Ex-Bulldogs key players for Panthers

A common sight in the closing credits of many TV shows and films these days is the peach logo that says, “Made in Georgia.” That same tag could be put on the undefeated Carolina Panthers.

Seven Panthers, nine if you include the practice squad and injured reserve, are Georgia born and/or reared, including quarterback Cam Newton (Atlanta), defensive tackle Kyle Love (College Park), fullback Mike Tolbert (Douglasville), guard Chris Scott (Hampton), practice-team safety Marcus Ball (Stone Mountain) and IR-listed receiver Stephen Hill (Lithonia, Georgia Tech).

Three of them — linebacker Thomas Davis Sr. (Shellman), defensive end Charles Johnson (Hawkinsville), and center/guard Fernando Velasco (Louisville) played for the Georgia Bulldogs, and that’s something Carolina coach Ron Rivera said has helped define the culture of the team that has the best record in the NFL, 14-0, entering Sunday’s game against the Falcons at the Georgia Dome.

“I think there is (a benefit) because they form that bond, that unity you’re looking for on a team. They work together with one another to help this locker room. It does help build culture. I think guys who have familiarity with each other have the same aspirations, and that’s one thing that’s really nice about it.”

“It’s good to have your brothers around, guys you played with in college,” said Davis, a team captain who this season was selected to his first Pro Bowl team. “We come in and we have an understanding of how we were taught to work when we were at Georgia, and the same philosophy applies here. We go out, we finish what we start and we compete hard and work our butts off.”

“Coach (Mark) Richt is a big character guy, and that’s one thing he instilled in all of us,” Velasco said of the former Bulldogs coach. “We had a character-and-leadership class every week, you know just a lot of those life lessons and life skills that I was able to translate into becoming a man.”

Davis is in his 11th NFL season and Johnson his ninth, all with the Panthers. Velasco is in his second season with the team after four with Tennessee and one with Pittsburgh.

They were all on Georgia’s 2004 squad that finished 10-2, winning the Outback Bowl, when Davis was a junior, Velasco a sophomore and Johnson a freshman. Velasco had two seasons with Davis and three with Johnson.

Together again on a Panthers defense that ranks first in takeaways and interceptions, third in total defense, fourth in sacks, fifth against the pass and sixth against the rush, Johnson explained his relationship with Davis, “We both have that Dog mentality. We click very well out there on the field.”

Davis and Johnson have experienced the highs and lows on a Carolina team that has yet to have consecutive winning seasons in the franchise’s first 21. Rivera, in his fifth season at the helm, sees value in that.

“They’ve been here from the very beginning. They know what it’s like to build it, and I think that’s real important.”

Johnson understands their responsibility as veterans. “When you’ve got quality guys like TD and Fernando and when people see how they carry themselves, motivating and bring energy to the team, that rubs off on the young guys.”

All three also have the shared experience of coming from small rural Georgia towns whose collective populations would fit into Stegeman Coliseum with a couple of thousand seats to spare. Johnson was the highest rated coming out of high school, earning The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Class A Defensive Player of the Year, with several All-American nods. Velasco was named Class AAA All-State and a few recruiting lists. Davis, who played almost every position but offensive line, even punting and kicking, over his high school career made only Class AA All-State honorable mention.

“All of us are three real South Georgia boys,” said Velasco, “from very small hometowns, very humble beginnings, and I think that’s what makes us so close because we can relate so well in our upbringing.”

Davis agrees. “A lot of us grew up in the same type of environment. When you look at, not only myself, Fernando and Charles, but Mike Tolbert is also a guy you can put into the discussion, we all have like-minded ideas and just try to work hard. That’s how we were raised.”

Games against the Falcons are always special to these Georgia boys. “It’s the team I grew up rooting for,” Velasco said.

Win or lose Sunday though, this season is much bigger than that.

“No doubt about it,” Velasco said. “This is a special year, a special team, but when you get to share that with friends who you played with in college and have known personally even before the NFL, it’s an amazing feeling, a once-in-a-lifetime deal.

“We’re just enjoying the moment, enjoying the journey, with an ultimate destination in mind.”

Any success they have will be, in part, made in Georgia.