SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Strange scene at Panthers’ training camp Monday morning: A man who looked like Michael Phelps, maybe 6-4 and 235, watching Carolina’s fourth camp practice, wearing cargo shorts and a denim shirt, sunglasses and a goatee, not bothering anyone.
But this man looked out of place. He didn’t look like a football player. Too trim, a little too old. But a Carolina trainer, Ryan Vermillion, came to greet him warmly and then said to me, “He was supposed to meet us for our run at 5 a.m. but texted me and said, ‘Can we do it tomorrow?’"
That’s because Jordan Gross, former football player, was snoozing in a nearby state park in his Airstream trailer with his mixed-breed dog, Rosi. Gross is on his own schedule now.
Gross is 34. He was one of the best tackles in pro football last season, and he shocked Carolina’s world when, healthy, he announced his retirement in February. Now here he was, at Panthers training camp, one of those guys who just took a job with the Panthers radio network and Carolina TV station you’d think would be a hanger-on but who says, “If I’m going to be reporting on the team, I want to know what I’m talking about." So that's why on a July Monday, with a sparse crowd in house for a 91-degree practice at this lovely camp site, Gross was here to watch.
With Gross protecting his blind side, Cam Newton led the Panthers to the playoffs in 2013. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Jordan Gross played so well in 2013 that the analytics website Pro Football Focus rated him the No. 3 offensive tackle in football for the season. His contract was expired, but had he decided to play another couple of seasons at 34 and 35, the Panthers or some tackle-needy team would have signed him to a deal worth at least $8 million or $9 million a year. Gazing out at practice Monday morning, Gross pondered the questions: Why’d you do it? Why right now, totally healthy?
“A year prior to retirement," he said, “I restructured my contract. I could tell I was near the end and I wouldn’t want to play much longer. My strength wasn’t what it was. I don’t believe there’s really any natural 300-pound person. It was getting difficult in all phases of my job to retain strength. I decided to try to do everything I could to play one more season at the highest level I could—be healthy, lead guys, go all out to play at the highest level I could.”
Throughout the season, a surprisingly great one both for the team and for a tackle who knew he was done at the end of it, Gross brought his 8-year-old son, Teddy, to work with him when Teddy either didn't have school or it was Saturday and Teddy could come and sit in the hot tub with the left tackle and a few of his mates. Before games, Teddy would be down on the field to experience the last year of his dad's pro football career. That's the way Jordan Gross wanted it—no one in the outside world or even the Panthers knowing he was playing his last season, no attention paid to it, just a man working as hard as he could to play at the highest level he could before he left the game.
"I never wanted to play longer than I should,'' he said. "I never wanted anyone to be able to say, 'He stayed too long.' Instead of just hanging on and playing at a lower level, I always thought it would be better for people to say to me, 'Why'd you retire? You were great last year.'"
"But the money,'' I said. "If you played another two years, someone—Carolina or someone—would have paid you at least $15 million.''
"Oh, I thought about that,'' Gross said. "Who wouldn't? It's really great, to have all that money. But how good would it be to play a year or two more and have that extra money, and you have a shot joint or a knee that doesn't work anymore? I made a lot of money playing football already."
He told the Panthers five days after the season. They didn't try to talk him out of it. "How many people in sports get to call their own shot and get to go out the way they want?" Carolina GM Dave Gettleman said. "How many people get to go out going 12-4, making the Pro Bowl, playing at the highest level of their job, his team winning the division? The thing I'll always remember is the way Jordan was at the end. On the last Thursday practice of the regular season, he and [guard] Travelle Wharton, who he played next to for so long, had a race down the field—laughing all the way. And the next day, Friday, they did it again. He just loved everything about the game, about his teammates, about competing.''
You know how I know I made the right decision?" Gross said. "I haven't thought once that I did the wrong thing. Not once.
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Then Gross had to decide what to do with his life. He'd made lots of contacts in the Charlotte business community. He got asked to join some big companies and train to be something big in business--and he thought long and hard about it. He would have to do something big and challenging and rewarding, wouldn't he? But he wasn't sure he wanted to invest all the time and the long hours and the time away from his family in a Fortune 500 executive job. He'd saved his money and didn't live an extravagant life. Gross, who studied speech communication at Utah, married his high-school sweetheart from Idaho, and they had two children, and for the time being, he decided he'd take a job doing radio on the Panthers' radio network and a TV host job with the Panthers during the season. He decided to look into an RV or Airstream trailer (he chose the Airstream) and go on a long trip with his family at the end of the school year for his kids, and they did a trip to the Oregon coast and slalom-waterskied in McCall, Idaho, near their off-season home, and camped.
