With everything these people do to keep us safe, this is a very important opportunity to say hi to and thank them for what they do."
Panthers fans came out in strong numbers, with several pockets of them lining the barricades surrounding the practice field.
"There aren't only fans from Charlotte here in Hawaii, but there are Hawaiians here that are Panthers fans," said long snapper J.J. Jansen, a member of Team Sanders along with Kuechly, Newton and defensive end Greg Hardy. "There's a pretty healthy contingent of Panthers fans here and just great football fans, period. This is awesome."
Moments after Team Sanders boarded buses and left the base, Team Rice led by Rivera and his staff pulled in. Just beyond the fence that surrounds the practice field, massive military aircraft waited for their next assignment.
"It's interesting to be standing here on a military base, to look around and be reminded what it was to be a military brat," said Rivera, who spent his childhood on multiple military bases as the son of a U.S. Army officer. "You see the orange roofs and the tan buildings, and it brings that feeling back."
From a football perspective, Thursday marked the first opportunity for Rivera see the team that NFL legend Jerry Rice drafted on his behalf for Sunday's game. In addition to fullback Mike Tolbert and offensive linemen Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross, Rivera's roster includes the likes of quarterback Drew Brees, running back LeSean McCoy, tight end Jimmy Graham and NFL sack leaders Robert Mathis and Robert Quinn.
"I just don't want to mess it up. There's a lot of talent out here," Rivera said. "Somebody asked me how I thought the draft went. I said, 'There's not a bad pick in this draft.'
"Other than not having all our guys with us – that's the biggest bummer being that both of our signal-callers are on the other side – it's great."
While Rivera would have loved to have Newton, Kuechly, Hardy and Jansen on his side, he's relieved at how the rosters turned out given the alternatives.
"My biggest concern more than anything, honestly, was the possibility of Cam and the Kraken being on opposite sides," Rivera said. "I'm just glad the Kraken is on Cam's side, so I'm not too worried."