The NFL season has begun.
I know, I know. Some of you are too busy burning your Nike gear to watch, but I’m still tuning in.
And rooting for the little guy like always — figuratively and literally.
I’ve always enjoyed a good underdog story. Blame it on too many Rocky Balboa movies or the Star Wars trilogy in my youth. I hate to see any team losing game after game, week after week. I feel bad for the players and terrible for the fans who see their resilient hopes dashed over and over.
But I also like rooting for the little guys — seriously, the tiny fellows.
Even at the end of my growth spurt I finished a bit under 5-foot-11, and I was a late bloomer who entered high school at a petite 5-foot-3 and 115 pounds. I played basketball, but I never, ever dreamed of stepping onto a football field and getting crushed like a bug on a windshield.
Then you see a small player like Barry Sanders, and you stand in awe.
I was a senior in high school (by then up to 155 pounds) when this 5-foot-7 running back for Oklahoma State put together one of the greatest seasons in college football history. He didn’t look like he weighed much more than I did, but he averaged 237 yards a game (averaged!!).
Dave Meggett was another running back to come out of college at the same time as Sanders standing 5-foot-7.
And QB Dan Marino was putting together a Hall of Fame career with a pair of 5-foot-9 receivers in Mark Duper and Mark Clayton.
That led me to believe that every team should have at least one little lightning bug of a player on the team. Guys with shorter legs can get in and out of cuts quicker for making defenders miss or getting open to catch passes.
In the Panthers’ first season in 1995, playing in South Carolina, the team had a young 5-foot-8 WR/PR named Eric Guliford. He had 444 yards receiving and completed a 46-yard pass on a trick play.
Where he really shined, however, was as the punt returner, averaging 11 yards a return and scoring a 62-yard TD to help an offense that was really struggling to score.
During training camp the next year, Guliford and another player were cut during training camp. The story at the time was that Guliford was caught with a joint in his dorm room.
He would sign with New Orleans and average 10.6 yards a punt and 26.2 yards per kick return.
In 1996 when the team moved to Charlotte permanently, my first pet pick was a little running back/punt returner named Winslow Oliver. In the last game of the preseason he ripped off a long touchdown run, and I used the punny headline of “Oliver twists through Steelers’ D.”
That spark led the team to keep him around. As a rookie he broke an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown.
In his second year, the team stopped using him in the offense, then after a couple of fumbled punts, they benched him for Tyrone Poole, who only averaged 7.3 yards a return.
Oliver came back his third season to average 10.5 yards a return, but the team let him go in the offseason. He joined the Falcons and promptly averaged 12.7 yards a return.
Poor Oliver only got to play five seasons in the NFL, but he still ranks in the top 30 all-time in punt return average, ahead of such noteworthy players as Meggett, Brian Mitchell, Eric Weems, Dante Hall, Deion Sanders, Tim Brown, Ted Ginn Jr., Eric Metcalf and Allen Rossum.
The Panthers would suffer through some slim years with punt returning until picking up another short playmaker named Steve Smith. That one actually caught on. After first making the team as a punt/kick returner, Smith quickly showed his ability to make plays in the passing game, too, and likely will be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
In 2015, a little guy named Damiere Byrd (5-foot-9, 173 pounds) didn’t draw any attention after leaving South Carolina.
At the USC pro day, some guys ran the 40-yard dash, and it was pointed out that natural grass is much slower than the indoor track surface used at the NFL Combine each spring. To make the numbers match better, they suggested subtracting 0.13 of a second from the time to see where the player would rank against other NFL hopefuls.
For example, Mike Davis ran a 4.52 time. Accounting for grass, that would equate to 4.39 seconds on turf.
Then Byrd ran a 4.28 time. Keep in mind that the fastest time ever recorded on the NFL turf is 4.22 by John Ross in 2017; Byrd’s adjusted time would come in at 4.15 seconds. That’s not quite Usain Bolt speed, but maybe good enough to make the USA Olympic Team.
But, Byrd only ran the sprint once that day because of a tightening hamstring.
A year ago, Byrd was unstoppable in the preseason, hauling in four long TD passes from backup quarterbacks. But then he was nicked up. Then in Week 4 he broke his left arm.
He came back late in the season and scored 103-yard TD on a kick return. He also had the famous TD catch in the back of the end zone where he fell on his behind, and instant replay showed him landing right on the chalk over and over before the referees concluded that Byrd’s left butt cheek hit inbounds before the right butt cheek hit out of bounds, so therefore it was a touchdown catch.
Or a “tushdown” catch if you will.
Unfortunately, in the same game with the kickoff return TD, Byrd left with a lower leg injury and didn’t play again last season.
The first game of the season Sunday he had three good punt returns, reminding people how explosive he is, then on the final one, he was being tackled high when another player went in low and slammed into his left leg. Now the Panthers have Byrd listed on the injury report with an unspecified knee injury.
It looks like another of my pet favorites might not get to shine — but boy has he shown some flashes.
Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.