Back in week seven, the Panthers were looking for their first win of the season. They were hosting the 49ers, who had won the week before and were trying to build some momentum for the rest of the season.
The fourth quarter started with a field goal that tied the game at 13, then on Carolina's next drive Matt Moore threw a pick-six that left the Panthers down by a touchdown. The teams went back and forth until the two minute warning, when Carolina finally scored, knotting the game at 20.
The Niners started the next drive on their 20, and two plays later they were on the 43, and the life was draining out of the stadium as fans braced for another late game collapse and a loss. Instead, backup QB David Carr threw an interception, and the Carolina offense took the field once more with 1:08 left.
Then Matt Moore stepped up in the pocket and threw a 35 yard strike to rookie receiver Brandon LaFell. That turned out to be the play of the game; the catch put the Panthers in position for a final field goal that gave them their first win.
In the first five games, LaFell had only caught five passes, despite being thrown to 23 times. But against San Francisco, something must have clicked, because he caught all six passes thrown to him, including the big one that set up the win.
Cat Scratch Reader got a chance to sit down with LaFell and talk about how he's adjusted to the NFL. And when asked about his first big moment, it wasn't his first NFL touchdown against St. Louis in week eight that told him he belonged.
That was an important step for certain. When asked about it LaFell said, "That was a big moment, right there. That's probably the best moment so far. I've still got the ball--that ball's not going anywhere."
But it was the play in San Francisco that stood out to him. "I think when I had the big catch against SF, the catch that set up the game-winning field goal, that was like the big moment that let me know that Hey! I'm here, and I'm playing good, and my teammates are respecting me."
Since then he's done nothing but get better. He's been the target on 40 passes, and has not only hauled in 23 of them, several have been fairly big receptions later in games.
It's fair to say that he's adjusted to the speed of the NFL game. Panther fans looked at him on draft day and saw a young Muhsin Muhammad, and he shows every sign of living up to that promise.
He doesn't shy away from the comparisons either. "I feel good about them because that's a guy I always watched...every time he scored, acting like he's dribbling the the ball between his legs and stuff like that, going out there and making plays, he was one of the guys I looked up to."
It's not just the big plays he's looking at where comparisons are concerned. There are people who think Moose was among the best blocking wide receivers in NFL history, and that's a big part of LaFell's game.
"[Blocking] is one of the things that all LSU receivers do. It's the main thing--if you're not blocking, you're not going to be out on the field. Thats one of the things we pride ourselves on--every running back that plays with [an LSU] receiver knows this about us. They love the way we block down the field."
And it's something he's brought to the NFL, and the current attitude in the locker room. "It helps you stay in the game--you like to see that highlight tape the week before the game, you like to see yourself all the say downfield pushing somebody down, knocking somebody out, and everybody giving you props in the meeting room."
Surprisingly, LaFell hasn't met Muhammad yet. "I saw Moose the day he was retired, but I never had a chance to sit down, talk to him, shake his hand, and actually meet him."
But he's certainly intersted, and the longer he's a Panther the more likely they'll get together. "I've walked across his path a couple of times. That's one of the guys I would like to sit down and talk to because he was in the game a long time and obviously, to be in the game for a while you have to be doing something right. I just want to sit down and talk to him and see what some of the things are that he could help me out with."
Another thing draws a comparison is their charity work. Muhammad has a charity foundation called, "The M2 Foundation for Kids", which is dedicated to enhancing the mental and physical development of children. And LaFell is not about to be outdone.
"I'm actually starting my foundation, The LaFell Group," he said, when asked about community involvement. "[It's] going to work with inner city kids... Pretty much [about] just uplifting their environment, going out in the community and working with children, like a big brother program."
This type of activity isn't new to him, and it's another value he brought to Charlotte from his college days. "I did a lot of volunteering out in school," he says. "You know, Michael Clayton had a program like that. We sat down and talked about me starting and doing the same program."
As he continues, he gets more energized, like he's talking about making a big catch. This is obviously important to him.
"A lot of times before school started we did back to school drives, Christmas give-aways, and stuff like that. So I had a little bit of experience, but I want to start something like that for myself now."
"I like doing things like that because growing up I didn't have football players, any kind of pro players, come to my school or come to my neighborhood and talk to me...so I want to have that chance to do it with the kids."
LaFell's got a National Championship ring and a host of accolades, yet he comes across as humble, certainly not a diva. And given his position, that's almost a surprise. In a league where most of the big characters play his position, he's almost an exception.
The Panthers have another rookie who's almost cut from the same cloth. Like LaFell, David Gettis is a giving sort of person, not given to self-centered antics or a me-first attitude. And they know they have a chance to be something special.
"We're different guys, [but] we feed off each other, we push each other, we work hard." LaFell says about Gettis. "We're out there competing...every time Gettis makes a play on a ball, catches a deep ball, I'm going to try and make a play the next play."
That comes in part from the culture in the locker room. "(Williams and Stewart) compete day in and day out in practice. Those guys, especially Mike Goodson, they're competing, they're a three headed monster. They compete every day in practice, and that's one of the things we want to do ourselves."
Despite the poor year, they're still at it in practice too. He's bought into Fox's message fully.
"He just goes in every week and tells us we've got to stay together. There's nobody on the outside that's gonna help us, all the people that are going to help ... are the 53 guys in the meeting room. And that's one thing that we've stuck with.
That's why, in a season where sometimes it just looks like everything's going south, Lafell continues to improve. He's got an approach towards practice, the game and the team that should serve him and the Panthers well for years to come.
In the end, he sums up the attitude succinctly, "Have each other's back, finish, don't give up, and compete."