CHARLOTTE, NC (Scott Folwer/Charlotte Observer) - A quartet of offensive stars make up the Class of 2019 for the Carolina Panthers’ Hall of Honor, as wide receiver Steve Smith, quarterback Jake Delhomme, tight end Wesley Walls and offensive tackle Jordan Gross officially earned spots as team legends on Monday.
That begs the question, of course – what about Julius Peppers? Or Ryan Kalil? Or another half-dozen men you could name?
Peppers and Kalil weren’t eligible for the Hall of Honor this year by the criteria the team previously established. Discussions over who to add into the Hall of Honor began in the fall of 2018, and no player who was active during that season was eligible.
“For the first class, the only criteria was you couldn’t be an active player in 2018, when we started having earnest discussions,” said David Monroe, the Panthers’ historical and alumni affairs manager and the man who led the five-person committee that made the final decision about this class.
“Moving forward we are working on some guidelines that will be used to help with the process,” Monroe continued. “These aren’t final, but we are leaning toward guidelines that say a player must have played for Panthers for at least three seasons and will also need to be retired from the NFL for at least two years. We also will consider in future years including coaches, front office personnel and staff for the hall of honor.”
Monroe said Delhomme, Smith, Walls and Gross will be officially honored either at the Oct. 6 or Nov. 3 Panthers home games in Charlotte this season. There will not be statues for the Hall of Honor any longer. Instead, busts are being made of the four men. Those will be displayed on the 100-level concourse inside Bank of America Stadium in the Hall of Honor’s new home, which will be accessible to all fans during Panthers home games. The new Hall of Honor members will also receive a Panther blue sports jacket when they are inducted, and their names will be added to the upper bowl inside the stadium.
The Hall of Honor more than doubles its membership with this announcement. Its previous three members were linebacker Sam Mills, executive Mike McCormack and the team’s PSL holders, who were inducted as a group.
So this is a historically significant day for the Panthers. No individual has been inducted into the hall of fame since 1998, an inexplicable 21-year absence of new members for a franchise that certainly could have used the good news and friendly debate such an announcement generates every year.
Mills was inducted in 1998, the year after he retired and long before his iconic “Keep Pounding” speech and his courageous bout with the cancer that ultimately killed him.
Many years later, Panthers officials quietly let it be known that players under consideration for the hall must first undergo a five-year waiting period after their retirement. This rule was never written down. After all, the Hall of Honor back then was only decided by former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who publicly remained silent on nearly everything.
But new owner David Tepper has been willing to listen to a number of recommendations from people who have been around the Panthers a lot longer than he has. Then Tepper has acted, and generally made the right calls. So now we have the Panthers logo at the 50, and the stadium being used for more events, and finally an expanded Hall of Honor that will coincide with the team’s 25th anniversary.
Were Delhomme, Smith, Walls and Gross truly the best four choices for this first class?
All of them should be in, there’s no doubt about that. I might quibble with Walls and Gross over, say, Peppers and Muhsin Muhammad. But they all deserve a spot and I understand the part about Peppers technically not being eligible this year because he wasn’t retired yet when the class was first being discussed and voted upon.
“There were some tough decisions,” Monroe said. “We ended up with eight guys that we really liked. We trimmed that list down to six, and then we ultimately got it down to four.” Monroe said he didn’t want to reveal the names of the other four people on the committee that selected the Class of 2019.
Monroe said there won’t necessarily be a new class for the Hall of Honor every year, and when there is one it could contain as little as one new member. “It is safe to say we won’t be waiting 21 years before doing it again, though,” he said.
As for the new members:
▪ Smith is arguably the best player in Panthers history. He began his NFL career in 2001 by taking a kickoff back for a touchdown the first time he touched the ball and is a legitimate candidate for the NFL’s hall of fame as well.
▪ Delhomme led the Panthers to their first-ever Super Bowl, in 2003, and with Smith formed one of the best quarterback-receiver combinations in the NFL for much of the 2000s. Delhomme won five playoff games as a Panthers quarterback, which still stands as the team record.
▪ Gross, at left tackle, protected Delhomme’s blindside for the majority of the quarterback’s career and did the same thing for other Panthers QBs ranging from Cam Newton to Vinny Testaverde while starting a franchise-record 167 games. He was a three-time Pro Bowler.