CHARLOTTE – Quarterback Taylor Heinicke hasn't started a football game since his college days at Old Dominion.
It's been that long since he last spoke at a press conference. Until Thursday, that is.
"I've always dreamed about it. It's been a long ride," Heinicke said of preparing for his first NFL start in place of the ailing Cam Newton. "I've worked for this."
It can all happen fast in this league.
One day you're out of a job just hoping for the phone to ring, a situation Heinicke was in just last year after being terminated from the Patriots' practice squad.
"Last year was a reality check, just sitting at home for a month-and-a-half with no job," Heinicke said. "You don't know if you're going to get another chance or not. It hits hard."
And then another day your phone is blowing up as friends and family reach out before you take the field in the NFL as a starting quarterback.
"From (needing) zero tickets to I don't even know how many now," Heinicke said.
How are the nerves going to hold up when kickoff draws closer?
"I could tell you right now I'm not going to be nervous and this and that," Heinicke said. "But once you run out that tunnel and you know you're going to start, everything can switch up."
We can safely say this: Heinicke is prepared.
He was told he was going to start on Tuesday night, so he's had all week to get himself ready for the added weight on his shoulders.
And with Newton's practice limitations over the past few weeks, Heinicke has had tons of practice reps with the guys he'll break the huddle with against Atlanta.
"I feel like I've gotten a lot better through those weeks," Heinicke said. "I think a lot of the guys have confidence in me."
A big part of that confidence comes from Heinicke's comfort with offensive coordinator Norv Turner's system – a system he spent time in when he was a Viking with Turner for two years.
"I was teaching the guys when I first got here, and they didn't know who I was," Heinicke said. "It's kind of a hard playbook to learn at first, but once you get it, it's pretty easy. Being in it for three years, I know it like the back of my hand."
Heinicke said his mind is his greatest asset when he's on the field, and his college coach agreed.
"He can progress a read – one, two, three, four – better than anyone I've coached in 30 years," Old Dominion head coach Bobby Wilder said. "I've never had another quarterback that can go through four reads in 2.6 seconds, which is all you've got to throw the ball."
Time sure is fleeting, and it moves even faster in this league.
And when you're a journeyman backup, you never know when you're going to get another shot.
Heinicke's time is now. It's not Class 5-A Georgia high school football, it's not Old Dominion, it's the NFL and it's a team looking to snap a six-game losing streak.
But it's football, and Heinicke knows he can play the game.
"I just want to go out there and perform," Heinicke said, "and shoot, let's get a win."
View photos of the Panthers' practicing ahead of their Week 16 game against the Falcons.