Today the Carolina Panthers welcome their rookies to Charlotte with contracts signed, and deals done. These players will battle incumbent veterans for starting jobs; putting their best foot forward to get the attention of position coaches and coordinators. There is a second subset of players, the UDFA's- those who have no certainty. On a sunny Friday morning they arrive at BoA Stadium in hopes of just finding their way onto an NFL roster. For these players the window is but a pinhole, and they are desperate to achieve their dream.
The career of an NFL player is fleeting at best, and it's a shame so many fail to have contingency plans for when the game passes them by. While some players take full advantage of the opportunities presented by their college scholarships, others are unable to see the value and simply skirt by- taking slider classes and settling for the bare minimum. 2011 UDFA Thomas Keiser ensured he didn't re-trace familiar steps, instead opting to take the path less traveled in order to gain something as valuable as a mesh shirt with a number- a college degree.
In some ways I can relate to what Keiser is going through. During my junior and senior years I worked a 45 hr a week night job, wrote papers until 4AM, class at 8AM every day and still managed to retain a relationship (to my now wife), and have enough ‘Animal House' moments that I can look back on those times in fondness. However, I had a fifteen minute commute, not a five hour flight- and thus the work our defensive end has put in is beyond impressive.
"Last quarter of my college career!" - Thomas Kesier, via Twitter (4/13/12)
While some players are spending Jan-April working out, recovering, relaxing and mentally preparing themselves for another season, Keiser was commuting non-stop from Charlotte to Stanford, CA, looking to finish what he started there. It's not as glamorous as taking in the Charlotte nightlife as a VIP, but it's far less disposable.
More after the jump
"In the airport heading back to Charlotte to start training with the team tomorrow!" 4/15/12
Whenever I travel to and from Australia it's that cross-country leg that's always the killer. Just long enough to be really uncomfortable, just short enough so airlines don't put you in a decent plane. It might be nice for the frequent flyer miles, but probably not your sense of well-being, and heck, I don't have to squeeze into a seat that badly; I'm only 6'3" in my wildest dreams (I love you dad, but those Italian genes are a killer!).
"At the airport about to fly back to Stanford for school. Then Back to Charlotte Sunday..." 4/19/12
Hard work is nothing new to Keiser. Along with Sione Fua he was a player I continually noticed while scouting Andrew Luck prior to the 2011 draft (before he announced he was returning to school). I saw a 3-4 outside linebacker in Harbaugh's system that may not have looked like the most athletic guy on the field, but he was one of the hardest workers. On every down you saw him giving his all, besting offensive linemen through sheer will alone. This effort transitioned to the next level as Keiser arrived in Charlotte roughly a year ago and immediately made an impact on those who saw him. Word got to me from Spartanburg quickly "There's a UDFA out here... he looks good man"- and this parlayed onto the field where Keiser was the most effective situational pass rusher on the Panthers last year amassing 13 tackles and 4.0 sacks in 8 games. Now entering his second season it's likely his role will be expanded along with the proliferation of 3-4 looks employed by Sean McDermott.
"On my way back to Charlotte" 4/22/12
The defense the Panthers will employ in 2012 looks to be more varied, and complicated than the base 4-3 with some 3-4 looks we saw in 2011. The evaluation and ‘feeling out' phase is over, now replaced with solid plans to create confusion on the defensive side of the ball. To this end Thomas Keiser will likely have an expanded role- giving fans more time to cheer for a player who quickly became a fan favorite. His best role is still suited as a hybrid rush backer, with some looks as a 43 end, especially on third down where he can be subbed with Charles Johnson.
"Just got on the plane to head back to the Bay Area. See you Monday, Charlotte!" 5/3/12
Aren't these tweets the perfect journal that encapsulates the essence of the players Ron Rivera is bringing to the Carolina Panthers? Other organizations will gamble on upside, measurables and insane potential- but to this organization something as meaningful as making bi-weekly cross-country flights to achieve one's goals means far more. You simply can't teach work ethic; whether it's from an undrafted player making waves in the NFL, but still trying to achieve his scholastic goals, or a kid working those movie theatre night jobs to get his degree and become a sportswriter. The methods are different, but end result is the same.
From everyone here at CSR we send our best wishes to Thomas Keiser as he closes out his final semester at Stanford, and we wait with bated breath to see him on the field again in the fall. Last year was a treat, and there's no indication he'll be slowing down- especially with the drive he's shown thus far.