An unlikely bond exists between Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey and blind Paralympian

Lex Gillette, a blind Paralympic long jumper, is a lifelong Carolina Panthers fan

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Brendan Marks/Charlotte Observer) - It’s game day at NRG Stadium in Houston. Panthers at Texans, late September.

As sunlight washes over the field, Mick Mixon peers out the wide window of the radio booth and cranes his neck to see the field.

Quarterback Kyle Allen snaps the ball, and the words come spilling out of Mixon’s mouth:

His voice jumps an octave, his pace quickening, each word clinging desperately to the last like subway cars rattling through a tunnel.

And McCaffrey tips it to himself, makes a diving catch, right flat, does he have the first down? He does!

Mixon, the Panthers’ play-by-play announcer since 2005, called McCaffrey’s name that entire Sunday afternoon in an eventual 16-10 Carolina victory. It’s his voice trickling through car speakers and radio apps during every Panthers game, enlightening otherwise-occupied fans about what their favorite team is doing.

But it’s not just the fans who can’t get to a TV that Mixon calls games for.

It’s also for those who have come to love the Panthers without ever having seen a game.

“It’s humbling to hear from (sight-impaired) people who depend on us in that way, and it’s a constant reminder to what everyone in our industry should intuitively know: On the radio, everyone is sight-challenged,” Mixon told the Observer. “So it’s up to us as announcers to try, even though communication is imperfect, to put texture to the game. To try to relay colors, sights, sounds, smells. Anything.”

That particular call stands out, though. Because from Mixon’s eyes to his mouth, tiny sound waves carried that call to San Diego — straight into the ears of Lex Gillette.

And from that call, a real-life interaction was born — one that will always resonate.

ALL A BLUR

Growing up in Raleigh, Gillette was always a sports fan. The North Carolina Tar Heels, the Panthers — he even went on to own an old Stephen David jersey from Carolina’s earlier years.

But Gillette’s life changed forever when he was 8.

Washing up before bed one night, he realized everything he saw looked blurry. He and his mom, assuming he’d gotten something in his eyes from playing outside, figured he’d be fine in the morning. The next day, teachers at his elementary school sent him home early for bumping into things.

When his mother took him to the doctor, they discovered Gillette had detached retinas and would need emergency surgery.

That briefly fixed his vision, but after about three weeks, the blurriness returned. It was the same after a second surgery. Then a third. Then a fourth. Until one day, he woke up and couldn’t see anything at all.

“I lost my sight kind of early in life,” Gillette told the Observer. “I have very vague memories of sporting events at that age. And I would see them all on TV. So I remember watching basketball games and vaguely seeing football, but all that stuff is a blur to me.”

Gillette didn’t let his vision cut short his athletic potential, though, and has since grown into a decorated Paralympic long jumper, and he’s training in San Diego for the world championships in Dubai.

“Even competing in track and field right now,” Gillette said, “I’m primarily a long jumper — I’ve never seen long jump in my life.”

But not being able to watch sports never dulled Gillette’s fandom.

“Once I was actually in the mindset of absorbing sports, I loved basketball, I loved football,” Gillette said. “Every Sunday, I’m listening to the radio broadcast. ... Just a Panthers fan through and through.”

MCCAFFREY’S CRAZY CATCH

Gillette frequently tunes in to not just Panthers games, but weekly press conferences with coach Ron Rivera, and players such as Greg Olsen or Luke Kuechly. He has even become accustomed to individual reporters’ voices after listening to their questions every day.

“They would probably think I’m weird, but that’s just the world I live in,” he said. “I know people’s voices right off the bat, and so I hear them all the time.”

The same holds true for Mixon’s voice, which Gillette has recognized since the broadcaster’s days calling UNC vgames with the late Woody Durham.

But that particular call against the Texans, of McCaffrey’s bobbling, juggling first-down catch-and-slide, stood out.

Even though he’d never seen McCaffrey play himself, he took to Twitter to show his appreciation.

