SPARTANBURG -- By the time last week's preseason opener between Carolina and Indianapolis slogged to its overtime end, all anyone wanted to do was go home.
Well, everybody but DeCori Birmingham.
The little-known, and little running back was one of the stars of the game, and was grateful to have the extended chances afforded him by more than 10 minutes of free football.
"I don't know if I was the only one," Birmingham said with a laugh. "We wish we would have ended it when we had a chance to, but the more reps we get the better we feel."
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Birmingham managed 17 carries for 70 yards for the night, with seven runs for 33 coming in the extra session. More so than the numbers themselves were the way he gained his yards against the Colts' deep reserves, with a lean that indicated he might be capable of something against better competition. At 5-10 and 210 pounds, he's a low-cut back with good power, just the kind the Panthers love.
He laughed and said he thought they were his first NFL carries, which made the fact they kept piling up even sweeter.
"It's kind of tough, but you've got to go out there and make the most of your opportunities," Birmingham said. "A lot of times you only get that one shot, so you've got to take advantage of it. The overtime gave a lot of us guys more of an opportunity to show what we can do.
"Getting that many carries, you get into a groove. It's kind of tough to get into one with limited carries. You get out there and you get as many carries as you can and you start to feel a little more comfortable."
Comfortable's not anything guys like Birmingham ever get to feel this time of year, and he's been through enough to know that.
His bio should be sung by Johnny Cash, because he's been everywhere in the last four years, bouncing through six NFL camps (Carolina, Indianapolis, New York Giants and Jets, San Francisco and New England) and a season with the Frankfurt Galaxy of the now-defunct NFL Europe. Despite his ordinary beginnings -- he was undrafted out of Arkansas -- he still never thought he'd see more stops than a Greyhound bus.
"It's been tough," he said. "You'd like to come in and find the team to stick with right off the bat. But you've just got to keep doing what you do and keep fighting. If you love the game of football you'll keep going as long as you can to make a team."
He's caught some eyes since he's been here. Running backs coach Jim Skipper was talking about DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart recently when he stopped himself.
"The guy we don't write about is DeCori Birmingham, and he's a pretty good little player," Skipper said.
Coach John Fox pointed to Birmingham's talents -- "He's a young guy who has got some quickness and has pretty good vision," Fox said -- but the reality is he remains a long shot.
That's why games like last week's are so crucial for him. He's been counseled by the veterans here that such performances are key, if not for the Panthers then for whomever else is watching.
That he's spent time with teams known for cultivating unknown backs (he thought he had a real chance to stick with the Colts last year) proves he has something to offer.
"He played well the other night it's just one of those things, if it doesn't work out here for him, it's working out somewhere else," fullback Brad Hoover said. "A lot of coaches and players are telling guys that. This is the time for young guys to come in and shine and show what you're made of. When you're playing in these preseason games, you either make it or breaking it.
"He could end up staying here or going somewhere else based on what he does in the preseason."
Finding a home seems to be all he wants. He grew up in the small town of Atlanta, Tex., about two hours from Dallas in the northeast corner of the state. He was highly recruited and ended up at Arkansas, in the same class as quarterback-now-wide receiver Matt Jones, just ahead of 2008 first-round picks Darren McFadden (who he hosted on a recruiting visit) and Felix Jones.
There, splitting his time as a receiver and a back, he amassed 3,629 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns, leaving as the school's all-time leading kick returner.
He's offered himself up to do anything here (though he might lack the deep burst to return kicks at this level), though they haven't taken him up on it yet.
Still, he said this was a perfect spot for him, since he looked up to players like quarterback Jake Delhomme who had to fight a similar war to get into games, and ultimately the league.
"I have no idea," he said when asked how he thought he stacked up in Charlotte. "I look at it like I'm still at the bottom right now, because that's the best way for me to go about it. If you're still on the bottom you know you have a lot to fight for. I don't want to get complacent. Saturday was a great game, but I have to put that behind me and look forward to this week. ...
"For me, in my career, you have to have patience. All you can do is go out and do the best you can and hope for the best. You have to do something spectacular to become a starter. Obviously, you know there's a price you have to pay. You have to work hard to get what you want. Just having patience and keeping a good head about everything is the best way to go about it."