SPARTANBURG -- The Carolina Panthers' addition of tackle Kenyatta Walker was born out of inexperience at the position.
But they knew as well as anyone what the first question would be, and defensive end Mike Rucker acknowledged as much when he offered his first oh-so-polite answer.
"You know what, to be honest with you, this is the honest truth, we haven't even talked about it," Rucker said of the acquisition of the former Tampa Bay tackle they despised in 2003. "To be honest with you, that shows you how big a deal it really is not."
That Rucker had to insist so firmly as to the veracity of his claim, and that he was grinning like a mule eating briars as he spoke, shined a little light on the situation.
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Yes, they hated him, once upon a time. But no, it's probably not going to be much of an issue.
Walker drew the ire of the Panthers after what several players deemed a dirty game in 2003. He spent most of the day with his hands in Julius Peppers' facemask, and was also involved in an illegal chop block which ended the season of former Panthers end Kavika Pittman.
After the November game that year, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins referred to Walker as "garbage," "horrible" and "cheap," among other unkind words in a lengthy diatribe.
Apparently, time has healed those wounds.
"I ate lunch with Jenkins the first time I came here," Walker said with a grin. "I saw Jenkins somewhere out of town (since the 2003 incidents) and we kind of hung out and stuff. We all say bad things. It's no big deal. It's really not."
Walker admitted he was surprised the Panthers went after him, given his history. The former first-round pick never seemed to jell with the Bucs -- ostracized early by a veteran line and falling out of favor with a regime change. But he said he wanted to stay in the NFC South, and after coming back from a early-season knee injury in 2006, Carolina became a likely destination.
Team officials contended too much was made of Walker's backstory -- even before anything was made at all -- and Panthers coach John Fox laughed off a question about the role it played in their decision to sign him.
"Probably close to none," Fox said. "Any time you have a rivalry in your division, things are competitive. When a guy is on your team, you love him. That's the way it is. It's happened before, and I'm sure it will happen again."
The pragmatic view is easy to sell.
Walker has started 73 games at tackle in six seasons, 73 more than the rest of the backup tackles on the Panthers' roster. And while Evan Mathis has shown some flashes shifting from guard to tackle (where he played most of his college career), 2006 third-round pick Rashad Butler has struggled.
Fox said both "made progress," but after last year went in the blender when starting left tackle Travelle Wharton went down, the Panthers wanted to cover themselves.
Walker's easing into things, spending most of practice hanging next to line coach Dave Magazu. He's done some individual drills on the right side, where he might run into Peppers in practice, but has yet to take part in any of the team work.
"I think when we have a comfort level about where he is mentally," Fox said. "He has some catching up to do, but sooner probably rather than later."
Walker compared his past to the Florida-Florida State rivalry from his college days with the Gators, and laughed when Jenkins' comments were brought up.
After being a bit of an outcast with the team which drafted him, being called names by a future teammate didn't seem to faze him.
"I don't care," Walker said. "Do you think they're the first people to talk bad about me? We had some hard-fought games. I've said things and they've said things. But it was a competitive thing. We had to see each other twice a year for five years, six years in a row.
"I don't think me and Peppers have talked on the field in three years. We had a problem, but it was nothing. Right now we're teammates and I'm happy to be on this team."
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