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Carolina Panthers

Sam Darnold has found his spot to be normal

View photos of Sam Darnold from the preseason and training camp in Carolina.
View photos of Sam Darnold from the preseason and training camp in Carolina.

CHARLOTTE — Sam Darnold's more regular than he has any right to be.

And he's far more regular than we have any right to expect, considering his role and the stages he's been on before.

He's so regular, that even when he has an extraordinary encounter with someone who makes his eyes go wide — and those are rare — they turn out kind of, well, normal.

The Panthers quarterback will be on center stage again this week, opening the NFL's regular season at home against his former team. And for a guy who has settled comfortably into his new mid-market home after spending most of the last decade under bright lights in New York and Los Angeles, it seems fitting that he starts his new chapter with a clearly developed storyline.

But don't expect much of a reaction from Darnold, about playing the Jets or much of anything else this week. He's locked in on a game, and that's occupied his mind for the last five months. It just happens to carry extra weight in the minds of others.

As his teammates here have learned, not much fazes their new quarterback.

"He's an easy, but hard guy to describe," Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey said.

"I don't have the, . . ." McCaffrey then paused, looking puzzled, trying to think of the right word, something salient and perfect. Then he looks a little disappointed that he can't come up with anything better than the simplest way of putting it.

"He's a normal guy," McCaffrey said, settling for a regular word when he was looking for a perfect one. "In a really good way."

Quarterbacks aren't always normal. As the focus on the field in the most popular spectator sport in America, they routinely get far more praise than they merit when things are going well, and far more blame than they deserve when things don't. They have commercials, and audition to become game-show hosts, and have famous significant others.

And then there's Darnold, who walked in the door casually and agreeably, and has maintained that manner throughout his time here.

Backup quarterback P.J. Walker was like other teammates, who struggled to sum up what sets Darnold apart. As will be a theme this week, Walker was asked if he could tell any added excitement with the fact that Darnold's playing his old team, and the answer was immediate.

"Nah, it's all about Carolina," Walker said. "Being here, that's all that matters to him."

He described Darnold as a guy who's easy to approach, who is available to teammates in the dining area, rather than ducking into his locker or sequestering himself in any way.

"Sam's always around guys," Walker said. "He's sitting around at lunch with guys, and just doing different stuff with the players. He's always talking to guys."

That's only remarkable in that it isn't. And Darnold embraces the everyman quality, the not setting himself apart, knowing that the moment he doesn't, he's going to get called on it.

"I'm going to be myself, no matter what," Darnold said. "And if I'm not, a lot of my friends are going to let me know about it. I've got great friends.

"I'd say a lot of quarterbacks are normal too. I'd say normal, even if I don't know what that means, but a lot of them are cool guys and fun to hang around with."

View photos of Sam Darnold from the preseason and training camp in Carolina.

For Darnold, being a cool guy and fun to hang around with is what regular looks like.

So for McCaffrey, Darnold's practically a soul-mate — a football nerd who lives for the game and working out and preparing for the game and everything about the game. They've known each other for years, have hung out and thrown together before they were teammates (Darnold works out with former Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen in the offseasons), and spent a little time off the field as well.

As much as McCaffrey is a polite-yet-reluctant star, Darnold's his equal or more. Accessible, easy, the kind of person you see out in town, and it makes a ripple, but not a huge wave.

"He's extremely kind to everyone who notices him," McCaffrey said. "Signs autographs, takes pictures if they ask. He's a good person."

Darnold laughs about such interactions, because what's happening now is not like what he's accustomed to.

He spent the previous six years as the quarterback of the USC Trojans, and the first-round pick of the New York Jets. That gave him two of the highest-profile jobs in the country's two largest markets. There was always going to be attention, though he's seldom seemed overwhelmed by it.

"I think in a big city, people either don't recognize you, or when they recognize you, it's a really big deal," Darnold said. "I think either way here, when people recognize you here, they calmly ask for a picture, and it's nothing really more than that."

For a guy who was born into near-celebrity, and grown up in the spotlight, it's impressive how casually he handles fame.

His grandfather was the Marlboro Man and an actor and an Olympian, so being a big deal is nothing new in his household. Still, Southern Cal coach Clay Helton described Darnold as "the ultimate blue-collar kid."

Sam Darnold

And yet, he keeps ending up in these spots where high fashion is more common than blue collars.

Though he's been in a position to be a celebrity for a significant part of his life, Darnold has had few moments where he's been amazed.

