The Carolina locker room at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia Sunday night was a mixture of tears and cheers. The Panthers were headed for their first Super Bowl, courtesy of their 14-3 victory over the Eagles in the NFC Championship game. The Patriots -- the Panthers' Super Bowl opponents -- were a distant blur on the horizon. It was time to celebrate the accomplishment and enjoy the moment.
No one appreciated it more than John Kasay. And while the 34-year-old placekicker was not dancing around the locker room, his memory bank had more in it than any of his teammates'.
Kasay, you see, was a Panther from the start, back when the dream of playing in the Super Bowl was only that. Kasay and defensive end Mike Fox, who played with the Panthers for three seasons, were the first two free agents signed by Carolina in 1995.
"One of the things that makes it special is this scene," said Kasay. "We've never had this scene before, so you kind of watch it and enjoy it. It's special to see the guys crying and laughing and hugging and joking and playing."
Thirteen years ago, Kasay came out of Athens, Ga., as a hot-shot kicker who had played for the hometown Georgia Bulldogs. He moved to the National Football League in 1991 with the Seahawks and had four productive seasons in Seattle before joining the expansion Panthers as an unrestricted free agent in February 1995.
Back in the South, Kasay has blossomed into the Panthers' career scoring leader, seemingly destined to have one of those careers that has him kicking for a living into his 40s. But in the past three years, Kasay's faith was severely tested. Two season-ending knee injuries were followed by a sports hernia that kept him on the sideline as he turned 30 and got him wondering whether he was indeed in the autumn of his NFL years.
Fully recovered last summer, Kasay found himself in serious competition with Shayne Graham, a kicker whom coach John Fox had brought in when Kasay was injured.
Fox said there was no clear winner, but Kasay kept the job because he was more consistent in exhibition games, making four of five field goal attempts. Kasay's career was back on the main track as the Panthers marched through the NFC South.
Then came the game against the Eagles in Charlotte Nov. 30. The Panthers played well enough to win. But Kasay didn't, missing three field goal attempts and an extra point in a 25-16 loss. No one fretted over the defeat more than Kasay.
"John is such a solid guy," said safety Mike Minter. "He was disappointed that he let the guys down. I think that was the biggest thing. He knew that he was going to get another opportunity."
Kasay's opportunities Sunday night were limited to a pair of extra points and a pooch punt. He was not really needed because the Panthers did a superb job of controlling the Eagles, offensively and defensively.
But now we are into the final phase of a season that has taken on dreamlike proportions for the Panthers and for Kasay. He says he has been blessed to be given this opportunity. Those around him smile when they look at his accomplishments this season, which include a game-winning 49-yard field goal against Arizona two weeks after the fiasco against Philly.
Kasay says that, even after all these years, this season --especially the Philadelphia game -- was a learning experience. He remembers when he was a younger player that he was told missing a game-winning field goal was an initiation for kickers. Survive that, he was told, and you can grow into what you want to be. "Learn from your mistakes," said Kasay.
He knows that any more mistakes this season will come with a much higher price and be more difficult to expunge from his system.
He understands that the chance for greatness and a championship may not come again. His attitude is to seize the moment.
"You never know," he said.