SPARTANBURG, S.C. – A strangely familiar stranger spent Sunday among Panthers players and coaches, claiming he had done the same on Sundays before.
Upon closer inspection, the mysterious man revealed a familiar face in an unfamiliar body. It was none other than Jordan Gross, specifically about three-quarters of the Gross that played tackle for the Panthers the last 11 seasons.
Since retiring in February, Gross has dropped roughly one-quarter of his body weight, down from 305 to a barely recognizable 235.
"He just looks bad," former fellow lineman and supposed best friend Ryan Kalil said. "I don't like it. I'm not a big fan of it. He looks kinda weird.
"He looks really unhealthy."
But the 34-year-old Gross feels really healthy, returning to a weight he last spotted on a scale nearly 20 years ago. He's more equipped than ever to tackle the world, even if there's no way he's playing tackle again.
"These guys are only two days into practice, but I guarantee you I feel about a thousand times better than they do," Gross said. "I don't miss playing, honestly. I really feel like I got it out of my system. It sounds cheesy, but I gave it everything I had."
Gross might not miss the wonderful grind, but the Panthers might miss him. After counting on Gross to anchor the line for more than a decade, the Panthers could turn his left tackle spot over to an undrafted player – either right tackle Byron Bell or defensive lineman-turned-guard-turned-tackle Nate Chandler.
But don't fret, because Gross isn't. He knows the duo about as well as anyone, having mentored Bell over his three pro seasons and blocked with Chandler during his one season on offense.
"Both of them are capable players," Gross said. "I believe that continuity is a big deal on the O-line, so I think the dust will settle here soon and they'll pick one. They are both going to be starters, so it's not like it's a battle for one position; it's just where everybody ends up.
"Byron did a great job at right tackle. I know he took some criticism, but I've always been a big fan of his. Nate has come an incredible way in not even two seasons. He's hungry. They are talented guys."
Gross' talents extend beyond the football field, and as much as he enjoyed hanging around his former teammates Sunday, there was a purpose behind his visit. The "This is Gross" podcast that developed a loyal following on Panthers.com last year will morph into a television show on Time Warner Cable SportsChannel each Thursday beginning August 7. Additionaly, Gross will serve as sideline reporter for the Panthers Radio Network throughout the season.
"That will be good," Kalil said, managing to say one nice thing about Gross 2.0. "The organization has been so good to him, and he's given so much back. It will be fun.
"It's obviously a natural pairing. He's a fan favorite, so it will be good to keep him in the building."
Fans can expect Gross to put the same smiles on their faces that he managed to pry out of media members Sunday.
Among his not-so-fan jokes:
-- "I was out on our boat, and this girl said, 'Are you Jordan Gross?' I said, 'No. He's fatter than I am.' And she said, 'Yeah, and you're probably better at football than him, too.' I said, 'Yeah, probably.' "
-- "I've been asked, 'Does your brother play pro football?' I don't even have a brother."
-- "My wife is freaking out. She says she is having an affair on me with me."
Kalil, of course, came away unimpressed.
"The problem is he's walking around and checking himself out in the mirror, and he thinks he looks cool," Kalil said. "He doesn't even look like a normal person. You know when you draw those stick figures? That's what he kind of looks like.
"We could go on all day about this, but I don't want to talk about him anymore."
Given the skinny man's sizable new role just on the other side of the sideline, expect him to have the last word.
"He's just mad at me because my ankles don't hurt and his do," Gross said. "The guys think I look terrible. I came in here and they are lifting my shirt up, feeling my arms. It's worse than the combine. I'm getting inspected more now than I ever have.
"But that's just all love. If I walk through there and nobody says anything to me, I'll know that I need to go because they don't like me anymore."