Asked last week if he had ever been star-struck in his life, he shrugged and said: "I mean, Luke Combs was out here today, that was pretty cool."

Regional music stars are one thing, but being in L.A. and New York, he's had a chance to be around plenty of a greater magnitude.

But in what appears to be true Darnold fashion, those encounters come and go without much more than a ripple.

He recalled a 2017 game at Texas, when he led the Trojans to a game-tying field goal in the final minute and then an overtime win. As he was coming off the field, jubilant with his teammates, there stood Longhorns super-fan Matthew McConaughey.

"He was hanging right where we walked into the locker room," Darnold recalled. "He kind of looked at me, and did one of these, . . . .

Darnold then laughed and replicated the face, the one that's about to say, "All right, all right, all right." You know, the Matthew McConaughey look.

"Yeah, that look," Darnold said with a laugh. "I was going to go introduce myself, but I didn't think it was the right time or place to do that."


There are, however, star encounters he did follow through on.

He distinctly remembers the first time he saw Will Ferrell around, because, I mean, it's Will Ferrell.

"The first time I met him, I was super star-struck," Darnold said. "It's pretty funny. We played Cal up at Berkley, and he was at the game, and we won, and he comes in, and I meet him and whatever. Then Coach Helton brings us up, says his deal, 'Good job, way to win,' and he says we've got a special guest for you, and brings up Will Ferrell. I thought he was going to say something funny or tell a joke or something.

"And this dude comes in the huddle and goes, 'Hey guys, way to work, way to get that win today, way to go. Trojans on three,' and he broke it down. It wasn't his first time doing it. That was something. I was expecting to see Brennan Huff, and I got Will Ferrell."

In Darnold's world, Will Ferrell became a regular cast member, and would eventually appear on his podcast.

"It was cool to be able to meet him and get to know him, and realize the true competitor he is, how much he cares about USC football is awesome," Darnold said. "I think a lot of times when you're at SC, people walk in, and you're like, 'Oh, there's whoever.' When Will Ferrell walks in, it's like, 'Oh my god, that's Will Ferrell.'"

With Darnold, that's probably as close as you get as the moment getting away from him.

Coming to Carolina after three years in New York, he's settled in comfortably. The Panthers were looking to start fresh at quarterback as much as he needed a fresh start after three tumultuous years in New York. So they fit each other.

Whether Darnold is the next guy, or just a guy, remains to be seen. But those who know him and have watched him work like his chances.

"I think Sam is just in a new beginning," former Jets teammate Robby Anderson said. "A lot of times, new beginnings are what a lot of us need. Just sometimes turning that page to a new chapter, I wish him the best and hope for the best for him.

"I'm not going to overspeak on that, but I feel like it's a new beginning. I think that excites everybody sometimes."

Not overspeaking is fitting. Darnold hasn't made many waves since getting here. The closest he's come was probably having to sit on the floor for a few months, waiting for his furniture to be delivered to his new home. And even that's different than most quarterbacks here, of which there have been two distinct kinds.

Jake Delhomme was a Ballantyne guy, straight suburbs because there aren't that many horse farms here. Cam Newton was an uptown high-rise guy, in the middle of it all, always. Darnold's found a spot in between a comfortable place on the south side, not too far away, and not too flashy. A fit.

When Panthers head coach Matt Rhule's asked about Darnold, he raves about his work ethic, the way Darnold has buried himself in learning a new system — one which is set up for his particular gifts. Rhule worked one year with the Giants, so he hasn't been around many NFL quarterbacks. But he said he sees some of the same traits Eli Manning possessed in Darnold. That seems about right. But Rhule walked into this year with no expectations of Darnold's personality, isolating his experience to tape he could watch, tape which convinced him to trade three picks for Darnold, to begin again at the position.

"My only experience in the NFL was with Eli Manning," Rhule said. "And he couldn't have been a more regular guy, and I say that in a complimentary way. As regular a guy as anyone I've ever been around. But at the end of the day, he was a tremendous competitor and tremendous worker in my limited time with him.

"I try to remove personality from it, I tell guys to be themselves with us in terms of work ethic, the standards, and I think Sam's a good example of that."

It's far from the kind of thing you say about a star, or a guy who was always expected to become one.

But it seems fitting for Darnold, a guy who in five months here has shown a knack for fitting in.

That's what regular guys do.

View photos of Sam Darnold from the preseason and training camp in Carolina.

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