And when it was time for football to start, Gross hitched up the Airstream to his truck and drove east so he could begin to learn his new job—the media gig covering the Panthers. He and Rosi drove from Idaho to the Outer Banks to see the other coast, and then, instead of staying at home in Charlotte, he decided to camp out in a campground in the Airstream near Wofford College and the Panthers' summer home. By day he is here, watching practice and talking to the coaches and players about the team. While he's at practice, Rosi stays in the air-conditioned Airstream. When Gross returns after practice, they do trail runs or take long walks.
His former teammates are just like people who haven't seen him in a while—amazed at how he looks.
"You look like a stick person,'' center Ryan Kalil told him.
"You look unhealthy,'' running back DeAngelo Williams told him.
Gross went from a playing weight of around 305 pounds to his current weight of 235 in about six months. (Streeter Lecka/Jeff Siner/Getty Images)
Maybe, though, Gross looks like how a 6-foot-4 man who runs trails and eats normally should look. He's not dieting or trying to lose weight. He's just not training to be a football player anymore.
As I stood on the sidelines of a padded practice in the sweltering South Carolina summer Monday morning, I wondered how Gross felt. Did he miss it? Is he happy he's not putting his body through a 12th professional season of this?
"You know how I know I made the right decision?" he said. "I haven't thought once that I did the wrong thing. Not once."
There is a white line on the sideline of NFL fields. It's here, too, on the sideline of the Panthers' summer home. That's where Gross and I were Monday morning, watching the offensive linemen go against the defense, bodies flying and coaches coaching and whistles blowing.
We didn't speak for a few moments, just watching the practice. Gross stood there, watching. Content. A minute went by. Two. He nodded out to the field, to the sweating men.
"It's good," he said. "I don't want to be on that side of the white line anymore."
* * *
Now for your email, much of it centered around the Ray Rice news story I wrote in the wake of commissioner Roger Goodell’s two-game suspension and $529,000 fine of Rice last Thursday for his February domestic violence incident with then-fiancée Janay Palmer.
I am going to run three emails that I believe reflect the outrage of the readers—both with Goodell and with the way I wrote about the suspension on Friday morning—and then I will respond.
Ray Rice is not appealing his two-game suspension and, after participating in training camp and the preseason, will be eligible to return to the team after Week 2 of the regular season. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
I NEED TO MAN UP.I have been reading your columns for as long as I can remember, and this one stands out as the single weakest piece of writing you have ever had. I don’t need you to explain why the NFL made this decision. Fans are stakeholders in the game, whether or not the NFL sees it that way. Millions of fans funnel billions of dollars into the hands of a few in the NFL, and women are part of that fan base. Because football is escapism for some, religion for others, we likely won’t walk away from the game because of the horrendous decisions the NFL makes. That’s why we rely on high profile writers like yourself to make a statement on behalf of the fans. Your article might as well have been written by the Ravens Communication Officer. There’s not a damning thing you said. It’s a pathetically inert piece of trash. The NFL should have suspended Ray Rice for at least half the season.
Then the message to players and fans alike is that domestic violence is a crime, and men that hit their women are hardly men at all. You let the NFL off the hook, and I’m not sure why. I hope the women that follow you find somewhere to spend their Monday mornings. You don’t work for the NFL.
When something this blatantly wrong comes up, say something. I don’t want to read about lattes and IPA’s. You took the low, easy road. Unless you agree with the suspension.
I HAVE LOST A LOYAL READER.Peter, I have read your articles for years, and I think that you are a good writer who has become too wrapped up in NFL politics and too close to the players/management to give an opinion piece of the magnitude of the Ray Rice suspension. The article lacked the emotion your pieces like those about the Vick dogfighting ring held when your opinion wasn't as tethered to your career as it is now. Domestic abuse is a serious and, most times, a serial and repeat issue. Victims usually are bound and subservient to the aggressor even after abuse has been brought to light. Your lack of personal opinion in the Rice piece seemed to be more of a brush under the rug approach than a condemnation of the crime and the NFL’s weak response. You had an opportunity to bring more of a voice to the domestic abuse issue in the NFL and the league turning a virtual blind eye to it. Instead, your loyalty to career, the shield, NFL stars and Commissioner Goodell was what ultimately came across in this article. I am a long-time fan and I was very disappointed in the tone of the Rice article. Perhaps next time you will hand off the duties to someone who will have the conviction to stand up against what is wrong here—the NFL slapped Rice on the wrist after he knocked out his fiancée. The silent approach would have been a smarter move for you than this tepid fluff piece. Guess I will be getting my coffee and beer tips elsewhere. It's been a good run of over a decade. Good luck in the future.