“After that, I was like I’ve got to get this jersey, because this dude is crazy,” Gillette said. “What solidified how crazy that play was, I was listening to videos and one popped up on my suggested YouTube (videos), and it was Brian Burns wired. So he saw that same play and he was like, ‘I can’t believe my eyes, I can’t believe my eyes! How the heck did he catch that ball?’”

McCaffrey and Gillette have never met, but they do have a mutual connection: Dan Pfaff, a respected track coach who has trained both athletes. Pfaff has worked with a number of Olympic champion sprinters and NFL stars, including free-agent wide receiver Antonio Brown.

“Dan Pfaff has helped me out a lot in the track world, so that’s how the connection came about,” McCaffrey told the Observer.

Later that night after Gillette tweeted at McCaffrey, Pfaff reached out to Gillette to let him know McCaffrey would be in touch. But McCaffrey had already responded publicly and also privately sent Gillette a direct message. The running back asked for Gillette’s address and told him he’d send over a jersey.

At that point, it was just a matter of waiting. And for McCaffrey, that new connection piqued his interest to seek out videos of Gillette long jumping.

“I’m a big track fan already, so saw that (he reached out) and thought it was really cool,” McCaffrey said. “Now I’ve seen him do his thing. It’s unbelievable. It’s inspiring.”

‘YOU NEVER REALLY KNOW...’

Gillette said he spent the next several days checking the mail, waiting for McCaffrey’s jersey to arrive.

At last, the glorious day arrived. Gillette took to Twitter again with a video thanking McCaffrey and showing off his new autographed digs.

And while it’s an unlikely connection come to life, this Mixon-to-McCaffrey-to-Gillette story has more to it than just a piece of merchandise.

For McCaffrey, it’s extending his circle of connections and spreading joy to a peer — one who just so happens to also be a superfan. And the message he scrawled on the jersey he sent Gillette has its own value: Keep Inspiring.

For Mixon, it’s another reminder of why he does what he does.

“This is all I’ve ever wanted to do since I was a little Mickey Mixon growing up in Chapel Hill,” Mixon said. “I don’t want any medals for it — to me it’s just us trying to do our job — but I always enjoy any listeners who really that listen closely because it helps us improve our broadcast.”

And Mixon’s job — of giving sight to the sightless — isn’t something Gillette takes for granted.

“I told myself that I was going to write Mick and the crew a letter one day to let them know how impactful their job is. And I know it’s not solely for people who have a visual impairment or people who are blind, but they’re rock stars at what they do,” Gillette said. “It’s like they’re taking a paintbrush and painting these very vivid illustrations of what’s going on on that field ... and they’re really able to put that game into a format that I can actually see what’s going on.”

Gillette has two clear takeaways from this experience.

The first is that this is the next step in a lifelong goal of his.

Along with his athletic obligations, Gillette is a motivational speaker with experience around the country. He already has spoken to the Los Angeles Chargers and the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. But speaking to his hometown Panthers — and partaking in a certain pregame ritual — would be something else entirely.

“My thing is, I’m steadily notching off these goals of mine,” he said. “Speaking to the team would be one, but I want to beat that (Keep Pounding) drum, too. I’ve gotta beat the drum one day.”

The second is a newfound appreciation for McCaffrey.

Because for all that McCaffrey has accomplished on the football field — he’ll look to continue his MVP campaign Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers — what he did off of it may mean even more.

“He could be doing absolutely anything,” Gillette said of McCaffrey. “I’m pretty sure that people are always fighting for their time and attention, always hitting them up and stuff like that. And I totally get that.

“I’m nowhere near where they are, but you have those moments where people want your time, and so for somebody of that capacity to step out of their world and make somebody’s day? That’s amazing. When I got that DM, man ... I’ve got world championships coming up and I’m like, this tops everything. This made my whole year.

“You never really know how much you can impact somebody’s life.”