After spending a year out of the NFL, most players likely would have jumped at the chance to sign with a team and get back in the league.
But new Carolina Panthers cornerback Chris Houston, who missed the 2014 season following toe surgery, postponed his return so he could be present for the birth of his first child.
As he prepares to celebrate Father’s Day for the first time Sunday with his daughter, Chris’tiaun, born June 9 in Austin, Texas, Houston said he’s grateful the Panthers were willing to wait two weeks to add him to the team.
Houston, 30, a seven-year veteran with 91 career starts, worked out for the Panthers on June 1 in Charlotte. After passing his physical and going through his workout, Houston said the Panthers wanted to sign him on the spot.
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“I told them I’m expecting a kid any day. They said, ‘Well, that’s a blessing. Go home and see that. And come back and get ready,’” Houston said. “We had her, I called and they were great.”
Houston stayed in Texas for several days after Chris’tiaun was born before joining the Panthers on June 15. He missed seven OTA (organized team activities) practices by waiting to sign, but he participated in all of last week’s minicamp.
Houston, Atlanta’s second-round draft pick in 2007 who has played for the Falcons and Detroit, says lots of teams talk about being a family-type organization. He says his experience with the Panthers shows they mean it.
General manager Dave Gettleman said Houston’s situation was no different than his own last spring, when the Panthers allowed Gettleman to handle the final day of the draft via Skype from Massachusetts so he could attend his son’s college graduation.
“That’s what we do. You talk about culture. You talk about family atmosphere around here. And it’s true,” Gettleman said. “He’s a veteran guy. We’re very excited to have him.”
Houston is familiar with the Panthers, having played three years in the NFC South with the Falcons. He used to have the same financial adviser as former Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith.
And while Smith has been known to talk his share of trash to opposing corners, Houston said their conversations – even on the field – were business-related.
“I’d catch him during the game, during a timeout or something, he’d be like, ‘Are you taking care of your money?’” Houston said. “And every time I’d see him, that’s what he’d say.”
Houston was in Charlotte last spring for his toe surgery, performed by Panthers physician Robert Anderson, a well-known foot and ankle specialist who has operated on dozens of professional athletes.
Houston said he initially had surgery in high school to have a bunion removed from his left big toe. But in 2013 he again began experiencing toe pain, caused by the absence of cartilage between the joints.
A month after the surgery, the Lions cut Houston in what they said was a mutually agreed-upon move. Detroit had signed Houston a year earlier to a $25 million contract, including a $6.5 million signing bonus.
“It was difficult because I came off a good year, and then I go into that (2013) year and all of a sudden little injuries to my toe and things started coming. It was something I wasn’t able to get rid of throughout the season,” Houston said.
“So it was something that gradually hurt. I didn’t know if I was going to attempt to play football anymore because of the toe. But we corrected it and I got therapy on it for a whole year and it’s feeling better than it’s ever felt.”
After his year off, Houston signed with the Panthers for one year and $870,000, the minimum for veterans with seven to nine years of experience.
It’s a low-cost signing for Gettleman with the potential for a high reward, similar to deals he’s made with other veteran defensive backs such as Drayton Florence, Quintin Mikell, Thomas DeCoud and Antoine Cason.
Some worked out, others not so much.
But the Panthers have had success with other defensive players who sat out a year or more due to injuries. Linebacker Thomas Davis has come back successfully from three ACL surgeries, while defensive tackle Colin Cole has started 23 of a possible 32 games since signing with the Panthers in 2013 following a two-year hiatus.
“Guys that miss a year or two, it gives their body an opportunity to heal up. And I think that’s a good thing, I really do,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said, pointing out that recently acquired cornerback Charles Tillman was sidelined the final 14 games last season with a torn triceps while with Chicago.
“You hope that these guys can stay healthy for us and can contribute to our defense,” Rivera said.
Houston’s best season came with Detroit in 2011, when he had a career-high five interceptions, including two he returned for touchdowns. For his career, Houston has 13 interceptions, 80 pass breakups, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
At 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, Houston does not fit the big-corner prototype the Panthers like. But after a year away from the game, Houston says, he’ll do whatever he’s asked.
“The competitor in me would like to start. But I’ve got to prove that on the practice field first. I have to understand what I’m doing out there before coaches put me out there,” he said. “If that happens, then I’ll be ready to step in. If it doesn’t, I’ll be ready to play any role that they might give me.”
After the Panthers wrapped up minicamp last week, Houston headed back to Texas to see Chris’tiaun and her mother, Brittaney Maxwell, whom Houston has known since elementary school.
Houston says he doesn’t have any special plans for Father’s Day. Being with his daughter will be enough.
“I just want to relax,” he said. “I don’t want any gifts. I just want to relax around my little girl. That’s it.”
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