—Daniel, Long Beach, Calif.
HOW CAN I NOT TAKE A STAND?I have been an avid reader for years. I do not always agree with your opinions but feel that you have a level of integrity that seems to be lacking in most other major media writers. I have been able to get a glimpse of your love for the game, for sport and your family over the years, and it is this ability to show your humanity that keeps me coming back to read your articles. I have a 7-month-old daughter and have had my eyes opened regarding how deeply I can feel about someone. As a father, I was hoping to hear you take a stand about the NFL dropping the ball in regards to the two-game suspension. If that was one of your daughters I believe your reaction would have been one of incomprehension and disgust instead of the neutral perspective that you seem to have given. Please follow your true heart and make a stand. You are better than this.
Thanks to the many of you who reacted to my column of last Friday. For those who have not read it, this story is what brought the outrage.
The three most important people in the world to me are my wife, Ann, and daughters, Laura and Mary Beth. For that reason, and for human decency ones, I understand the incredulous reaction that I did not assail Goodell’s decision in the story.
Let me explain why I wrote what I wrote late Thursday for posting overnight on The MMQB: I was at Ravens’ camp on Thursday when the story broke. Immediately the world was filled with vitriol for the decision—columnists and commentators and fans voicing outrage, mostly, that a player who smokes marijuana regularly can get a four-game ban while a player who strikes his wife gets two. Through the day it went on. On Twitter, I said I thought Rice deserved a four-game ban but I understood why Goodell settled at two. And in my story, I explained why: Palmer, now his wife, told Goodell in a mid-June hearing that Rice hadn’t raised a hand to her before or since; Rice had been a choir boy for all of his six NFL seasons prior to the incident; Rice had a clean NFL discipline and drug record; Rice hadn’t been convicted of anything related to the incident; and Rice had been a community leader for the team in areas like anti-bullying.
Got a question for Peter King? Submit it, along with your name and hometown, to email@example.com and it might be included in next Tuesday’s mailbag.
There is one other thing I did not write or refer to, and that is the other videotape the NFL and some Ravens officials have seen, from the security camera inside the elevator at the time of the physical altercation between Rice and his fiancée. I have heard reports of what is on the video, but because I could not confirm them and because of the sensitivity of the case, I never speculated on the video in my writing, because I don’t think it is fair in an incendiary case like this one to use something I cannot confirm with more than one person. I cannot say any more, because I did not see the tape. I saw only the damning tape of Rice pulling his unconscious fiancée out of the elevator.
I felt my best contribution to the discourse was reporting why Goodell gave Rice only a two-game ban and hefty fine. That is what I did. Should I have joined the chorus of those ripping the decision? Perhaps. I question myself on that, because I do think Rice should have gotten four games—regardless of what brought on Rice raising a hand to his fiancée. In retrospect, I would have added a paragraph or two to the story at the end about what I thought, because that is clearly what so many of you expect from me.
Thanks for being so strident about an issue you should feel strongly about. It’s caused me to think a lot about the issue, and what I wrote.
DIFFERENT STORIES. Do you find Jimmy Haslam's criticism of Johnny Manziel's off-field activity a bit hypocritical? Especially after the company he heads recently agreed to pay $92 million for defrauding its clients and several of his former executives are awaiting sentencing for said fraud?
—Dan Whitely, Winter Springs, Fla.
Not really. If Haslam is forbidden from expressing his opinion as an owner because he had a run-in with the feds, then he shouldn’t own the team.
OKAY, BOSS. Since you are NOT coming to training camp in Latrobe, don’t throw out a comment about the Steelers and the contract situation with Ben Roethlisberger. You make it sound as if he is upset about his contract, when there is nothing here to indicate that. He was told by the Rooneys that they would redo his contract next year. He will get his money. Remember, he has two years left, not one, and will not be a free agent after the year. His current contract made him financially secure and was one of the largest signed at the time, and his new one will put him into the top tier of quarterbacks. There is no issue here.
—Gary L. Brant, Sewickley, Pa.
Then why did Roesthlisberger raise the issue with the writer.
SADLY, THE LUNCH SITUATION HAS CHANGED.I'm beyond miffed that you didn't include a lunch review in your training camp tour. What gives?
—Jeff Freimauer, Delray Beach, Fla.
I don’t include the lunch reviews any more because very few teams allow me to eat in the team cafeteria now. In the first seven camps I have visited, I have eaten in one cafeteria—in Carolina on Monday. So it seems silly for me to review the food at Waffle House or wherever.