Carolina Panthers

Panthers' Deloatch has a few good stories to tell

CHARLOTTE -- Taken as a whole, there's nothing particularly eye-catching about Carolina Panthers cornerback Curtis Deloatch's career.

He's on his third team in four years, with 13 starts and one interception.

But when you look at the smaller parts, you realize he's got a more interesting back-story than many of the Panthers who have accomplished more.

After all, not many players here have been cult heroes to embattled cities, or saw the great ones before anyone knew who they were.

Deloatch's most recent highlight came last fall as the nation zoomed in on New Orleans for the first game in the Louisiana Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. The Saints rolled Atlanta that night, but Deloatch registered the first push of the snowball, returning Steve Gleason's blocked punt for the first touchdown in the eye-welling 23-3 rout.

He recalled Saints coach Sean Payton's words before that game, but since he wasn't even on the punt return team prior to that week, there was no way he could have imagined what it would mean.

"Coach Payton told us that night 'This game is going to mean a whole lot to these fans. We've got to do something for these fans that they're going to remember the rest of their lives,'" Deloatch recalled Tuesday. "I didn't know I was going to be a part of it, but I'm glad I was able to do a little something for those fans and families down in New Orleans.

"You know what, it was a feeling I can't describe. It was like the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl. You felt the energy coming into the game. It was a moment in history, and I took full advantage of it. To this day, I've still got that ball at home. Just to do something for those fans and those families down there, it was a true blessing."

He considered himself lucky to be in the right spot, and had no idea the long memories Saints fans would have. When he'd turn over a credit card to pay for something, or ask for a reservation at the restaurant, he'd see that flash of recognition in their eyes, that smile creep across faces as they remembered the warm feelings of that night.

"I've got a weird enough last name," he said, laughing. "So I go somewhere and people see Deloatch and they say 'Hey, are you that guy who caught that punt, ...?' Everybody down there talks about that play.

"The rest of the season, every time I went somewhere, somebody would see my name and say "Weren't you, ...?" and I'd just say 'Yeah, that was me.'"

Deloatch, who played at North Carolina A&T, was also one of the first to witness the awesome ability of defensive end Julius Peppers. In the mid-to-late-1990s, he was a defensive back for Hertford County High while Peppers was a tailback for Southern Nash. The two schools weren't close rivals, but in the sparsely populated eastern end of North Carolina, the bus rides are long and they had a chance to cross paths several times.

Deloatch ceded basketball supremacy to Peppers -- "Track, they always killed us," he joked -- but said he was lucky enough to play on the better football team. That doesn't mean the 6-foot-2, 217-pound defensive back was eager for the meetings.

"When he was out there at tailback, there were plenty of times I saw him come around that corner," Deloatch said. "At that time, I was about 195, and he was the same size he is now. It was a dreadful sight."

Asked if he ever had a chance to hit Peppers, he sheepishly added: "Yeah, I held him up a couple times."

But with all his run-ins with history, it was another acquaintance who brought him back to his home state.

Deloatch started his NFL career with the New York Giants, making the team in 2004 as an undrafted rookie, working under defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, who's now the Panthers' secondary coach. He played every game for the Giants over two seasons (actually starting 13 games in 2005 when they were beset by injuries), but he was released in final cuts last September.

That's when the Saints called, and his latest date with destiny was registered.

Here, he's in the middle of a crowded field of corners. The Panthers are set at the first three with Ken Lucas, Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall. But because of injuries last year, the Panthers brought back a number of experienced young players including Derrick Strait, Garnell Wilds, Christian Morton and Dion Byrum.

Deloatch is one of the faster in the group, and his size makes him appealing in coverage. But he knows he's going to have to make it as a special teamer. Tuesday, he was working with the first team on the front line of the kickoff return team, something he said he hadn't done prior to coming here (he was a returner in college).

And if he's got an edge, Deloatch has shown he can turn things around quickly on special teams, sometimes to magical results.