CONCORD, N.C. – For reasons good and bad, NFL players make headlines – a new reality for rookies.
Having your name in the paper for the wrong reason is a correctable error; having it in an obituary is not.
"Y'all are superstars, and I'm a Panthers fan. I pull for you every Sunday," Highway Patrol Sgt. Mike Baker told the Panthers' rookie class during a defensive driving course Tuesday at zMax Dragway. "But at the end of the day, you're human beings. If you get out here and act the fool, wrap your car around a tree or hit somebody head-on and get yourself killed, one of us has to go to your house and deliver that message.
"Y'all help us out and make sure we don't have to deliver that message."
The Panthers' rookies received that message loud and clear through their participation in B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe), a defensive driving program created a decade ago by drag racer Doug Herbert after tragedy hit home for him.
This wasn't a scare-you-straight type of event for the rookies, who enjoyed their time on a road course in a competitive environment, but the intent behind it all is all-important to Herbert, who got one of those fateful knocks on the door.
"On January 26, 2008, I thought I was a big deal. Big house on the lake, fastest boat on the lake, Ferrari, Learjet," Herbert said. "Then all of a sudden my kids got killed in a car crash, and that's when you analyze what's important to you."
Sons Jon and James, ages 17 and 13, were killed in a crash in Cornelius, N.C. Herbert responded by making it his mission to better equip young drivers – starting with his friends' teenage kids. Fast forward, and from that start with 50 students, B.R.A.K.E.S. has now educated 35,000 young drivers – free of charge.
Having Panthers as pupils was a first for the instructors and was the latest effort by the Panthers organization to bring their rookies up right.
"This adds to the goal we have to help the guys make wise decisions," said Mark Carrier, senior adviser to the general manager. "They're young – 21, 22 years old – and we know some of the things we did at a young age when we got a new car."
After some classroom instruction, the rookies made their way onto a road course of sorts where they were put through their paces with various scenarios involving distracted driving. Midway through the course, after losing his way around the asphalt, cornerback Donte Jackson removed the "drunk goggles" that players wore for part of their time behind the wheel.
"It was harder that I would have thought," Jackson said. "It made me realize what people go through behind the wheel in that situation."
The rookies then moved onto working on the proper way to deal with skidding – yes, you should initially steer into the skid, but then you must correct the car back at the proper time – and they worked on how to swerve to avoid an accident without over-correcting.
Their road time concluded with a relay race of sorts. Tight end Ian Thomas received a steering wheel trophy for the fastest time and defensive end Marquis Haynes "earned" a ceremonial road cone as the one rookie to spin out during the time trials.
Jackson, known for being fleet of foot, demanded a recount when his lap time placed him below everybody but Haynes in the pecking order.
Still, he enjoyed the experience and appreciated the opportunity.
"This is very informational," he said. "It makes me think about a whole lot of things."
View photos of Panthers players taking an advanced driving course, called B.R.A.K.E.S., at zMax Dragway in Concord.