CHARLOTTE -- Justin Zwick was almost ready to call it a career, until the Carolina Panthers came calling.
The former Ohio State quarterback was signed by the Panthers Monday, making him the fifth quarterback on the roster. He's got little chance to make the roster, but with the way his career has unfolded, simply having the chance to extend it is enough for now.
"I'm thinking I've got to start making some money some time and I can't live off my parents forever," Zwick said with a laugh after his first practice as a member of the team. "And I was thinking about that. Then all of sudden you get a call. That's the way things work. All of a sudden you get the call and you've got to be somewhere and that's the way it goes and you've got to be ready for that."
His story's a remarkable one, full of twists and turns and disappointments.
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He went to Ohio State as one of the most heralded high school recruits in the country, and was going to be the guy to replace Craig Krenzel under center there. That lasted just a year, as he eventually lost his job to future Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith.
"I got to see a lot of big games," Zwick said. "I started 10 games. It's tough playing behind a Heisman Trophy winner. What are you going to do about that? That's just how life goes. It was good. I learned a lot, probably more life lessons than on the football field. Coming in with all that and then having to humble yourself and sit behind somebody, that's a kind of a life lesson there. But it was a good opportunity to learn that situation and move on from there. ...
"It was a career that didn't go as well as I wanted it to, but that was the cards I was dealt."
In four years at Ohio State, he threw 276 passes, but didn't start again after holding Smith's place the first two games of the 2005 season (when Smith was suspended for one game for taking money from a booster). It was a swift fall for a player many thought would be a savior, but Zwick voiced no bitterness. He said if football didn't work out, he planned to find a sales job somewhere near campus, and possibly work on the local broadcasts of Buckeyes games.
Now, he's got a chance at more, if not much more.
For a college backup to get a pro job is nearly unheard of. New England did draft Matt Cassell in the seventh round of the 2005 draft (after he backed up All-Americans Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart), but such cases are rare.
Zwick was invited to minicamp by Indianapolis, where he got to work with his idol, Peyton Manning, but wasn't offered a contract. Since then, he said he did "a lot of movie-watching," before the Panthers called. After a Tuesday phone conversation, he came here Thursday, worked out Friday, and came back Sunday night to prepare for practice. As he's behind the rest of the team, he stayed after to throw with passing game coordinator Mike McCoy, the kind of remedial work he'll likely get plenty of the next week.
There's no guarantee the Panthers will even take him to training camp. They already had four quarterbacks on the roster, and seem set in the top three spots with Jake Delhomme, David Carr and Brett Basanez. Essentially, Zwick will be competing with fellow undrafted rookie Dalton Bell of West Texas A&M for the right to a few leftover snaps in the preseason, with the brass ring being a stint on a practice squad or a trip to NFL Europa next year.
It's not much, but it's more than he had.
"It's a great opportunity," he said. "I kind of look at it as getting my foot in the door. Whatever happens from there, happens. It's better than not having the opportunity to be down here throwing balls. Being here, doing this, ... Whether they want to bring me back for training camp or whatever, it's better to have this opportunity - to have a chance to be called back, than to not have it at all.
"I'm looking at it as a great opportunity, and I'm going to work as hard as I can and hopefully get called back to training camp."
• NOTES: Wide receiver Steve Smith wasn't at practice Monday, but team officials said he was excused to attend a family event. Otherwise, attendance has been good, except for defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, who has yet to volunteer to appear. ... Continuing a league-wide trend, the Panthers signed fifth-round pick Dante Rosario to a four-year deal rather than a three-year. That will keep him from becoming a restricted free agent after three seasons. Many clubs are giving the longer deals to late-round picks, the longest they can under league rules.